Box office tourism

IT’S squeaky bum time in LA.

The curtain rises on the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre tomorrow night, and some of the biggest actors, filmmakers and studios on the planet will be gritting their blindingly bright teeth until the final Oscar has been awarded.

But the tension isn’t just confined to Hollywood. Scooping a statuette not only gives a box office boost to the winning movie — it can mean big business for the locations in which it is set. As Billy Crystal cracks wise, and stars crack open envelopes, tourist boards will be on tenterhooks too.

Think of Crocodile Dundee, said to be one of the reasons behind a 20% increase in US visitors to Australia during the 1980s. Or consider the Crown Hotel in Buckinghamshire, the coaching inn where Andie McDowell and Hugh Grant finally got it together in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). After the smash hit movie, its Queen Elizabeth suite was fully booked for years.

After The Beach (2000), Thailand’s Phi Phi Island was swamped with tourists. Even before the latest instalment of the Twilight saga had been released — Breaking Dawn, Part 1 — I had received a press release encouraging couples to honeymoon off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, like Edward and Bella. The fictitious Isle Esme was in fact Paraty — on Brazil’s Costa Verde.

It’s not hard to see why movies inspire travel. A cinema audience is captive, enthralled by the slick presentation of exciting stories against a backdrop of dramatically photographed landscapes and cities. Movies transport us momentarily, but the desire to travel continues long after the lights go up.

Location-wise, the big winner at this year’s Oscars looks like Paris, where two of the Best Picture nominations are set. The first is Hugo, produced by Martin Scorsese, and telling the story of an orphan living in Montparnasse train station in the 1930s. The trailer overflows with atmospheric images of the Eiffel Tower, snowy cemeteries and moody encounters on bridges over the Seine.

The second is Midnight in Paris, seen by critics as Woody Allen’s best movie in years. I watched this one on DVD recently — it’s a super-polished romp through the French capital.

Montmartre’s famous cabaret is no stranger to the screen. In 2001, Moulin Rouge was the setting of a song-and-dance spectacular starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Today, it’s as full of feather-boa, rhinestones and sequin-toting can-can dancers as ever, and my reaction to the scene in which Cotillard succumbs to the Belle Époque was instant — I have to go and see it!

But it’s not just movie locations that inspire holidays. “Stately Attraction”, a recent report on the tourism benefits of film and TV for the UK Film Council, contends that a “wider branding” of people, society and culture is strongly influential in creating the desire to travel, too.

Think of The King’s Speech, last year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture. Or Downton Abbey, filmed at Highclere Castle, home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon in Newbury. Both give a rich sense of Britain as steeped in history — an atmosphere many overseas travellers crave. Last year, Highclere received 50,000 visitors, up from 30,000 before Downton Abbey aired.

Unsurprisingly, the report also notes “the seemingly insatiable demand” for Harry Potter tourism. That’s only set to continue. Next month, Warner Brothers Studios opens a brand new “Making of Harry Potter” tour of its movie sets, costumes and animatronic creations. Tickets cost £28 (€33.50).

The Descendants, starring George Clooney, is one of the other big movies battling for Oscars tomorrow night — it’s nominated in five categories, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Whatever happens, Hawaii will be a winner. Not only are the islands Barack Obama’s vacation of choice; now they’re playing backdrop to on one of the world’s biggest movie stars too.

Ireland also knows about the tourism impact of blockbuster movies — having seen visitors making pilgrimages to Cong (The Quiet Man) and the Dingle Peninsula (Ryan’s Daughter) for decades. Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was “the best government we ever had”, an older lady told me recently in Dingle. “It put Dingle on the map.” Even today, it’s remarkable how recognisable beaches like Inch and Coumeenoule are from David Lean’s epic. They seem completely unchanged.

Fáilte Ireland recently launched an Atlantic Film Trail, highlighting famous movie locations along the west coast, but Wicklow is arguably the Irish county most associated with film and TV. Calling it “the Hollywood of Europe”, as Jane Seymour is said to have done, may be taking things a bit far, but recent movie credits range from Michael Collins (1996) to The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), and TV productions have included The Tudors, Ballykissangel, Glenroe and Camelot.

The Irish film du jour, and recent winner of the Best Film IFTA, is The Guard — filmed around Connemara in locations like Bearna, Spiddal and the G hotel.

Some locations seem only to reap movie dividends for a short period of time. After The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Iowa was inundated with tourists. When fans of The Blair Witch Project (1999) began flocking to Burkittsville, Maryland, locals complained that road signs were being stolen. But today, would you really consider a trip to either place purely on foot of the movies?

Others have a longer-lasting appeal. How else could you explain the continued procession of 4x4s ferrying tourists into the Sahara Desert in Tunisia? 21km into the sands outside Tozeur lies a village made of wood, chicken-wire and plaster. Not exactly an attractive proposition, you may think — until you learn that it served as Luke Skywalker’s home village in Star Wars.

Then you have the mother of all movie locations, New York. It may not feature amongst the Best Picture nominations this year, but after being attacked by giant apes (King Kong) and aliens (Cloverfield, Independence Day), raising Marilyn Monroe’s dress at Lexington and 52nd (The Seven Year Itch), and hosting a cast of characters ranging from Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) to Ghostbusters (1984) and Spiderman, does it really need to?

Some locations will always be movie stars.

Paris, France

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Cork to Paris. Going to press, ebookers.ie had packages including flights and two nights — Friday and Saturday — in the French capital from €385pp. Accommodation is at the four-star Novotel Paris Gare Montparnasse.

Old Amersham, UK

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Cork and Dublin to Heathrow, the closest airport to The Crown in Old Amersham (+44 (0)1494 721541; thecrownamersham.com). The old-style coaching inn from Four Weddings and a Funeral has doubles from £119/€142pp.

The Camino, Spain

Camino Ways (01-5252886; caminoways.com) is offering ‘Walk n’ Coach’ tours along the famous pilgrimage trail in Northern Spain from €1,090pp. It includes seven nights’ accommodation with full-board, transfers, guide and coach, but not flights.

Ireland’s Film Trails

Fáilte Ireland’s Atlantic Film Trail, which includes GPS co-ordinates for movie locations along the west coast, is on discoverireland.ie/atlanticfilmtrail. The Wicklow Film Commission has several movie trails in the county — download them on PDF at wicklowfilmcommission.com.

New York, USA

American Holidays (01-6733840; americanholidays.com) has flights to New York, plus three nights at the 3-star Holiday Inn Midtown, from €519pps based on four sharing and travel in March. On Location Tours (sceentours.com) runs 3.5 hour movie and TV tours of the city from $42/€32.

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