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New lease of life for 100-year-old French film studios

Nice once hoped to be a ‘French Hollywood’ - and you will have heard of many of the films that were made at its Victorine Studios. The best of those days seemed over but now the studios are set for a ‘renaissance’

26 June 2019
The Villa Rex Ingram is the studios’ most emblematic building, with Odile Chapel (manager of the studios)
By Oliver Rowland

A hundred years ago, the dream of a French Hollywood was born on the Riviera at the Victorine Studios.

Today the Nice studios are the oldest in France outside the Paris area and the city council hopes to give them a “renaissance”, setting them up for another century.

It is celebrating the centenary with a year of events around the theme of “The Odyssey of the Cinema”.

The main entrance gates near the Nice airport railway station

This started with a cinema theme for the Nice Carnival.

Sixty old films made there were shown across the city’s cinemas, and there were also seven exhibitions in major museums, an open day, and tie-ins with the city’s book festival (May 31 to June 2) and famous jazz festival on July 16-20 (see cinema2019.nice.fr ).

While it never exactly rivalled the original Hollywood, the creation of the Victorine in the west of the city, near the airport, began a long and successful story of film-making.

With such classics as Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), To Catch a Thief (1955) or And God Created Woman (1956), the studios won a place in film history, first in the silent era and later during World War Two. Filmmakers were attracted there after Paris and the north were occupied.

Many glamorous stars, such as Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly, filmed there in the 1950s to 1970s (see below).

The studios have also had recent successes, such as popular French comedy Brice de Nice (2005) or Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007) and Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight (2014).

How­ever, things had slowed down and it had lost its historic name, rebranded Studios Riviera by the firm Euro Media France, which ran it from 2000. There were even rumours that the city council, which owns the land, would take it back and build flats.

Instead, last year, Nice mayor Christian Estrosi announced the creation of a prestigious Victorine Committee to study how to give a “renaissance” to the studios.

It included major arts figures such as director and producer and Cinémathèque Française President Costa Gavras and former President of the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée and adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, Eric Garandeau.

 At the time, Mr Gavras said: “We filmmakers were afraid these studios would disappear. The Victorine, it’s Nice and it’s much more besides – it’s a universal heritage.”

In a report, he wrote of a “backlot [area for outdoor scenes] reduced to a wasteland”, scenery, costumes and accessories “lost, stolen and dispersed”, and “underfunded studios, ticking over”.

The previous incumbents had underinvested, leading to a reduction in filming and a lowering of turnover which had become a vicious circle, he said. There had been a loss of expertise, with technicians tempted away elsewhere and contact books lost.

He said the facilities nonetheless included 10 good indoor studios. The largest, at 1,175m2, was only medium-sized compared with the biggest modern ones, but “very useful for a film or series of medium size”.

The carpentry workshops are 100 years old

Another asset was the large, well-lit, workshops (pictured left). He said the mairie had done a good job renovating artists’ dressing rooms and the offices.

He wrote that “like the motto of Paris, ‘she is rocked by the waves but does not sink’” – the studios were holding on, but only just. “There is still the walls, the gardens, the location, the history, the legend.” Mr Garandeau told Connexion: “The will to do this came from the mayor. It came up during a committee meeting for the Cannes Film Festival.

“Everyone knew all wasn’t well with the Victorine and was wondering what to do. So when the contract came up for renewal in 2017, he decided to take it back into direct control and bring people together to come up with ideas for its future.”

One complication was recovering the right to the name Victorine because “someone who had run the studios in the past had decided to register it for himself”.

Mr Garandeau  was tasked with assembling the committee of cinema personalities, plus the mayor and the council’s culture chief. “We meet regularly and I’ve been examining the whole history of the Victorine. 

A privately-owned workshop on site makes film scenery

“In my report, I recommended we relaunch the studios because cinema is being made more and more in studios again. The fashion had been for filming outside in real-life locations, with the realist Nouvelle Vague cinema. Now it’s coming back because there are more special visual effects and it’s harder to film in the street because of security costs. It’s also the golden age of series, especially ones made by international internet platforms who invest billions. And they are mostly made in studios. So studios are back and potentially profitable.”

