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Light on Gallic film coin

Filmmakers learn the ins and outs of French film finance

To French producer Philippe Carcassonne, Oliver Stone’s upcoming epic is not called “Alexander,” but “Alexandre.” And the film — starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie — was directed not by Oliver Stone, but by a Frenchman named Olivier Caillou.

Such is the logic, Carcassonne explained to film execs gathered at law firm Thelen Reid & Priest just before AFM kicked off, in the often Byzantine world of French film finance.

While Carcassonne’s translation of Stone’s surname into the French word for “a small pebble,” caillou, sounded a bit daft, the fact that a film that did not shoot a single frame in France nabbed some minority financing through the Gallic government proved there was a method to Carcassonne’s madness.

The film’s special effects were French-made, not to mention that Stone was able to take advantage of his French ancestry.

While U.S. film execs have hit the books to learn the ins and outs of British and German tax schemes to back productions, the French system remains a mystery to many, and finding funds means developing contacts who can grease government wheels that tend to favor insiders.

Thelen Reid’s Entertainment Practice Group invited Carcassonne, as well as a panel of experts on film finance in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany and the U.S., to brief those on stopovers between Europe and the AFM.

“If you go out and see the right people, and you qualify as a French (project), it will open possibilities,” said Carcassonne, CEO of Cine b, which is partially owned by Pathe.

French government film coin is not derived from a lottery or tax schemes but generated by the industry itself. Portions of all box office, as well as video sales, are taxed, with monies retained and subsequently redirected back into various parts of the film industry.

That’s good news in a land where big bucks are derived from film and not broadcasting, and the film industry tends to stay more stable.

The U.K. “has a hard time maintaining their film industry,” said Carcassonne, “because their television industry is so strong. Our (TV) is very poor. You have to go to the movies because the quality of our television productions is appalling.”

In addition, French bank rates are better than in competing countries, and the industry is less unionized.

The producer — whose credits include “Monsieur Hire,” “Read My Lips,” “Beyond the Clouds” and “Un coeur en hiver” — explained that the French system, unlike the British, allows a film to “half qualify,” or “a third qualify,” or even “9/10s qualify” as French, if it meets certain standards.

“It is something more flexible,” said Carcassonne, “which enables a minority co-producer to access minority benefits.”

But how does a film’s producer recoup funds from its French co-producing partner? “That’s what lawyers are for,” quipped Carcassonne. “Making sure that what’s in the official contract will not be enforced.”

Along such lines, getting into the system is challenging, the producer said, but once you are in, the advantages are worth the headaches.

Carcassonne outlined a plan he had devised to shoot 1994’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” as an unlikely French co-production that would enable a $6 million higher budget. But the film’s backers at Polygram did not file papers properly and lost out on the advantage.

“It is a very complex body of rules,” said Carcassonne. And some of the rules are indeed cultural. When wheeling and dealing in France, he advised, don’t hire agents or lawyers the same way Americans do as their industry roles are completely different. And don’t try to speak to anybody about a deal between July and September.

As with other soft money hot spots around the world, abusing the system in France comes with high risks for the industry.

“One of the (mistakes) is when you say, ‘Why is everyone abusing the system, and why am I not?,’ ” Carcassonne said. “So, we abused German tax funds, we abused broadcast companies, and we abused ourselves. We didn’t lose any money, but we (lost credit). The next movie, you’ll have to start from scratch.”

The seminar was the second annual event that Thelen Reid launched under bi-coastal industry attorney Ezra Doner.

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