Taxes dip, French embrace film

Rebates lure foreign shoots

In Stephen Sommers’ “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” the Eiffel Tower topples into the Seine.

That fantasy sequence of Gallic vulnerability is contradicted by the increasingly solid French film biz.

Paramount’s summer tentpole, which wreaks fictional havoc on Paris, is just one of many movies that have filmed lately in the land of wine, baguettes and amour.

Think “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Happening,” “Rush Hour 3” and a slew of others. Then think Versailles, the Louvre, the dangerous curves of the Riviera’s coastal roads.

France inhabits the world’s imagination. It’s the planet’s most popular tourist destination. And one of Hollywood’s, too.

Yet, for years, Gaul did little by way of central government money to persuade big U.S. movies to shoot there.

Indeed, France spent much of the early 1990s battling to retain quotas and holding a Hollywood screen invasion at bay.

No more. On Dec. 19, in a historic decision that suggests how far France — and Hollywood — have come from the U.S.-Gaul confrontation of the early ’90s, France’s National Assembly approved tax rebates for U.S. and other foreign shoots in France.

Levied at 20% of expenditure in Gaul, the Tax Rebate on International Production (TRIP) is capped at x4 million (roughly $5 million).

The aim is to have the rebates up and running by May’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Their approval’s a historic decision,” says Film France managing director Patrick Lamassoure.

The breaks have prompted multiple inquiries. One happens to be from Woody Allen. He abandoned a Paris-set, part-

period pic, skedded to shoot there in 2006, as too expensive.

“Now there’s a new tax incentive in Paris; we’re trying to see if it’s possible to come again to do it,” Allen told press agency AFP in December.

In February, after Allen met with French Culture Minister Christine Albanel, Gallic government officials said Allen was “very likely” to resurrect his Paris movie, shooting in the fall of 2010.

“The French tax rebate is very attractive, and we hope to work out something in the future, because Woody has always wanted to film in France,” says Allen’s producer, Letty Aronson.

As of Jan. 10, “four or five quite big American or European pics” were almost ready to apply for TRIP, says Lamassoure at Film France, the first point of contact for TRIP applicants.

Similar to Germany’s DFFF grants and Britain’s new tax credits, both introduced January 2007 and offering 16% to 20% rebates on local spend, TRIP’s major effect for France will be to level the incentives playing field for big Hollywood shoots — putting France on equal footing with the U.K. and Germany.

Three factors influence a choice of location: currency, costs and incentives, says Fred Brost, the former head of physical production at Universal. “With rebates, France now looks like it’s on a par with Britain,” he adds.

“Movies set in France will at last be able to shoot in France,” says Lamassoure.

Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” is set in Nazi-occupied Paris. It shot in Berlin, with just three days in France.

“If we had tax breaks available last year, we could have had ‘Basterds’ in France for three weeks,” says Olivier-Rene Veillon, exec director, Ile de France Film Commission.

Instead of spending $300,000 in France, Veillon added, Tarantino would have spent $3 million.

For Hollywood production heads, France’s new rebates put Gaul on the radar as a production option, says Raphael Benoliel, line producer on “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” and co-producer on “Cheri.”

“People are asking us questions much more in advance than before,” he adds. Such early-stage contacts give French companies time to explore the rebates or other more traditional routes, such as co-production.

And in fact many Euro productions budgeted at, say, $20 million or less will probably pull down more coin by going the nonrebate route.

One option is receiving subsidies from the Culture Ministry’s Centre National de Cinematographie. Another is to get funds from French broadcasters by going the co-prod route.

But Hollywood need not fear a sudden surge in runaway production to Gaul’s shores.

“American comedies, like ‘Knocked Up,’ aren’t going to shoot in France,” says line producer Richard Schlesinger. “The incentive isn’t going to do what the labor tax credit system did for Canada.”

But, he adds, for films with international romance, espionage, or that have medieval settings, France is an obvious shoot option.

Other French shoot lures are also emerging.

One of them is tech talent, exemplified by the U.S. hit “Taken,” produced by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, in which Liam Neeson strangles, high-kicks, shoots and tortures to death a few dozen Albanians and Arabs without breaking a sweat, but with considerable technical elan. Stunts and key tech contributions were almost entirely French.

Then there’s also that producer’s holy grail: cost containment.

Budgeted at a tight $37 million, “Taken” demonstrates France’s growing ability to deliver effective low- to mid-budget movies — a cost range Hollywood is increasingly abandoning.

Another case study in Gallic allures is offered by Universal’s 2010 toon pic “Despicable Me.” Paris-based animation house Mac Guff Ligne is working on the film with Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment.

The partnership came to fruition after Illumination was impressed by Mac Guff’s ability to bring in a whole 3-D feature, 2008’s delicately animated “Chasseurs de dragons” (Dragon Hunters) at just e12 million (about $15 million).

“Rebates open up really interesting possibilities for us to line-produce for U.S. companies and strengthen relations with them,” says Severine Madinier, head of investor relations at EuropaCorp, which line-produced “Hitman” for Fox.

But challenges remain. There are fewer big shoots now than before. Britain’s pound has plunged against U.S. currency to $1.38, making Britain a cheaper, though still not cheap, place to shoot.

And Paris has good soundstages but no uber studio facility like London’s Pinewood or Berlin’s Babelsberg, although for years Besson has been tubthumping the nine-soundstage La Cite du Cinema facility in Saint Denis, just north of Paris.

Without rebates, it was reckoned a nonstarter.

Suddenly, it makes far larger sense.

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