Since last summer they have interviewed the head of the studios in Martigues, Bouches-du-Rhône, about a potential partnership which could give them extra filming space, especially for backlot work.

They have also teamed up with OXO architects, global accounting group EY and the PACA regional council.

Mr Garandeau said hopes for future renovation and development include a big new studio of 3,000m2, twice as large as the current largest Studio 1.

All this, and the budget, remains to be firmed up shortly, he said.

“We want to make series, adverts, arthouse films.... We could even make blockbusters. We want to offer the fullest possible range of facilities.

“With a new big studio we could do everything in Nice, apart from big backlot scenes with spectacular stunts.

“But for that we can have partnerships with other studios – Martigues is the nearest, but we could imagine also working with Bry-sur-Marne [east of Paris].” Other ideas include a city centre museum about how films were made in the past, using archive material from the Cinéma­thèque Française.

This could be in premises combined with the Cinémathèque de Nice, sometimes called a “little sister” to the Paris-based one, which at present is not ideally situated.

There is also a proposal to create visitor facilities at the studios, including a restaurant.

“We could have some sets to visit, looking back to past filming, with François Truffaut’s crane and a Cadillac which was one of the first used for tracking shots [filming while moving].”

At an early stage there was a suggestion of turning the centrepiece building, the Villa Rex Ingram, which houses offices, into a museum, but that is not going ahead.

“It will remain as it is, historic and prestigious; emblematic of the studios. It’s the headquarters, and film producers, especially Americans, like to be welcomed there.”

Connexion visited on a sunny spring day and site manager Odile Chapel said: “It’s thanks to days like this, an incredible light like this, skies like this… that film-makers came to Nice.

“It’s the same light that attracted painters like Matisse.”

She showed us the big Studio 1, used by 1920s film-maker Rex Ingram.

She said: “A cinema studio stage is a black box, empty, with electricity and structures for hanging curtains and lights from the ceiling.

“When a production decides to work in a studio, our teams work on scenery in the carpentry workshops. Then we put it all up in this area and we can create a magnificent scene that can be a village square, an apartment, a villa, part of a castle… whatever corresponds to the director’s imagination and the scenario.”

We also visited the 100-year-old carpentry workshops, where up to 25 people work at a time making scenery, and the renovated stars’ dressing rooms with palm-tree and sea views. Of this year’s Odyssey festival, she said: “It’s a nice spotlight on the Victorine, a ray of sunlight that is coming back on to it, and we hope it will encourage lots of filmmakers to come and film.”

She said La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night) (1973) is one of the best for those interested in discovering the studios’ films.

“It is a declaration of love by a filmmaker of the Nouvelle Vague – that, after all, wanted to leave the studios and create a new kind of cinema – to the Victorine Studios.

“It’s magnificent: a film about a film being made [starring Truffaut].”

There will also be open doors days on September 27-29, with a display about Les Enfants du Paradis and La Nuit Américaine, concerts and explanations of cinema trades.

Otherwise, the studios are not open to the public.

“Film-makers like discretion,” she said. “It’s a protection for them, to work in the best possible conditions, and one of those conditions is serenity.

“With today’s mobile phones, one image taken can destroy the reputation of a film that has cost millions of dollars.”

She said she is delighted about the “renaissance” plans. “I guarantee you – the Victorine is going to live 100%. It’s always lived, but sometimes a bit half-asleep. But now the energy is back.”

One of the technicians, Jeff Castelli, whose father was general director for decades, said the site has latterly been used especially for interior scenes for series.

Often, crews also go out and film in real locations around the Riviera.

Last year, a high point was eight months of filming for a second season of the successful Sky TV series Riviera.

Plenty of adverts are filmed in winter, he said, for products such as clothes and watches.

Apart from that, most filming is done in spring and summer, especially for feature films. In recent decades, often a few scenes will be shot in Nice, with the rest filmed elsewhere, sometimes abroad.

“That was the case with Bonds in the 1980s and 1990s, such as A View to a Kill, with Roger Moore, or Never Say Never Again, with Sean Connery,” he said.

