Department of WTF

The Los Angeles Times obtained a copy of the budget for the 2005 action film Sahara, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, and which is considered a financial disaster for the studio that produced it. What I found interesting about Glenn F. Bunting’s article was this tidbit, which describes the shoot in Morocco: the work involves paying out bribes, interfering with government development projects, and the removal of trees:

Although portions of the movie were shot in Britain and Spain, most of the filming was done in Morocco, a country in North Africa that has become a popular site for U.S. filmmakers. “Babel,” “Syriana,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Kingdom of Heaven” all have benefited from Morocco’s welcoming environment, favorable exchange rate and cheap labor. An “assistant propman” on “Sahara,” for example, earned a weekly salary of $233, the equivalent of one day’s pay for a U.S. prop worker. In one impoverished village, a “Sahara” crew acquired household items at a bargain price. “We actually bought all the dressings from this person’s house at a very inflated rate, which was probably about a dollar,” Eisner said on the “Sahara” DVD. Producers had little reason to worry about red tape or paperwork because in Morocco a single permit provides access to the entire kingdom.

Cold cash came in handy. According to Account No. 3,600 of the “Sahara” budget, 16 “gratuity” or “courtesy” payments were made throughout Morocco. Six of the expenditures were “local bribes” in the amount of 65,000 dirham, or $7,559. Experts in Hollywood accounting could not recall ever seeing a line item in a movie budget described as a bribe. “It’s a bad choice of words in a document, but it’s a perfectly normal and cost-efficient way of getting a film made in a place like Morocco,” said David A. Davis of FMV Opinions Inc., a Century City financial advisory firm.

The final budget shows that “local bribes” were handed out in remote locations such as Ouirgane in the Atlas Mountains, Merzouga and Rissani. One payment was made to expedite the removal of palm trees from an old French fort called Ouled Zahra, said a person close to the production who requested anonymity. Other items include $23,250 for “Political/Mayoral support” in Erfoud and $40,688 “to halt river improvement project” in Azemmour. The latter payment was made to delay construction of a government sewage system that would have interrupted filming. Putnam, Anschutz’s lawyer, said the “local bribes” reflected line items that were budgeted but not actually spent. He said the payments on location in Morocco were reviewed after “Sahara” executives were contacted by The Times.

Honestly, I started to laugh about all this, until I got to the part where palm trees are being taken out and river improvement projects that benefit Moroccans are halted in order to accommodate films, and then I wanted to cry.

The rest of the article describes, in painstaking detail, all the movie’s expenditures, which included a payment of $72,800 to McConaughey’s hair colorist for 90 days’ work. Yes, those numbers are correct.

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