France swallows linguistic pride to keep most expensive EU film ever on home soil

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a science fiction blockbuster starring American actor Dane DeHaan, 23-year old British supermodel Cara Delevingne and actor Clive Owen, also a Briton, was due to start shooting in studios outside Paris early next year.

With an estimated budget of €170 million (£124 million), it is slated to be the costliest super-production ever made in Europe.

However, in a coup de theatre late last month, director and co-producer Luc Besson – whose past hits include Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson, The Fifth Element, and the Taken and Transporter movie franchises – announced that he was moving the entire production to Hungary.

Besson, who has raised eyebrows in France by living and paying tax in the US, said he had little option but to drop his native country because current legislation meant the film was not entitled to generous tax breaks only granted to films shot in French.

“There’s a small problem called tax credits… I have a French film being made in English so I have the right to zero (credits) as a French film,” Besson told radio station RTL radio.

Even if he tried to pass the movie off as a foreign production, also liable for tax credits, he said he would still not qualify because his production company EuropaCorp is French.

“I’m in a legal black hole,” he complained.

As a result, the director said, he did not know if he could produce the film in France, even though, he added, “I want to make it in my country with a French crew”.

He pointed out that, if he filmed in Hungary, he could recover credits worth up to 40 per cent of his company’s investment.

He added: “I’m a patriot, but €15 to €20 million starts to get a little heavy.”

The situation was all the more absurd, he went on, because the production is set to employ 1,200 mainly French crew over a six-month period.

With the economy flat-lining and unemployment high, France’s Socialist government was reportedly desperate to avoid the negative publicity that Besson taking his production abroad would doubtless provoke.

According to Le Parisien, a behind-the-scenes row ensued between the finance ministry – unhappy at bending the rules – and the culture ministry.

Finally on Friday, Bruno Le Roux, president of the Socialists’ parliamentary group and MP for Seine-Saint-Denis – a gritty suburb northeast of Paris where the film was due to be shot – said the “situation has been resolved”.

The cabinet, he told Le Parisien, would on Saturday consider an amendment to an upcoming finance law that would extend tax relief to English-speaking French productions, meaning Besson’s film could save around €30 million (£22 million).

Fleur Pellerin, the culture minister, confirmed that the rules would “very probably mean a solution can be found for this particular case”.

The ministry pointed out that it was in France’s economic interests to change the law, as the amount the state would gain from VAT from the production would far outweigh the new tax break.

Besson’s production company reportedly described the pledge as a “positive development”, but that it would await “official confirmation” that the rules were changing.

If it stays in France, Valerien will be shot in the Cité du Cinéma – a film studio complex located in Seine-Saint-Denis. The brainchild of Besson, the Cité dubbed “Hollywood-sur-Seine” was launched in 2012 before a plethora of Hollywood stars with the stated aim of competing with Cinecittà in Rome, Pinewood inLondon and Babelsberg in Berlin.

Besson’s tussle with the government came weeks after EuroCorp confirmed that the 56-year-old filmmaker had become a US tax resident. He insisted that he still paid “80 per cent” of his taxes in France.

Valerian, slated for a July 2017 release, is based on a long-running French graphic novel series of the 1960s about an eponymous space and time-travelling agent and his smart and sexy female companion Laureline.

Set in the 28th century, the film’s two spatio-temporal agents travel the universe to protect the interests of the human species but must always respect one cardinal rule: never change the course of events.

DeHaan, 29, who played the villain Green Goblin in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and James Dean in Life, will be the star of the movie, alongside Delevingne as Laureline. Owen will play a space commander.

Valerien is reportedly set to be the biggest EU production to date. The most expensive previous French film to date was Asterix at the Olympic Games, with a budget of €78 million (£55 million), just ahead of Besson’s Fifth Element, at €75 million (£55 million).

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