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Fireworks explode over the Basilica Menor after a procession honouring St John Don Bosco, Catholic Patron Saint of Magicians, in Panama City. Picture: AP

Any city or country loves to see its name up in lights as the setting of a movie. New York and Paris are probably spoiled in that regard. But this year make room for a new player: Panama.

No fewer than seven big international productions will be shot this year in the isthmus country known best for its busy canal.

It is hosting stars of the stature of Robert De Niro, Benicio del Toro, Gael Garcia Bernal and Dwayne Johnson, the former wrestler who goes by the name The Rock.

Until now, Panama had been the setting of only two foreign flicks: The Tailor of Panama, a 2001 film starring Pierce Brosnan, and Quantum of Solace (2008), the 22nd James Bond movie, with Daniel Craig.

But this year will be a bustling one on the movie front. The government attributes the appeal to a new law that reimburses movie producers for some of their costs, and perks that include a varied landscape offering everything from jungle to urban settings to desert.

"The only thing you are not going to find in Panama is snow. But don't worry, they can handle that in post-production," said Arianne Benedetti, director general of cinema at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Other pluses that make Panama a good place to shoot a movie: the economy is stable and uses dollars, logistics for moving stuff around are good and there are lots of flights here.

Local movie makers are not thrilled, though. They fear the lure of Hollywood will mesmerise and absorb local actors and movie technicians, to the detriment of Panamanian production.

So what's on the bill?

One offering is Hands of Stone about the life of the legendary Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran. Shooting is scheduled to start in April. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal will play Duran.

The life of the late Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar, killed in a police raid in Medellin in 1993, will feature in the movie Paradise Lost starting in March, with Oscar-winning Del Toro playing Escobar.

Seven episodes of the US television show The Hero, with Johnson, will be filmed in Panama starting in February. Other projects in the works include a thriller, and documentaries on the Panama Canal turning 100 years old and on the country itself.

It's estimated these productions will benefit Panama to the tune of $US18 million ($A17.29 million) in direct spending, not to mention all that priceless publicity.

Pituka Ortega, director of the Panama Film Festival, said having local actors work with and learn from big name stars is great.

"It will be a huge contribution for us," she said.

But Panamanian movie director Enrique Perez is not so tickled.

The few movie specialists there are in this small country will be sucked into the vortex of glitz, he fears.

"It is counterproductive for local cinema because there are more people trying to sell services than developing projects" of their own," he said.

Panama's government says the influx of interest is due to a law passed last year under which movie producers that spend more than $US3 million in Panama are reimbursed for 15 per cent of their costs.

Benedetti said movie makers do not want to go to Mexico anymore because the country has grown too dangerous, and other countries are scrambling to see who gets those productions now in search of a new home.

Benedetti added that an international consortium plans to build movie studios to shoot indoor scenes in Panama.

"That would be the icing on the cake," she said.