(Source:┬ávariety.com) France is well known for its world-class animation and effects shops, including Buf, Eclair Studios, Mac Guff Ligne and Mikros Image. And yet, these have been at a disadvantage compared with studios in the U.K., Canada or Eastern European countries — studios that offer generous tax incentives.

But now, thanks to the 20% tax rebate plan approved by the French parliament in December, foreign CG and toon producers doing business with Gallic houses will be able to seek tax breaks worth up to million.

Most recently, Chris Meledandri, topper at Universal-based Illumination Entertainment, tapped Mac Guff to do the animation on the CG film “Despicable Me.”

“I came to France because of the extraordinary talent of French artists working in animation,” says Meledandri. “They have one of the very best animation schools in the world, Gobelins, as well as a great cultural tradition of animation.”

The tax rebate plan is putting France on a more competitive footing with its neighbors. Some industryites expect the requirements to differentiate between toons and live-action pics, and animation houses are lobbying for even more flexible guidelines.

According to Mac Guff producer Jacques Bled, films with heavy CG work might have to contain at least 25% of visual effects to qualify as animation and seek a preferential tax break.

But Patrick Lamassoure, Film France’s managing director, says it’s too early to prognosticate, because the European Commission will decide on the percentage and other criteria for the cultural test in May.

“The way we conceived the rebate plan, we will have two different cultural tests,” he says, “one for live-action films (and) another one for animation pics, including films that feature an important part of vfx.”

But even without a rebate plan, French companies have gained ground on the international scene.

Last year, the top 25 French CG companies grossed 40% of their annual revs from international productions, per Thierry de Segonzac, president of Ficam, France’s national audiovisual and media federation.

Eclair Group, with its film lab and vfx studios, has been tapped to work on Quentin Tarantino “Inglourious Basterds,” Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and Chris Nahon’s “Blood: The Last Vampire.”

Century-old Eclair Studios was also hired by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp to create the visual effects on “Taken” and on John Travolta starrer “From Paris With Love.”

“We have a powerful infrastructure that allows us to work fast, since we can handle all the visual effects and control every aspect of the postproduction within our facilities,” says Yann Blondel, vfx supervisor on “Blood.”

Meanwhile, Buf, Pierre Buffin’s powerhouse company, remains France’s leading VFX shingle, with a portfolio that includes “Speed Racer” and “The Dark Knight.”

Paris-based CG house Mikros Image (“Asterix at the Olympics”) is also trying to step up into the international scene. The company teamed up with L.A.-based shingle Eight vfx last June to launch the Eight + Mikros label. The goal, says Mikros topper Gilles Gaillard, is to develop activity in North America.

French CG houses also benefit from the support of local film authorities, such as the Ile de France Film Commission.

In its ambition to make Paris an advanced film technology hub, the commission organizes Paris FX, Creative Ile de France, a showcase of Gallic vfx. The next outing is set for November. Last year, Jeffrey Katzenberg screened a clip of “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

With French animators showing eagerness to work on Hollywood pics, Stateside execs like Meledandri see an added bonus. He contends that American films can also largely benefit from an international touch.

“While making ‘Ice Age: The Meltdown,’ I learned the value of assembling an international team of creative leads, if your goal is to make a movie for a global audience,” says Meledandri. “That was our plan for ‘Despicable Me.’”

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