In a classic scene from the 2010 film "Inception," Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page are sitting at a Paris cafe when the various flower and fruit stalls around them suddenly begin exploding into millions of tiny fragments. It is part of a dream sequence, but it certainly feels real – and for French authorities, that's not a good thing in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks last month.
Such open-air action-film shoots, they say, could be confusing or distressing to the public, and even put actors at risk. So for now, they're banning them in the French capital, with authorities saying that such vivid action sequences could have potentially harmful consequences.
But if the ban should continue, it could have implications for France’s – and Hollywood’s – finances.
Since the attacks – which left 20 people dead, including three terrorists – the city has been at its highest level of terror alert. The robust presence since of police officers and armed guards at synagogues, media offices, and other sensitive areas has made it feel, at times, like the set of an action film.
"There's a problem with these action-type scenes, as the actors in uniform could be targets for terrorists,” police commander Sylvie Barnaud told the Associated Press. “Also, the actors could pose confusion for the general public, during this highly sensitive period.”
Paris features in one in every two French films, and more than 800 American movies have been filmed in the French capital. Although only one American film was shot in Paris in 2013 – an animated one – the city remains a popular destination to capture car chases, shoot-outs, and other such high-drama action.
In the 2002 film "The Bourne Identity," for example, Jason Bourne takes the Mini Cooper of his female companion, Marie, on a car chase through Paris and down a flight of steps. He hides out in a hotel with Marie before a final assassination scene takes place on Rue de Jarente. The January attacks on Charlie Hebdo featured all three of these incidents to varying degrees – a police chase, hostage-taking, and a final shoot-out by police.
The question now is how much of a blow the ban may be.
Already, the filming of one French movie, "Flics Tout Simplement", has been put on hold due to one scene that involves police outside a school.
Bringing more films to Paris
Then there's the Tax Rebate for International (Film) Productions, a 2009 initiative to bring more foreign film production to France. TRIP offers benefits to foreign companies spending at least 1 million euros ($1.1 million).
According to the CNC, an agency responsible for the production and promotion of France’s cinematic and audiovisual arts, the number of filming days in France involving foreign film productions has increased since the implementation of the TRIP – from 105 in 2009 to 322 in 2012, and 175 in 2013. Some worry the ban could undermine that growth.
But according to Baptiste Heynemann, head of industrial techniques and innovation at the CNC, money shouldn’t be part of the current thought process. “In terms of this ban, it’s obviously a security measure and one where financial considerations can’t play a part right now,” he says. “To my knowledge, foreign movies filmed on the streets of Paris, apart from being subject to authorization, do not bring any remuneration to the city.”
Mr. Heynemann notes, however, that the spillover effect of filming in Paris is undeniable. Spending related to films benefiting from the tax rebate went from 33 million euros in 2009 to 110 million euros in 2013. And films featuring or even glorifying Paris, like Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," are free advertisement for the city, whether or not Paris gets a financial cut from box office profits. A 2004 study by marketing firm IFOP showed that watching movies filmed in France influenced whether foreign tourists decided to visit the country for six out of 10 people.
Looking back to before TRIP, Paris was already experiencing what it was like to lose foreign film business. Steven Spielberg ended up filming the Paris scenes for his 2005 film "Munich" in Prague, which led to as much as 7 million euros in lost spending in France.
Hollywood 'treads lightly'
Over in Hollywood, cinema insiders say that the Paris ban has been in the news, but hasn’t garnered a lot of chatter yet. A ban such as this one is all part of the norm, according to Kathryn Arnold, a California-based film producer and consultant. She says New York City also shut down production of action scenes in the area around the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There was a tremendous amount of delicacy placed around filming there, even using the World Trade Center now that it was gone,” says Ms. Arnold. “People tread lightly for a while, until the country and the city healed.”
Arnold says she hadn’t heard any buzz about any American film companies canceling immediate plans to film in Paris. And Larry Auerbach, an associate dean at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, adds that there are ways to get around the ban in the interim.
“If [filming in Paris] is a must for them, they probably could change the script to accommodate banned scenes and shoot them nearby and outside of Paris,” says Auerbach.”
One possibility is the 16-acre La Cité du Cinema film studio, inaugurated in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis in September 2012. The state-of-the-art studio, developed by French film producer Luc Besson and his business partner Didier Diaz, has nine sound stages and high-tech post-production facilities – certainly an option for American filmmakers who aren’t able to film action scenes out on the streets of the French capital.