RABAT, Morocco — At first glance, “Sex and the City 2” and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” seem to have little in common beyond the fact that both films opened last week.
But look past the designer stilettos and digital swordplay, and you might notice an uncanny similarity in the scenery.
Although one is set in modern-day Abu Dhabi and the other in sixth-century Persia, both productions spent significant chunks of time shooting in Morocco.
That’s not a coincidence. Veterans of Morocco’s $50 million-per-year film industry say the country’s combination of low costs, bright light and big dunes keeps Western filmmakers coming back here to shoot “again and again.”
“Morocco has so many advantages,” said Amine Tazi, general manager of Morocco’s biggest film-production company, Atlas and CLA Studios — which built the sets for “Prince of Persia.”
Even when watching a film his company didn’t help make, “I start recognizing whether a movie is played in Morocco very quickly,” Tazi said.
These moments of recognition are happening more frequently, he said, largely because the small North African nation is so good at standing in for someplace else.
Morocco’s vast deserts, bustling medieval cities and soaring mountains have appeared in thousands of films and television spots — depicting locales as diverse as Tibet, Jerusalem and even New Mexico. In one of Morocco’s first screen roles, the desert here served as a battle scene backdrop in the 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“If I’m a filmmaker, I have to find the place where I can shoot my story,” said Ahmed Abounouom, founder of Dune Films, which managed Moroccan production for “Prince of Persia” and pre-production for “Sex and the City 2.” “Morocco can pass for many countries.”
For a racy film like “Sex 2,” Abounouom said, Morocco’s reputation for tolerance was as much of an asset as its golden sands. Dubai reportedly denied the sequel-makers’ request to shoot on location there.
“Dubai or Morocco, both of them are Muslim countries and to talk about sex is taboo,” Abounouom said. “But in Morocco, we’re not really conservative. Morocco is very close to Europe, so people hold to the religion but at the same time they want to have a modern country.”
And because this country is still developing, it offers filmmakers an opportunity to cut costs. A Moroccan extra earns the equivalent of about $30 a day, five times the nation’s average daily wage but still far less than Hollywood union scale.
The savings add up in a film like “Prince of Persia”; Amine Tazi said the production hired 3,000 Moroccan extras. “The bottom line is it’s very cheap,” he said.
For Morocco, the economic benefits of a Hollywood blockbuster are huge. Shot mostly in 2008, “Prince of Persia” was one of the largest films ever made here.
“We had an exceptional year because we had one exceptional project — ‘The Prince of Persia,’” said Nour Eddine Sail, director of the Moroccan Cinema Center. “Frankly, the cinema for us has become a part the normal economic life of the country.”
Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the small town of Ouarzazate, nestled between the Atlas mountains and Sahara desert. Home to the country’s biggest studios and spectacular scenery, many call it the Hollywood of North Africa.
In addition to “Prince of Persia,” the town’s studios and surroundings have appeared in movies like “Gladiator,” “Babel,” “Kundun,” and even both installments of the horror flick “The Hills Have Eyes.”
“People have nothing to do here, just the cinema,” said Aimad Qaddi, who works as a tour guide at Atlas Studios.
While business has slowed during the economic crisis — with several productions postponed and some cancelled — those in the industry say things seem to be picking up again.
Qaddi hopes big productions like “Sex and the City 2” and “Prince of Persia” are a sign of more to come. Like many in this dusty garrison town, Qaddi said he hope to make it as a movie star — approaching his dream with a blend of Hollywood business sense and Moroccan piety.
Using the Arabic phrase for “praise God,” Qaddi said, “Now, Al Hamdulillah, they need a lot of people.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the title of the film "Sex and the City 2."