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French culture minister courts Hollywood

France is eager to lure Hollywood film productions with tax breaks and to dispel perceptions that the country is too pricey for filming and hostile toward U.S. studios.

March 16, 2011|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times

French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand is asking Hollywood for its budget-weary producers, pressured directors and harried filmmakers yearning for a tax break.

France has had a long and rich history of filmmaking, from the pioneering motion picture camera inventions of the Lumière brothers to the groundbreaking work of filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But the country, often viewed as too costly for filming and at times hostile toward American studios, has hardly flashed the bienvenu sign for Hollywood.

Mitterrand, nephew of the former French President François Mitterrand and once a film producer and director himself, wants to change that perception.

He visited Los Angeles this week — the first such mission by a French culture minister in more than three decades — to meet with senior studio executives, including Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger and Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer. On the agenda: promote France as a desirable filming destination.

"Even if you think you don't need us, give us a second thought," said Mitterrand at the Consulate General of France in Beverly Hills.

That's a far cry from the inhospitable climate of the mid-1990s, when French Culture Minister Jacques Toubon warned of the perils of American cultural imperialism and vowed to "fight to the end" to defend France's protectionist policies that limited the use of foreign content on French TV.

But Mitterrand stressed that France is now eager to court American filmmakers. "If we can bring a new energy to our industry, everyone benefits,'' said Mitterrand, who became minister of culture and communication in 2009.

Mitterrand touted France's new incentive program, which gives foreign productions a 20% tax rebate toward film production costs with a maximum of 4 million euros ($5.6 million) per project.

France has customarily provided tax breaks to its own filmmakers, but not to foreign productions. That thinking began to change as countries such as Britain, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany began to lure more productions with their film tax breaks. A final straw came when director Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film "Inglourious Basterds," which is set in Nazi-occupied France, was shot mainly in Germany and just a few days in France.

The French rebate, in effect for little more than a year, has already had some effect, Mitterrand said. Among the beneficiaries was Universal Pictures' hit animated movie "Despicable Me," produced with Paris-based animation studio Mac Guff Ligne and Santa Monica's Illumination Entertainment (the companies are now working on "The Lorax"); and Woody Allen's romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris."

Several other major movies, including Martin Scorsese's upcoming 3-D film "Hugo Cabret" and Warner Bros.' drama "Hereafter," also filmed some scenes in France during the last two years.

More than a dozen U.S. films have taken advantage of the French tax rebate, spending 80 million euros ($112 million) in France last year. Still, that's less than 10% of all production in France, which continues to have some restrictions in place. French law, for example, requires that most non-sports and news programming on French television be of French or European origin.

To qualify for the 20% rebate, scripts must have some connection to French culture and heritage. To that end, the French government also has launched a program to send American screenwriters to France on free trips to tour the country. So far, 10 screenwriters have participated, including "Shakespeare in Love" writer Marc Norman and Nick Schenk, who wrote "Gran Torino."

Beyond tax rebates and scores of palaces, castles and other "natural assets," France also offers something else coveted by artists, Mitterrand said.

"When American directors come to France,'' he said, "they know they are considered artists who deserve recognition and prestige."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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