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France loses Depardieu, but lures film productions

Photo from the latest "Astérix et Obélix" film. © Fidélité Films

Many French films are shot in countries like Belgium, which offers generous tax breaks for productions. But France’s National Assembly has approved a higher tax incentive in an effort to bring movie shoots home. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.


Belgium is not just a land of exile for French stars, like Gérard Depardieu, who say they pay too much in taxes at home. For several years, French movie studios and producers have been relocating their shoots to the neighbouring country, attracted by the considerable fiscal advantages it provides.

But that reality has been a bitter pill to swallow for certain French film industry professionals and insiders, as well as a handful of public officials -- especially since some of the French films shot in Belgium, and other European countries like Luxembourg, Germany, or Spain, deal with typically Gallic subject matter or cultural icons.

Now, France’s National Assembly is trying to reverse a trend seen as undermining French cinema, which has long been supported by the government.

On December 18, the lower house of French parliament indeed approved new tax breaks intended to make France a more attractive shooting location for French producers. The maximum tax break for French films shot on French soil has now been raised from 1 million euros to 4 million, as it is in Belgium. Though it will be a costly initiative in the short term, long-term benefits are predicted to be robust.

“Our simulations have led us to believe that bringing French film shoots back home could generate 200 million in added investments – in other words, four to five times more than what the tax breaks will cost,” said Thierry de Segonzac, the president of the French Federation of Cinema, Audiovisual and Multimedia Industries (FICAM).

Ireland dressed up as Brittany

The fact that films like Christophe Barratier’s “Paris 36”, a nostalgic story of French vaudeville performers in the 1930s, and “La Vie en Rose,” a biopic about French singer Edith Piaf, were shot in Czech Republic raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers in the world of French cinema.

More recently, filmmaker Michel Gondry shot much of his upcoming adaptation of Boris Vian’s celebrated French novel “L’Ecume des jours” (“Froth on the Daydream” in English) in Belgium, although the book’s action unfolds entirely in France. And François-Xavier Vives’s “Landes”, a period piece about southwestern France in the 1920s, as well as Fabienne Godet’s “Une place sur terre” (about an intense relationship between a photographer and his neighbour), were also filmed in Belgium.

According to FICAM, 42% of French feature film shoots during the first trimester of 2012 took place abroad (compared to 22% in the first trimester of 2011), the highest proportion of the last five years.

“No other European country puts out as many films as France,” said Philippe Lamassoure, a representative from Film France, an organisation whose mission is to facilitate and encourage film shoots in France. “But these last few years, we’ve started losing projects, because producers choose to move their shoots to Eastern Europe, for cost reasons.”

According to FICAM, the bleeding particularly concerns big-budget productions. In 2012, roughly 70% of French movies costing more than 10 million euros were shot abroad (compared to 33.6% in 2009). Among the year’s biggest box office successes are French films shot partially or entirely outside French borders. While actor-director Alain Chabat shot his comic book adaptation “Sur la piste du Marsupilami” in Belgium and Mexico, Laurent Tirard filmed the latest instalment in the wildly popular “Astérix et Obelix” series in Malta, Hungary, and Ireland, where the hilly coastline can easily pass for the northwestern region of Brittany, where the story is supposed to take place.

Box office success masks industry in crisis

“The viewer doesn’t care where a movie was shot – the important thing to the viewer is whether he or she likes the movie,” Lamassoure said. “But in terms of economic ramifications, relocating shoots of French films to foreign countries leads to unemployment among French film technicians. If these people are out of work, their skill level can erode. Certain professionals, like stuntmen and camera equipment providers, have started leaving France to find work in Belgium and other countries.”

The French public and political class have remained largely ignorant of the problem, since box office attendance in France is high and a French film, the silent, black-and-white smash hit “The Artist”, all but swept last year’s Oscars. “French cinema has the ‘misfortune’ of doing well at the box office and earning plaudits abroad,” Lamassoure assessed. “There’s this image of an industry in good health that masks the employment problems caused by shooting a high volume of French films in foreign countries.

By deciding to offer the same tax advantages for film shoots as its European neighbours, France is hoping not just to bring French shoots back home, but also to attract foreign productions. Traumatised by the fact that prestigious American films like Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” filmed Paris-set scenes in other European cities, the French government in 2009 implemented an international tax credit for foreign productions in France.

The initiative has paid off: Woody Allen was able to make his romantic ode to the French capital, “Midnight in Paris”, and Martin Scorsese shot several sequences of his 1930s 3-D film “Hugo” in the City of Light, as well. “Before 2009, film location scouts would come take photos in Paris, say it was very pretty, and then end up choosing Prague or Budapest,” Lamoussoure recalled. “We had 8 or 9 million euros coming in from foreign productions. Now it’s more like 60 million per year.”

Reversing the trend

On Tuesday, the National Assembly also raised the maximum tax break for foreign productions to 10 million euros. “We can expect that a certain number of big US productions, which used to spend a few weeks in France before heading off to the UK or Germany, will now stay in France for the entire shoot,” said Thierry de Segonzac of FICAM.

Such was the case for “Despicable Me 2”, an animated American film recently made in France (and set for a 2013 release) by MacGuff, a digital effects design studio based in Paris and employing 200 full-time technicians.

Digital cinematography nevertheless constitutes a new threat to the French film industry professionals and technicians. “For the Paris-set scenes in ‘Munich’, Spielberg had to bring Parisian-style advertising columns and Métro station exteriors to Budapest. He didn’t shoot in Paris, but it still cost a lot of money,” de Segonzac explained. “Today he’d just need a good digital graphic designer to reproduce Paris’s urban landscape. So we need to be vigilant these days.”

France has often been vigilant when it comes to protecting and supporting its film professionals. French film productions receive state subsidies and their technicians and artists are granted some compensation and benefits even when they are not employed.

The new tax incentives are the latest evidence that in an increasingly globalised film industry, France remains committed to maintaining a flourishing and homegrown national cinema.


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