When Séréna Zouaghi was named deputy mayor in charge of cinema for the French city Marseille in 2014, the local official knew she would have to pack her bags and hit the road. Though the coastal metropolis had always benefited from a healthy production infrastructure, and was second only to Paris as an industry hub, the newly named councilor intended to make her city a starry destination all on its own.
“Marseille is a very photogenic place, and it has inspired filmmakers since the earliest days of cinema,” says Zouaghi. “So we launched a concerted effort to stand out on an international stage, to encourage producers, directors and screenwriters to discover our city, to visit and to take inspiration from it.”
Starting in 2014, the city of Marseille began occupying its own promotional booth at the Cannes Film Market, next to, but separate from, booths for the regional and national production commissions. Zouaghi and her team built upwards from Cannes, and within two years started sending delegations to markets and international industry gatherings in Berlin, London and Paris.
“When I took the post, I wanted to launch an international outreach campaign,” she explains. “So for the past six years, we’ve followed a policy to go out and promote our city.”
As part of that sales pitch, Zouaghi and team have branded their campaign “Marseille, Land of Cinema,” emphasizing the city’s expressive natural terrain as much as its existing production infrastructure.
“The proximity and diversity of our landscape is one of our most important assets,” Zouaghi explains. “Productions come to Marseille for our natural locations. They can shoot our coves and beaches, and within an hour be in the countryside, and an hour later be off in the mountains. The productions that come here don’t stay locked in the studio.”
To further that point, the city has organized annual location visits, offering delegations of national and international filmmakers a three-day guided tour, which seems to be a winning strategy. Whereas Marseille welcomed 300 productions in 2013, that number ticked up to more than 500 by 2018.
Indeed, 2019 proved to be a banner year, as the city hosted 15 features, including the Matt Damon-led thriller “Stillwater.” Produced by Amblin and directed Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), the film was written with Marseille in mind and shot in town for almost three months this past autumn.
“Tom McCarthy fell in love with the city, and decided to write a film that took place here,” says Zouaghi. “He was inspired by the city’s beauty, by its coves and light. He wanted to write a script where Marseille would be character all by itself.”
“We’re particularly proud,” she continues, “because we were able to respond to a production of that size while welcoming three other features that were shooting simultaneously.”
As it stands today, foreign productions account for roughly 15% of the city’s annual shoots. Going forward, Zouaghi and her team will continue to travel and promote their city, because, as she says, “it really pays off to spread the word.”