Hollywood lights up Paris

Nolan, Eastwood take advantage of French rebates

PARIS -- This summer, the famous "Hollywood" sign might have been more appropriately placed in front of the Eiffel Tower. From "Gossip Girl" to the "Material Girl" to Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, Paris' streets have been sparkling with Tinseltown star power during what typically are slow summer months in the French capital.

Although the city always has provided aesthetically pleasing backdrops and culinary and cultural delights, the Eiffel Tower and croissants alone aren't responsible for the sudden onslaught of activity. The fact that they're all on sale, however, is.

France's 20% tax rebate for foreign productions, capped at €4 million, has sparked a filming frenzy in Paris with such major directors as Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, Woody Allen and Scorsese plus U.S. studios including Paramount and Universal taking advantage of both the country's technical savvy and the lower cost of shooting.

"Production has been more concentrated on Paris this year than other regions of France, it's true," said Franck Priot, deputy director of Film France, the country's film commission. "Hollywood is coming to Paris not just to shoot in studios like in other territories but really to film Paris for Paris' sake."

The goal of the rebate is not only to bring foreign filmmakers to French soil but to stimulate the French economy. So far, so good. Since the law took effect Jan. 1, 2009, France's film industry has seen an economic boost from visiting productions, and paparazzi photos of visiting stars have served as free ads for the City of Lights. As of this summer, 22 projects have received aid representing 330 days of shooting and more than €100 million in spending in the territory.

As U.S. studios continue to outsource production to less-expensive European locations in the wake of the financial crisis, Paris finally is back on the filmmaking map. Financial incentives have been popping up all over Europe in recent years, but before the French credits kicked in, Paris was reserved only for expensive projects such as "The Da Vinci Code" or "Marie Antoinette." Now, France's government is letting U.S. filmmakers eat cake and film it too.

The summer began with some teen drama as the Manhattan socialites from the CW's hit series "Gossip Girl" left New York for Paris. Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Ed Westwick and newcomer French actress Clemence Poesy were spotted frolicking in fountains, at the Sorbonne, the Musee d'Orsay and the city's tres chic boutiques.

A new trailer for the drama's fourth season shows scenes from the city juxtaposed with French expressions including "Sacre Blair!" or "Vive le Chuck!" -- playing to what appears to be a new American obsession with France after years of Franco-phobia and "freedom fries."

And while its title might indicate otherwise, a large portion of Fox's upcoming romantic comedy "Monte Carlo" was filmed in Paris early this summer. Meester doubled up on her "Gossip" duties with a big-screen romp through Paris alongside teen star Selena Gomez and French comedian Valerie Lemercier.

"Paris is the world capital of romantic comedies and costume dramas," Priot said. "Now we've moved on to Selena Gomez and the 21st century -- there's a real rejuvenation happening."

In fact, France was so attractive to the "Monte Carlo" team that the production ended up filming a scene that takes place in New York in a restaurant in Nice.

Material Girl-turned-film director Madonna turned her Paris film shoot for the upcoming "W.E." into a "holiday" for her family as the pop star headed all over town with her children in tow. "W.E." is a romantic drama that zooms in on the affair between King Edward VIII and an American divorcee.

Meanwhile, Allen has been causing a stir all summer as he continues to film his period comedy "Midnight in Paris." The filmmaker has been all over the city, from daytime jaunts at Notre Dame to long nighttime shoots at the Pont Alexandre III bridge.

France's first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will make an appearance in the film that also has brought Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and Kathy Bates to the city. The "Midnight" story line jumps around in time, so Allen's budget was higher than his usual films, and he needed an incentive in order to be able to shoot in Paris.

"Without the tax credit, this film would never have been made," line producer Raphael Benoliel said of "Midnight," which recently wrapped its Paris production.

Priot added: "If Woody Allen made his film here, it's not only because of the financial benefits, but also because he knows he can do it without having to bring in a team from the U.S. He can find all of the technicians and crew members he needs right here. Everyone working on 'Midnight in Paris' is French."

In fact, Allen was so enthusiastic about filming in Paris that even though the Ile de France region denied the project local aid, he went ahead anyway.

"It was a disappointment for everyone when the Ile de France's film fund refused aid to the best international project we've had in years," Priot said. "Our regional aid is extraordinary for French cinema but not yet for international projects."

But that doesn't seem to be stopping Hollywood from flocking to Paris' streets.

Scorsese is in Paris shooting his 3D movie "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," about a young boy living in a Paris train station during the 1930s. Ben Kingsley was spotted shooting with the director near the Sorbonne; Jude Law is expected to join them in the coming days. Scorsese's project marks the first foreign 3D movie filmed in France.

Lone Scherfig also heads to Paris this month to shoot the romantic comedy "One Day," starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. The Focus Features title is based on David Nicholls' novel and follows two people who meet during graduation and reunite once a year for two decades. Shooting will kick off at the end of August for about a week, plus another week in the Brittany region of France.

Eastwood is expected in the capital in the coming months for some final shoots on "Hereafter," a supernatural thriller starring Matt Damon and Lyndsey Marshal.

On a smaller scale, Sofia Coppola was back in town shooting an ad for Miss Dior Cherie perfume that stars Natalie Portman and Coppola's cousin Robert Schwartzman near the swank Park Monceau neighborhood.

As if the city weren't already filled with animated Hollywood figures, Universal and Paramount plan to bring even more.

Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment, co-owned by Universal, worked with France-based Mac Guff on the animation for recent summer release "Despicable Me" and plans to outsource production of upcoming title "The Lorax." Paramount will follow suit with French animation house Buf Compagnie which will handle special effects for that studio's upcoming live action film "Thor."

So is Paris the world's next big film studio? Not yet, at least. It might just be in 2012, though, when French mogul Luc Besson unveils the country's first major movie studio, the Cite du Cinema in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. For now, however, Hollywood simply is filming Paris as Paris and giving the city its glitziest global ad campaign in years.

"Our attractiveness is based on solid foundations -- money and the tax credit, of course -- but it's also indirectly based on our strong national production savvy and our artists," Priot said. "Plus, our national cinema funding is protected even in the midst of a financial crisis, which is very unique."

While some other national funding in Europe has waned in the wake of the financial crisis, France's film funding is based on public support that never drops even in tough financial times.

"We're here, and we're going to stay for a long time," Priot said. "This is just the beginning."