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Liege Becomes Burgeoning Hub for Belgian Cinema

Variety logo Variety 5/21/2017 Ben Croll
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Four times smaller than Brussels and with a population of around 700,000, the Francophone city of Liège has emerged as a major hub in the Belgian filmmaking industry. Bordering Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium’s easternmost city has been steadily growing its production and post-production infrastructure over the past several years, playing host to more than 41 shoots in 2016, as well some the most dynamic and consequential production shingles in the country.

This was not always the case. When native sons Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (winners of the Palme d’Or for the “Rosetta” and “The Child”) opened Les Films du Fleuve in 1994 to finance their own films, they were pretty much the only game in town, alongside Les Films de la Passerelle, a non-fiction outlet devoted to socially minded documentaries.

A series of public reforms changed all that. In January 2000, the Walloon government introduced Wallimage, a regional investment fund with an annual budget of €4.5 million ($4.9 million) to be reinvested into the Francophone productions. The federal government soon followed suit, passing the Belgian tax shelter laws in 2003. The lucrative plan allowed companies significant tax relief for taking part in local audio-visual production, and was open to international partners so long as they teamed with a Belgian co-producer.

This created a vacuum that Liège-based upstarts were uniquely positioned to fill. Such upstarts as Joseph Rouschop of Tarantula Productions and brothers Jacques-Henri & Olivier Bronckart of Versus Prods. were able to tap both sources of incentivized support and had the institutional knowledge of the existing outlets. All graduates of the film program at the University of Liege, they could also rely on their alma mater and the nearby Royal Conservatory for a steady stream of trained talent.

“Everything was in place for it to take off,” says Jeanne Brunfaut, associate director of Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles. “There was an assembly of high-level expertise all in one place.”

“We’ve built bonds with the Liège police, and with the municipal administration. All of which makes things easier.”

Jean-François Tefnin

Take off it did. Since that initial tax shelter agreement was passed, Tarantula has collaborated with producers from Canada and Mexico on films such as Philippe Falardeau’s “Congorama” and Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle in Heaven,” both of which premiered at Cannes. Versus has found success with a number French co-productions, including Stéphane Brizé’s Venice-launched “A Woman’s Life” and Martin Provost’s “The Midwife,” which recently played in Berlin.

Success bred success, as the two shingles played a strong role in developing local talent. Both Tarantula and Versus have produced films for Joachim Lafosse, one of the leading figures of contemporary Belgian cinema, while former Versus staffer Jean-Yves Roubin went on to launch Frakas Productions in 2007. Another local outfit, Frakas caused a fracas at past Cannes, Toronto and Sundance film festivals with its prize-winning-film “Raw,” shot almost at the University of Liege and sold to Focus Features for a hefty worldwide sum.

Local authorities have been proactive about keeping Liège a filmmaking hub. Since 2006, Jean-François Tefnin has been in charge of CLAP — a nonprofit aimed at luring and supporting production in Liege and the surrounding regions. Offering their services for free, Tefnin and his team of four facilitate shooting requests, scout out locations and help to staff crews.

“The fact that we’re a public organization, we’re financed by the government, gives us additional legitimacy when working with other administrative offices,” he says. “We have a greater legitimacy than if it were just a production company. We’ve built bonds with the Liège police, and with the municipal administration. All of which makes things easier.”

They worked on 88 projects in 2016, many of those international co-productions as well as a number of German and Dutch television shows taking advantage of the city’s comparative advantages. “It’s still free to shoot here. Productions do not pay for local authorizations; they don’t even pay for police assistance when necessary,” he says.

They can also benefit from a highly centralized production pipeline. Most of the city’s facilities are based out of the Pole Image of Liège, a 270,000 sq.-ft. former tobacco factory that houses 30 separate audiovisual services, including an outpost of the French VFX/animation studio Mikros and the home branch of exhibitor service provider dcinex. More than 300 people show up to work there every day to staff the three soundstages, editing suites and set construction studios that make up the complex.

Another beneficiary the tax shelter agreement, the Pole Image of Liège pledges a Euro matched for each one spent. With the Walloon government offering robust financial support, it stands as a working, grinding testament to the success of government incentives in the provincial capital.

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