Kenya seeks to win back Hollywood to its exotic locations

NAIROBI (Reuters) - When “Out of Africa” was filmed in Kenya three decades ago, the images of elegant safaris drew tourists in droves but it has struggled to repeat that kind of success.

An elephant walks out of a swamp in front of tourists in Amboseli National park, Kenya, August 8, 2015. Picture taken August 8, 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Now Kenya wants to put itself back on the film-makers’ map, competing for business that often ends up in South Africa, by offering tax incentives and touting scenery that ranges from dusty savanna to tropical forest and white sandy beaches.

“We’ve been losing out hugely to South Africa, certainly in terms of feature films, and the main reason has been their tax rebate system,” Chris Foot, chairman of the Kenya Film Commission, a state corporation, told Reuters.

So Kenya is fighting back. The government has given initial approval for a 30 percent tax rebate on film productions, has agreed to drop duties on film equipment imports and is setting up a liaison office to assist crews through Kenyan bureaucracy. A special visa for film crews is in the works too.

The new incentives will face an early test. The east African nation is competing with South Africa as the location for a new film about Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, which will be directed by Angelina Jolie and could star Brad Pitt.

Foot says drawing in foreign films and encouraging local production could within three years create an industry that employs 250,000 people and account for 2 percent of gross domestic product. Figures now are just a fraction of those.

But the gains from putting Kenya back on the big screen could be broader for a country whose tourist industry has been battered by a spate of Islamist attacks and an Ebola epidemic in West Africa that led to hotel cancellations, despite the fact that Kenya lies on the other side of the continent.

“The vast majority of people who come to Kenya for a safari come because they first saw it on ‘Out of Africa,’” said Foot, referring to the 1985 film based on the life of author Karen Blixen in Kenya in the early 1900s starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.


The next major Hollywood production crew did not turn up until “The Constant Gardener”, a film released in 2005, based on John Le Carre’s novel and starring Ralph Fiennes.

Kenya has continued to struggle, losing out to South Africa as the location for “The Journey Is The Destination,” a film being shot about photographer Dan Eldon, killed aged 22 on a Reuters assignment in Mogadishu. Part of the film’s story is set in Kenya, where Eldon grew up.

“No one loves Kenya more than I do, and it was always the idea to shoot in Kenya,” Kathy Eldon, Dan’s mother, said in a phone interview from the film set in Johannesburg, but added that Kenya could not compete when the location was chosen.

“Every year we heard there would be tax incentives and every year it never happened,” said Eldon, adding some Kenyan and Somali actors were flying south to act as extras in the film.

But Kenya has made some progress. The Netflix drama series “Sense8” was partly filmed in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and the city disrupted a major road junction for three days for filming.

As well as drawing in foreign film-makers, Kenya wants to boost domestic production. One step has been to require Kenyan TV stations, long dominated by Nigerian soaps and Latin American “telenovelas”, to show at least 40 percent Kenyan content.

Kenya is revamping its annual Kalasha film festival. The October gathering will now do more to promote local productions.

Jim Shamoon, managing director of the Nairobi-based Blue Sky Films, which was involved in “The Constant Gardener” and other films, said Kenya offered unrivalled scope to producers: “In Kenya, you can have all of Africa in one country.”

Editing by Edmund Blair and Robin Pomeroy