PARIS — It was as a film director that Luc Besson discovered the abandoned coal-fire power station where La Cite du Cinema will eventually stand. The year was 1993, and Besson, along with a scaled-down crew, snuck inside the power station to shoot some key scenes for his film “Leon.”
At a press gathering early last month to publicize La Cite du Cinema, which is set to open in 2010, Besson told journalists that the scenes were shot without obtaining a permit. The anecdote is a good one because it demonstrates that in France the so-called proper channels are not always the best way to get things done.
The last time there were any film studios in France worthy of the name was at the beginning of the last century when Pathe and Gaumont were at their pinnacles. It’s taken someone of Besson’s chutzpah and limitless energy to finally get the wheels of France’s film industry in motion once again.
La Cite du Cinema is located in Seine-Saint Denis, the Paris suburb with the highest population share of immigrants. Besson has always tried to help the suburbs, regularly holding film screenings there and encouraging youngsters to work on his film productions.
He has been having talks with France’s education minister, Xavier Darcos, about the possibility of establishing a film school at La Cite du Cinema. “We could welcome kids from the neighborhood, who would be immersed in cinema all day long,” he said.
In a crowded European marketplace, Besson lends La Cite du Cinema the kind of streetwise cachet you can’t buy. Though not prepared to name names, Besson told journalists that La Cite du Cinema’s entire $190 million budget was already accounted for. He also stressed that all the funding was coming from private investors, in line with European Union regulations.
The Spanish studio Ciudad de la Luz is currently at the center of an EU probe into the possibility of illegal state funding. Besson added that he was not putting any of his own money into the studio and that he would not be profiting from it in any way.
With La Cite du Cinema, Besson said he hoped to target “the $400 (million) to $500 million spent every year by American studios coming to make their films in Europe.” Besson pointed to the first two films in the Jason Bourne trilogy, both of which featured exterior shots on the streets of Paris, but then had to be relocated to Prague for soundstage work.
He added that the comparatively lower costs of studios in Munich, Prague or Spain would be offset by “the best technicians in Europe” and the “total comfort” of La Cite du Cinema.
The 6.5-hectare (16-acre) studio will house nine soundstages of varying sizes, set, wardrobe and technical workshops, 10 restaurants equipped to feed 1,000 people, a hotel and 30,000 square meters (322,900 square feet) of offices. Much of the office space will be occupied by EuropaCorp, which will be headquartered at La Cite du Cinema. Other companies renting office space include Panavision, Transpalux and Quinta.
Finally, Besson said he was in favor of a tax rebate system similar to the kind that already exist in most other European countries.
“I think Besson’s project will really come into its own if it can be allied to a 20% tax rebate,” comments Patrick Lamassoure, managing director of the French Film Commission, Film France. “Certainly this French government seems to be looking at ways of how to encourage foreign investment. I think there might even be a breakthrough this year.”