France new star in global effects biz

French companies have quietly become Hollywood's destination of choice for cost-effective, state-of-the-art effects work.

France is typically known among global entertainment industry executives for its striking landscapes, movies starring Gerard Depardieu and that little film festival on the Riviera each May. More recently, however, France has acquired an international reputation for its booming postproduction industry, where Gallic special effects, animation and digital technology houses are taking the celluloid world by storm.

National talent and technology have transformed France into a postproduction powerhouse, making the country increasingly competitive with Hollywood majors in postproduction and special effects know-how. Gallic special effects companies have emerged as valuable partners for U.S. studios, with many Hollywood productions crossing the Atlantic to capitalize on cost-effective and sophisticated postproduction a la francaise.

Indeed, the French have been branching out from their traditionally insular film sector and are not only jumping into bed with U.S. feature films but setting up stateside offices to put them right at the heart of the business.

Like fine French wine, the country's postproduction technology is getting better with age. A handful of high-level companies dominate the sector, each bringing specific areas of expertise and business styles to the table. The Eclair Group, for instance, was founded 100 years ago and has since built up its vast, one-stop-shop postproduction complex, offering comprehensive services for everything from visual effects and sound to restoration and storage.

The French postproduction industry was essentially put on the map in the 1980s with the arrival of Buf Compagnie, a Paris-based post house that most recently collaborated with superproducer Luc Besson on the $85 million 2006 fantasy "Arthur and the Invisibles." Since then, a number of players have emerged, including Duran Duboi, the Quinta Industries subsidiary that opened the largest feature-film postproduction complex in Europe in 2000, a 59,000-square-foot center equipped with a projection room, special effects studio, digital color-grading room and two dubbing and recording studios. Mac Guff came along in 1987 and has since wowed the industry with its 3-D animation and realistic rendering technology on such projects as the 2006 Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek starrer "Bandidas" and Gaspar Noe's controversial 2003 release "Irreversible." In 1998, Mikros Image arrived on the scene, offering its expertise in digital video compositing, 2-D and 3-D computer-generated imagery and sound mixing. Three years later, La Maison opened its self-described "modern-day digital Villa Medici" and has become a go-to house for all things visual effects, including the 2006 aviator action film "Sky Fighters" and the 2003 corporate thriller "Demonlover."

So, exactly what is it about the traditionally laid-back French that allows them stay competitive in such a crowded field?

"French postproduction companies are innovative because we have to be," Buf founder and president Pierre Buffin explains. "We're in a country that doesn't have the same artists or equipment as the major Hollywood studios."

"We're used to multitasking because we've always had to make do with what we have," Mac Guff's Martial Vallanchon adds.

U.S. producers tend to appreciate the more film-specific, hands-on, personal approach they find in France as opposed to the States' technologically advanced but more bureaucratic and detached megastudios.

"The French visual effects companies that we've worked with know how to work with very demanding filmmakers and come up with innovative solutions that keep up with the directors' visions," says Los Angeles-based Exile Entertainment's Gary Ungar, executive producer of Mathieu Kassovitz' planned 2008 Vin Diesel starrer "Babylon A.D.," which tapped Buf for its effects.

But while this might be true, it begs the question: Why leave home when similar -- if not more advanced -- technology exists in the U.S.?

"It's the technical know-how of French postproduction companies combined with their artistic point of view that sets them apart," says Ile-de-France Film Commission executive director Olivier-Rene Veillon. "If you don't have both, you have nothing. To work with a French postproduction studio is a guarantee of a substantial creative dialogue."

"American special effects companies are absolutely incredible and extraordinary, but there's a particular culture in France in terms of special effects that you don't find anywhere else," adds Xavier Amblard, line producer with Les Productions du Tresor, which has worked on such recent films as the 2006 production "Tell No One," a multiple Cesar winner, and the 2006 Festival de Cannes contender "Charlie Says." "The personal relationship between the director and the special effects technicians is individual and unique."

Vallanchon believes that while many Gallic effects houses like Buf use only unique, in-house software, one of the industry's other major selling points is its decidedly art-friendly culture.

Indeed, France has become the haute couture capital of the special effects industry, with its high quality and personal touch -- though it might come with a higher price tag. But despite state-of-the-art technology and artistic savvy, many French post houses are struggling to keep up with competitive international markets such as Canada and the U.K., which are increasingly offering attractive financial incentives.