Mr Castelli said one of his favourite memories was going into the canteen, aged 12, and seeing Prince, who was filming there in the 1980s, playing pinball, with two enormous bodyguards at each side.

“He was only the same size as me and the size difference made a big impression on me.”

He added: “From my 1970s childhood, I remember snatches of when there were stars like Delon and Belmondo here. There was a fun atmosphere and it was like a big family.”

He said that in filmmaking today, more and more detail is added in post-production – such as digitally enlarging a crowd or adding snow on mountaintops.

A dedicated post-production facility is one possibility for future improvements, he said.

“What’s essential is we keep on making cinema here, for another hundred years or more.

“I don’t know if we can be at the top or not. It’s hard, between the Chinese – there’s one film studio there with 4,000 employees – and lots of up-and-coming countries. But it’s not all about making films to win Césars and Oscars.

“We must make more entertaining films the public enjoy.”

 

A place full of history

The Villa Rex Ingram was built at the end of the 19th century and was the country residence of the Prince d’Essling Victor Masséna, grandson of Napo­leonic war hero the Marshall Masséna, after whom Nice’s main square is named. He named the property La Victorine in honour of his niece Victoire.

After he died, the villa was sold by the city council in 1919 to cinema entrepreneur, producer and distributor Serge Sandberg and producer Louis Nalpas, to create studios. In 1924  it was sold to Irish-American filmmaker Rex Ingram.

Odile Chapel said: “This great filmmaker, responsible for discovering the biggest star of the day Rudolph Valentino, who broke our great-grandmothers’ hearts, was meant to be making films on the other side of the Mediterranean but ended up in Nice. He discovered that the light, the palm trees and the countryside were similar to what he needed, and he came to live here with his wife.”

Ingram made several silent era films, such as Mare Nostrum for which he created a big concrete basin that still exists. “They used model ships and recreated maritime scenes. There were wind machines that created waves. It was the first special effects.”

With the start of the talkies, the studios were bought by Gaumont, and films of the era included Don Quixote, starring famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, in 1933.

Filming continued through the war, with many 1950s and 1960s stars filming there, such as Brigitte Bardot, Louis de Funès,  Lino Ventura, Alain Delon, Jane Fonda, Sophia Loren and Grace Kelly.

 It was while Grace Kelly was in Cannes to promote To Catch a Thief in 1955 that she met future husband Prince Rainier of Monaco. Their engagement was announced the following year.

 

From silent films to Bardot and Mr Bean, from Hitchcock to Woody Allen

The Victorine had former glory days in the silent era and the 1940s-70s. Here are some of its famous films:

1920s

Mare Nostrum (1926), directed by Rex Ingram; set during  World War One

The Magician (1926), directed by Rex Ingram; early horror film inspired by British occultist Aleister Crowley

Le Jardin d’Allah (1927), Rex Ingram; romantic drama

1940s

Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942), Marcel Carné; a medieval fantasy

Scene from 'Les Enfants du Paradis'

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), Carné; filmed during the occupation, about theatre actors in 19th century Paris

 

1950s

La Main au Collet (To Catch a Thief, 1955) Alfred Hitchcock; romantic thriller starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly

Et Dieu Créa la Femme (And God Created Woman) (1956), Roger Vadim; drama set in Saint-Tropez that made Brigitte Bardot famous

Bonjour Tristesse (1957), Otto Preminger; based on Françoise Sagan’s novel

Mon Oncle (1957) Jacques Tati; Tati’s first comedy in colour

 

Scenes from La Baie des Anges with Jeanne Moreau

1960s

La Baie des Anges (1962), Jacques Demy; about a couple addicted to gambling set in Nice

 

1970s

La Nuit Américaine (1972) François Truffaut; Truffaut plays a director making a film at the Victorine studios

 

And more recently…

Brice de Nice (2005), James Huth; Jean Dujardin plays a character he developed in sketches

Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007), Rowan Atkinson’s popular character visits the Riviera

Magic in the Moonlight (2014), Woody Allen; romantic comedy

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