Apart from mountains, we’ve got it pretty well covered,” reads the tagline for Location Flanders, an alliance of four cities in the undeniably flat region north of Belgium determined to lure more film productions to the area. Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges and Ostend will be promoted together in Cannes this year and aim to have a higher profile wherever the international film industry gathers.
“The four Flemish cities are complementary,” says Jean-Pierre Drubbel, head of the Bruges film office. “Ghent is a university city with a lot of students and student infrastructure, which Bruges doesn’t have. Antwerp has a big harbor in town, whereas ours is out of town, in Zeebrugge, and it’s a big city by Belgian standards. Bruges is a smaller, cozy city. And Ostend is right on the coast.”
Proving that working together hasn’t eliminated the cities’ rivalries, Drubbel pauses, then adds, “We are the best of the four.”
As well as raising their profile, Location Flanders will allow the cities to pool resources and help productions assemble location packages across the region. It is hoped that, over time, other Flemish towns will join.
The film offices in all four cities provide a similar service, liaising with the local population and authorities such as the police. Permit fees are usually waived for feature films. Apart from this soft support, there is no financial aid for shooting in Flanders. But if a local co-producer is brought onboard, European projects can draw funds from the tax shelter, an incentive scheme for private investors.
Ghent is familiar to anyone who has attended the city’s international film festival. As well as historic monuments, it can offer a bohemian student quarter and industrial sites from the 19th century onward, including an old port. “We have the atmosphere of a modern city living with its history,” a film office spokesperson says. So far, this has attracted Flemish productions such as “Ben X” and “Man zkt Vrouw” rather than international crews.
Ostend claims the best coastal locations, from wild beaches to a long boardwalk and some eye-catching resort architecture such as hotels and a casino. “A lot of directors who filmed here in the past are fond of the light we have,” says Peter Craeymeersch of the film office. Recent visitors include two French productions, both seeking luxury settings with a sea view: “Tresor,” the last film begun by the late Claude Berri; and Marc Fitoussi’s “Copacabana,” starring Isabelle Huppert.
Of all the cities, Bruges has the highest international profile, thanks to Martin McDonagh’s recent thriller “In Bruges,” which showed off the historic center of the city, with its towers and churches, narrow cobbled streets and canals. “The whole city center is like a medieval town, even though it is a living city,” Drubbel says. Films often shoot here when they need historic decors, the latest visitor being Heinrich Breloer’s “Buddenbrooks,” which used Bruges as a stand-in for old Amsterdam.
Antwerp is Belgium’s second-largest city after Brussels, an important working port and diamond-trading center as well as a historical town with buildings from the 16th century up to the present. “That range is our unique selling point,” says Wim Cassiers of the city film office.
It’s also the city of choice for Flemish crime thrillers, such as Erik Van Looy’s 2008 blockbuster “Loft” and Jan Verheyen’s forthcoming “Dossier K.” It provided similar atmosphere last year to French thriller “Diamond 13.” According to Cassiers, there is now a group of 20-30 police officers quite used to turning out as extras.