By Elena Berton and Gwénaëlle Barzic
PARIS (Reuters) - French director Luc Besson has realized his dream of building a world class film complex on the banks of the Seine. Now the only question is whether big-budget Hollywood productions will take the bait.
Cite du Cinema, the largest film studio facility ever built in France, at a cost of 170 million euros ($200 million), opens this weekend aiming to attract foreign productions with facilities to match those in Hollywood.
But while the complex offers modern equipment and facilities to compare with studios in Berlin, London and Rome - Europe's three largest film centers - France's lower tax breaks for international productions could still reduce its appeal.
Located on the grounds of a former 1930s power station in Seine-Saint-Denis, a working class neighborhood just outside Paris, the Cite du Cinema is the creation of director and producer Besson, who discovered the disused Art Deco-style site when shooting exteriors in the 1990s for his movies "Leon" and "Nikita".
The site houses nine film studios, workshops for building film sets, office space for production companies and a film school in a 62,000 square meters site.
"The attractiveness of Cite du Cinema, which is indisputable on a technical level, will be weighed down by the fact that our financial attractiveness for very large budgets is now lower than that of our neighbors," said Patrick Lamassoure, managing director of Film France, a non-profit agency which promotes France as a location for film and television shoots.
Foreign production companies spend around 2 billion euros a year on shooting and post production in Europe every year, with Britain taking around half of this. France only gets 3 to 4 percent.
Although France has introduced tax rebates of 20 percent to attract more big-budget film projects, these have been capped at 4 million euros per production.
Britain offers a similar 20 percent rebate but without financial caps, which has made Pinewood and Shepperton studios the preferred choice for Hollywood productions, in addition to the lack of language barriers.
"European countries are engaged in fierce competition to attract foreign productions. It's absurd to impose caps," Christophe Lambert, the chief executive of Besson's production company EuropaCorp, told Reuters.
If tax advantages are better elsewhere, large foreign productions might be tempted not to shoot in France, or shoot exteriors there until they reach the tax credit limit, and then move to another country to take advantage of its tax credit, Lamassoure said.
Besson first had the idea of creating a large film complex in the late 1990s when he had to shoot his first major international project, "The Fifth Element", starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, in London for the lack of sizable studios in France.
The project, which locals have dubbed Hollywood-sur-Seine, began taking shape after the French government's investment arm, Caisse des Depots et Consignations (CDC), provided financial backing along with Vinci Immobilier, the real estate unit of French construction company Vinci.
CDC and Vinci Immobilier own most of the buildings except the studios, which are owned by EuropaCorp.
According to EuropaCorp, the studios would need to lure just one foreign production a year to at least break even.
"We need to attract a large foreign production, which usually book studios for four or five months, every year as well as a dozen French films, large and small," said Lambert.
By contrast, Rome's famed Cinecitta studios, which once hosted major Hollywood productions like the biblical epic "Ben Hur," have managed to attract only three major U.S. productions in the last ten years, the last one being Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love".
Cinecitta, founded by Mussolini in 1937, has been partly damaged by fire and hit by a series of staff strikes after losing out to cheaper facilities in Eastern Europe and better-equipped studios in London and Berlin. ($1 = 0.7699 euros)
(Reporting by Elena Berton; Editing by Giles Elgood)