Paris, after a protracted hiatus, has again become a location of choice for big-budget American film productions.The sudden increase in the number of high-profile shoots in and around Paris is more than a fluke. An aggressive campaign has been mounted by all levels of the French government in recent years to make the City of Light a more film-friendly and less daunting place to shoot. Permits are much easier to obtain, and many once off-limit locations have been opened to film crews.The strategy seems to be working, if measured by the number of significant shoots that Paris has lately hosted. These include some of this year’s most prominent movie releases. Makers of The Da Vinci Code, one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters, gained rare entrÃ©e to the Louvre Museum to shoot crucial scenes. In The Devil Wears Prada, fashionista Paris served as a setting for the film’s finale.And for the soon-to-be released Marie Antoinette, shot entirely in France, director Sofia Coppola got unprecedented access to the splendors of Versailles, the palace outside of Paris where the country’s last queen reigned before she was sent to the guillotine.Also, a key episode of last season’s HBO hit The Sopranos was largely set in Paris. And in 2005, Munich director Steven Spielberg shot parts of that film in and around the French capital for nearly a week.Not since the 1950s and 1960s when Paris served as the setting for memorable Hollywood films such as An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi and Charade has the city hosted so many major foreign productions.“Very big projects like The Da Vinci Code we don’t expect to get every year—though we’d like to,” says Olivier-Rene Veillon, executive director of the Ile de France Film Commission. “But we would like to get more like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which was all done here.”The Ile de France Film Commission—the film office for France’s most populous and economically important region with Paris at its center—was established two-and-a-half years ago to proactively work on getting more big foreign film projects to shoot in and around the French capital. “The decision was to create a film organization with the capacity to deal with international policy—that was the mission given to me,” says Veillon, who previously was head of TV France International, which promoted French television shows overseas.Paris, which pioneered the “cinema” over a century ago, remains one of the world’s most active film-production centers. Last year it’s estimated there were some 6,000 movie, television and commercial shoots in and around the city. About 170 were feature films aimed at the French and European market. The record-setting level of activity had its downside: Distribution channels were clogged by the glut of production and a large percentage of the mainly low-budget films failed to find audiences.Veillon’s job is to make a case for Paris as a location for foreign projects—especially the multimillion-dollar international productions that are getting harder to land. As more producers decide to shoot in Eastern Europe and other low-cost locations, Paris is in competition with European capitals such as London, Berlin and Rome for such lucrative big-budget films, which create a huge multiplier effect in the money spent when the films are being shot. France has over 100,000 employed in its film industry, mainly in and around Paris; but only some 15,000 are full-time. The challenge is similar to what Los Angeles faces. There’s lots of activity, but the juiciest projects often wind up as “runaway” productions.“The level of international competition has become intense,” says Veillon. “We know Paris is a great place to work but we have to communicate that message, which is what we are doing now and weren’t doing enough before.”It’s not hard to spell out the advantages of Paris as a location. The infrastructure is world class, both in terms of the expertise and depth of bilingual crews. Top-flight gear is readily available, as are world-class postproduction facilities.“You get access to a very good team, with executive and line producers who speak English and are familiar with foreign productions,” says Veillon. Paris may be unique in being able to field bilingual crews in Chinese and many other languages. And some of the biggest shoots using Paris as a location have been from Asia, including a feature film on the life of Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping, who spent time in Paris during the 1920s; and a big-budget Korean television series. “We are in advanced discussions on a lot of other Chinese and Asian projects,” notes Veillon.When it comes to cost, no one chooses to film in Paris because it is a bargain. The come instead to capture its iconic monuments, its bridges and boulevards. “But it’s really not more expensive here than other major cities—it’s about the same as London,” argues Veillon. “What we try to demonstrate is that it’s easier and more efficient to film here,” he says. “Also, all the costs are very transparent, everything is written down, so you’re not going to run into any unpleasant surprises like you do in other places when the final bill is presented.”France does not brandish big tax breaks to attract productions, though there are now some small subsidies available to filmmakers who engage in coproductions with Gallic