France and Hollywood: Reel love

After years of tentative courtship, a budding romance is developing

France has always had a certain je ne sais quoi that has fascinated Hollywood. High production costs and a traditionally tight-knit Gallic film industry have kept American filmmakers from setting up shop in the country. The French, too, were wary of the Hollywood big screen invasion threatening local production and created quotas to prevent their national film industry from falling victim to globalization.

But today, Hollywood filmmakers are increasingly setting their sights on the territory, as both the French government and local producers welcome them with open arms and an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude. With a new tax rebate law passed for big-budget Hollywood films, a new "American & International Desk" created at the heart of the country's most prestigious producer's guild and initiatives from the country's film commissions to lure U.S. producers to French soil, France has become Europe's most sought-after back lot for Hollywood filmmakers.

After years of courtship, the French government finally made the first move to win over Hollywood's heart with a proposal last December. The French Parliament approved a tax rebate for foreign films shooting in the territory, aptly nicknamed the TRIP (Tax Rebate for International Production). The TRIP is aimed at U.S. and foreign films of considerably large budgets and gives foreign filmmakers a 20% tax break. The tax break is currently set at a minimum of €1 million ($1.29 million) with a ceiling of €4 million ($5.14 million). The tax breaks will be given only to productions that can prove that their scripts focus on French culture and heritage, and the amount of money given will be based on a point system similar to that of the current state aid system.

Foreign production currently represents only 5% of total audiovisual production in France, and a total of €50 - 70 million ($62.32 - $87.23 million) in spending, but the new law could see spending jump to between €200 and 250 million ($249.28 and $311.6 million) according to French technical service companies' trade organization the FICAM. The European Commission in Brussels greenlighted the TRIP in early July.

The law has already sparked interest in filming in the territory, with several projects already benefiting from the tax credit as of the start of the year. Projects that began filming as of Jan. 1 will receive post-production reimbursement including Robert Luketic's "Five Killers," starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, which filmed in Nice earlier this year, and Universal's animated feature "Despicable Me," made with Paris-based animation studio Mac Guff Ligne and Illumination Entertainment. Illumination is planning to light up the City of Lights with "advanced conversations" already in place to move production of "The Lorax," an adaptation of the eponymous Dr. Suess children's book, to France and two other France-based animation projects in development according to Illumination's Chris Meledandri.

"One of our feet is firmly planted in Paris right now," Meledandri says. "The initial decision to go to France was based on the specific talent we wanted to work with there. However, continuing to work in the country became contingent on our ability to secure tax credit."

Other U.S. majors are following suit. Several more high-profile projects are in various stages of development, according to the country's film commissions. Christopher Nolan's $200 million "Inception," starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Marion Cotillard, made a stop in France in August on its six-city shooting world tour.

On a smaller scale, Woody Allen plans to shoot his next film in Paris in 2010.

"For Woody Allen, it was very clear -- it's because of the TRIP that they're coming," Film France's Franck Priot says. Allen had planned to film a 2006 movie in the French capital back in 2006, then backed out blaming rising production costs.

The financial crisis, coupled with political shifts both in the U.S. and France have made the timing ripe for such trans-Atlantic collaborations. France has a new cultural minister, Frederic Mitterand, and a new U.S. ambassador to the country, Charles Rivkin, who comes from the Hollywood community after stints at the Jim Henson company and W!ldbrain.

"I think it's a beautiful love story," says line producer Raphael Benoliel, ("The Queen," "Love Actually") of the new Franco-American filmmaking friendliness. "Auteurs have always wanted to write about France or film stories about France, but because of economic restrains, they didn't. U.S. screenwriters and directors know that if they write stories about France, they have a better chance of filming there."

"It's a domino effect," Priot says of the rebate. Nearby countries like Italy and Austria are also in the process of creating their own rebates to rival those already set up in Germany, the U.K. and now France. "There's a European film commission network - we all exchange information so that helps other countries decide whether or not to create their own versions of the tax rebates," Priot explained.

The ripple effect isn't limited to tax rebates. "When you show other countries in the world that you are opening your borders, there are bound to be secondary effects. These are things we never expect to happen, but end up being the most important," Benoliel says. "The tax rebate will give more than just a 20% refund. Now, when French producers talk to the U.S. studios, the dialogue has been opened so this will definitely lead to other things."

For example, some of the U.S. studios who have more conservative tendencies might open up more, indirectly allowing French productions to find easier distribution stateside, or give major U.S. films more play in Gaul.

"If people are treated well, they'll come back," Benoliel says of big-time directors like Stephen Frears, who wrapped shooting on "Cheri" even before the rebate was in play.

However, like all love stories, Hollywood's relationship with France isn't free of challenges. U.S. productions will still have to overcome obstacles including the still disparate Euro-dollar ratio, high fringe rates and, of course, the language barrier.

National Gallic producers' guild the APC launched an "American and International Desk" in July designed to facilitate the interaction between the two countries and act as an intermediary. The APC organized a lunch at the Deauville fest to educate U.S. producers on the new incentives and spark trans-Atlantic matchmaking with visiting French producers.

"Between 2008 and 2009, the average amount of time the U.S. studios came to film in France will have doubled," Priot says. Instead of coming for just two or three days like current summer releases "G.I. Joe," "Julie & Julia" or "Inglourious Basterds," films are coming for around a week.

Adds Priot: "The tax rebate is really provoking an extension of shooting days - France is back on the menu."