French film fights back
Director Luc Besson’s €170m Cit� du Cin�ma complex in the Paris suburbs is taking on Hollywood at its own game, explains Paul Lamarra
And the winner is…The Artist. Taking five Oscars at the 2012 Academy Awards, Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film marked a new high for the cinema industry in France. It was the first time a French film had won for Best Picture and Jean Dujardin became the first Frenchman to pick up the Best Actor prize.
To make a silent movie, and in black and white as well, shows incredible daring and emphasises French cinema’s role as a counterpoint to Hollywood’s rather more populist instincts.
Against this optimistic backdrop, film director and producer Luc Besson has realised a 12-year dream and opened a massive Hollywood-style studio complex on the banks of the River Seine in Saint-Denis in the northern suburbs of Paris. It is the only facility of its kind in France that can handle all aspects of production and post-production.
Addressing the assembled cinema VIPs and politicians at the opening ceremony in September, Besson heralded the new era of French film-making independence, saying: “I had always said I’d love to make my own films here in France, so thank you from the bottom of my heart for believing in the dream.”
He recalled that he had spent 18 months in England filming his 1997 science fiction film The Fifth Element because the necessary facilities did not exist in France, but that he had gone “with a heavy heart”.
Housed in the steel and glass art deco turbine hall of a disused thermal power station, the new Cit� du Cin�ma, which cost €170 million, includes nine film sets covering a total of 9,500 square metres, scenery workshops, digital printing and cutting workshops, warehouses, shops and restaurants. Office space covering 30,000 square metres houses production companies including Besson’s own EuropaCorp headquarters, the ENS Louis Lumi�re film school and a new school specialising in scriptwriting and directing that will offer free two-year courses to 60 young people with no formal qualifications.
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What the complex does lack are an on-site backlot and outdoor shooting facilities, but its creators believe the proximity of Paris, one of the world’s most filmed cities, will more than compensate for that omission.
The Cit� du Cin�ma has already hosted the filming of Smurfs 2, with Christina Ricci, and Besson’s next film Malavita starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. It is expected that the complex will be fully booked within a year. It is a welcome boost for a French film industry that has often had to look to Pinewood and Shepperton Studios in the UK and to Hollywood to shoot its big-budget films.
However, some industry insiders consider the venture is too risky and believe it is not a lack of facilities that has been holding back home-grown film production. They point to generous tax breaks in Belgium and Luxembourg that can save film-makers up to 15 per cent in costs compared with eight per cent (capped at €1 million) in France.
Manuel Alduy, director of cinema at media giant Canal Plus, believes that the fundamental problem is a commercial one. “Too much filming takes place abroad,” he wrote in his blog. “It is a great paradox that our national system so virtuous in funding completely almost 200 films a year is incapable of imagining a coercive move against such disloyal competition,” he complained.
Further tax breaks are thought unlikely in an era of austerity, although those in the industry point to the revitalising effect the Cit� du Cin�ma is likely to have in the rundown suburb of Saint-Denis and that every euro spent in film production brings rewards in increased economic activity. Indeed the Paris region’s film authority has produced a new catalogue of 84 government buildings that can be rented by film-makers for up to €5,000 per day, in an attempt to reduce public expenditure on their upkeep.
In the meantime, the French film industry is already looking forward to the Oscars ceremony in March 2013, when it is hoped that the surprise box office success Intouchables will be the first French production to take the Best Foreign Picture award since Indochine in 1992.
Box office and Oscars success, allied to a prospering Cit� du Cin�ma is seen by many as crucial to the continued independence of a French film industry that supports directors across Europe in their quest to make films that are both interesting and thought-provoking.