"To be in France is a challenge," Buffin concedes. "I don't have any help attracting foreign producers here. It's important for France to understand that the cinema only exists by mixing in with other cultures. To remain closed in is absurd. It's like someone who never wants to leave his own house."

While the Ile-de-France region has devoted €14 million ($18.7 million) directly to its technical industry, specifically postproduction, many believe the system is still unfavorable to foreign production.

"Tax cuts are a real problem for us, not to mention the Euro-dollar ratio of around 30%," Vallanchon says. "We need reforms in order to attract not only American but also Asian and South African productions."

In order to raise its profile stateside, the Ile de France Film Commission has been busy organizing a "Creative Ile de France" soiree in Los Angeles, set for April 11, with the goal of making U.S. producers aware of the region's postproduction resources. "Our goal, our obsession, at the Ile-de-France Film Commission is to develop the activity of these postproduction companies internationally," Veillon says.

While such grassroots efforts help the cause, many tech houses are hoping that the French government will reform its tax system in order to boost production and lure more big-budget studio projects.

"Producers need to understand that special effects shouldn't be the last in the chain -- that they need real funding so that these companies can have the means to develop new tools in order to be competitive on the international market," says director Jan Kounen, whose credits include the 2004 production "Renegade" and 2006's "Darshan: The Embrace"). "The only thing that will allow our postproduction companies to stay at the level they're at is development support from the (Center Nationale de la Cinematographie)."

Despite limited economic incentives, many post houses have been pooling their specialty areas, not only to attract foreign productions but to provide collaborative effects to eventually compete with U.S. industry front-runners. Mac Guff, Mikros and smaller effects houses like Autre Chose, for example, all worked simultaneously on Guillaume Canet's 2006 release "Tell No One," produced by Les Productions du Tresor. Similarly, Duran Duboi, Buf and Mikros joined forces in order to handle the more than 1,000 visual effects shots in the planned 2008 Gerard Depardieu starrer "Asterix at the Olympic Games."

In addition to often working simultaneously on different projects for the same films, the top companies have formed a public-private cluster-based economic program hoping to make the greater Paris region the place to be for Hollywood productions looking for some apres-filming action. Cap Digital's "competitiveness cluster" groups together the major companies in the Paris region in order to drive competitive economic development in cinema, special effects, 3-D, high-definition television, new media, video games and digital culture.

Paris-based filmmaker and deal broker Tarak Ben Ammar also is fusing the industry's main actors together. Ben Ammar, who already has an 83% share in France's Quinta Industries, recently bought 43% of rival group Eclair. For the past several years, Quinta has spent been building a veritable postproduction empire, combining a series of facilities, including Duran Duboi, Ex Machina and LTC, not to mention making a major deal with Thomson's Technicolor.

Ben Ammar also has signed on to relocate his postproduction and lab facilities to Luc Besson's soon-to-be-built $152 million La Cite du Cinema (Cinema City) on the outskirts of Paris. Besson hopes that his ambitious project will attract Hollywood and other foreign filmmakers to France -- and keep French cineastes on their home turf.

"It's being built on the American model, in the good sense of the term," Besson says. Cinema City, which Besson hopes will be finished during the first part of 2010, is funded completely by private investors, with no state aid.

"One day, I'll do a movie where I'm posting in France," says Brett Ratner, who recently shot New Line's "Rush Hour 3" in and around Paris. "If I were posting there now, I'd be at Luc Besson's studio for sure."

Financially supported by Ben Ammar's Quinta and Technicolor, the Gallic superstudio will unite the main technical specialists involved in making a film on one site, making it largely unnecessary for any production to leave the 376,737-square-foot film resort.

Additionally, U.S. producers can avoid the trip across the Atlantic altogether thanks to SmartJog, a veritable "electronic FedEx" service connecting post houses, broadcasters and distributors so that a post house in Paris can work on visual effects shots during the day, while the latest version already has been sent back to Los Angeles before the new day begins. But for producers who prefer hands-on contact with their films, a trans-Atlantic trip is certainly worth considering.

"These are companies with a human dimension, with a creative investment that often goes beyond the budget," Kounen says. "It's something that I have yet to see anywhere else."

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