companies. The Ile de France Film Commission, with the biggest fund, will hand out about $18 million this year, though mostly to small domestic films.But there are some attractive freebies. Film permits, for example, are gratis, if you shoot in a public place. Meanwhile, the time it takes to obtain a permit to shoot has been significantly shortened from what used to be several months to a few just weeks.Veillon’s commission tries to be helpful with any permitting issues, especially on short notice. It has a good liaison with both the City of Paris government and the prefecture of police. “Getting authorization from the police is vital, especially for any shoot that requires traffic to be diverted or halted,” says the executive director. But the prefecture is also film-friendly, with one police official appointed just to work with film producers on shoot requests.Then there are the unparalleled scenic and urban locations in and around Paris. Earlier this year the government’s Center for National Monuments liberalized its policies and rationalized fees, making it easier for crews to film in the 200 premises under its jurisdiction nationwide. These range from majestic chateaux to the groundbreaking modern architecture of Le Corbusier’s maison blanche residence in the city’s suburbs.The move was instigated by France’s minister of culture who sees the spur to filmmaking at historic sites as a way to spur tourism, the ultimate economic payoff that dwarfs any near-term benefits. The Da Vinci Code, for example, triggered a tidal wave of new visitors to the already overcrowded Louvre museum. Marie Antoinette is also certain to become an enormous draw for Versailles.Beyond the designated monuments and trophy structures like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, Paris boasts a plethora of interesting if less grandiose settings. Many are on display in Paris , je t’aime, a film with 18 short segments by separate directors. Each takes place in a different Paris district. (See adjacent article.)Despite the city’s increasingly film-friendly stance, Paris continues to be dogged by old Hollywood shibboleths about it being too costly and too hidebound in terms of labor rules.“Producers are always freaking out about things like fringe benefits,” says Christine Raspillere, who served as line producer on Marie Antoinette. “You have to explain to them that the way we work; it’s a different se
t-up. It’s really not that much more expensive.”“I constantly have to inform American producers that these assumptions are wrong,” laments Peninsula Film’s Gilles Castera, a French production manager who specializes in servicing major American shoots. He worked on both Munich and The Devil Wears Prada. On Prada, he and his crew were able to pull off three location moves in a day. “There’s no way you could do that in New York,” he says.French crews are more nimble. “Instead of having 40-foot trucks, we have only 10-foot trucks, we don’t unload all the equipment all the time,” explains Castera. “We carry just what is needed, and everything is planned out like a surgical operation. Our grips and technicians are not like the big stars in America—they only carry what’s necessary. But if you need a Technocrane, we send a Technocrane.”Castera however, concedes the most difficult challenge he faces is explaining to Americans that the maximum work day for crews in France is 12 hours, with one hour off for lunch. “The first thing I tell a producer who’s considering filming here, is that they can only shoot for 11 hours a day—that’s the law—and there are no exceptions,” he says.Once production starts, the limits of a French workday may not feel onerous. “Directors say to me, ‘For the first time I’ve been able to think about the next day’s shoot,’ and producers say they are amazed that we can—in 10 or 11 hours a day here—do what it takes 14 or 15 hours back in the states,” says the production manager.Any breaches of the overtime limits can trigger unpleasant repercussions. He refers to an incident during the filming of Marie Antoinette where workers in the costume department complained to the authorities that they were being asked to put in 15 and 16 hour days and the government intervened. “When word of this got back to Hollywood, it was like an atomic bomb exploded—everyone over-reacted,” recalls Castera. In the wake of the brouhaha, to avoid trouble The Da Vinci Code filmed at the Louvre with three crews working eight hours each, with no overtime. “That was another overreaction,” says the production manager.Notwithstanding the strenuous efforts made by French film professionals and the Ile de France Film Commission to court Hollywood, even the slightest setback can be become bad news. Earlier this year, when Woody Allen announced he would make his next movie in Paris, the film community there was galvanized. When he subsequently canceled the project because he said it wouldn’t fit the budget, Paris got hit by the usual brickbats that it was just too expensive to film there.That hasn’t stopped other projects going forward. Rush Hour 3 starring Jackie Chan and budgeted at $100 million was shooting in Paris all summer. And Julie Delpy is set to direct her screenplay Two Days in Paris. It is a romantic comedy set during 48 hours in the City of Light.Now that it’s been rekindled, Hollywood’s long love affair with Paris is likely to continue.
Written by Jack Egan