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Giving Swiss film locations some direction


By Thomas Stephens



In a galaxy not very far away: the mountains of Grindelwald were used as backdrops for the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: Episode III 

In a galaxy not very far away: the mountains of Grindelwald were used as backdrops for the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: Episode III 

Although many Holly- and Bollywood scenes are shot in Switzerland, until now the country’s efforts to promote itself haven’t been anything to sing and dance about.

The new head of Film Location Switzerland aims to professionalise the sector to attract more producers and directors to what the organisation describes as “one big open-air studio”.

The tourism industry is actively involved, knowing that a global hit which portrays a country in a positive light can be more effective for nation branding than any advertising campaign (see box). 

Although James Bond has been doing his bit for Switzerland for decades – from pushing baddies into snowploughs up on the Schilthorn to bungeeing off the Verzasca Dam – it is Bollywood, India’s Hindi-language film industry, that has had the greatest effect on tourism. 

“There’s a major link between [Indian] movies and the number of tourists that come to Switzerland,” Federico Sommaruga, director of emerging markets and special projects at Switzerland Tourism, told swissinfo.ch. 

“Ten to 20 years ago the average Indian was going to the cinema two, three times a week, and if he or she was captivated by the love story and discovered that Switzerland was where their favourite actor shot the movie, then they wanted to visit the same place. For us that was an excellent promotion.” 

Between 1993 and 2010 the number of annual overnight stays of Indian tourists rocketed from 71,000 to 393,000, according to Switzerland Tourism. What’s more, Indians spend an average of SFr300 ($325) a day, well above the average tourist (SFr174).

City Lights

More than 200 Bollywood films have been shot in Switzerland over the past two decades, and while lush alpine meadows are a favourite place to declare one’s undying love to a sari-clad girlfriend, it’s not unusual to see impressively choreographed dance routines underway in central Bern, for example – only to have to break up to let a tram go by. 

“Switzerland is known as being expensive, but the advantages are that all public spaces are most often free – a city won’t charge, unlike in New York, Mumbai or wherever,” said Heinz Dill, a producer who worked on Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers when it came to Switzerland. 

“Shooting in an airport in Switzerland is easier than shooting in any other airport. There are private train companies that are very film friendly.” 

French thriller Secret Agents (2004) starring Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel shot most of the high-speed car-chases and stunts in Geneva and Lausanne, where filming on streets and motorways is much easier than in France. 

Much of Touching the Void (2003), an award-winning reconstruction of a near-fatal climbing accident in the Peruvian Andes, was actually shot on the Jungfrau because the Bernese Alps offer easier access to extreme landscapes. 

That said, Dill told swissinfo.ch that preparation was vital – especially in cities. 

“In Geneva, you need to hand in the permit for police, parks or whatever three weeks in advance – because you might want to shoot in a certain street but there’s construction work. In Lausanne, it’s four weeks – every city has its own rules.”

Les Visiteurs

To help attract and make life easier for foreign film producers, Zurich-based Film Location Switzerland (see box) aims to provide a service dealing with local authorities, simplifying administrative procedures, gaining access to locations and actor directories, and finding location scouts, technicians and coproduction partners. 

“Switzerland has a lot of things to offer that many foreign producers don’t know about – it’s not only the fantastic landscape,” Urban Frye, managing director of Film Location Switzerland since August, told swissinfo.ch. 

For example, companies based outside Switzerland can have the disbursed VAT refunded. For more reasons on the benefits of filming in Switzerland, see the link. 

“Switzerland has a very well-organised infrastructure and if we can make tailored packages for each film project, I think we could be present on the very competitive international market.”

Up in the Air

But while film location offices exist in Geneva, Lucerne and Zurich – Ticino is also hoping to open one this year – Switzerland is one of the few countries that lacks an official film location commission with a permanent and professional structure. 

Also, Switzerland is rarely present at the major international film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Toronto or Mumbai, which can give the impression that it isn’t interested in international productions. 

For example, the latest Hollywood production of William Tell, starring Brendan Fraser, is set to be filmed entirely in Romania. 

“This has to change,” Frye said, pointing out that film crews spend up to SFr30,000 a day, boosting the local and wider economy. 

However, Jean-Frédéric Jauslin, director of the Federal Culture Office, recently said the government’s top priority was “supporting and promoting Swiss films at home and abroad”. 

Heinz Dill said it was necessary to be creative. 

“I think there are smart ways to be found in this kind of market – like with Switzerland Tourism. Because it’s not even big money, but it can be very attractive for Asian producers if they can have a little bit of help: for example, come and shoot for so many days and get so many hotel nights or plane tickets free,” he said.

Sweet Smell of Success

Sommaruga is convinced that Switzerland has what it takes to succeed at an international level.

“We have real mountains, real cable cars, real meadows, real wooden bridges – they’re not created in a studio.” 

And real eye-wateringly expensive five-star hotels such as the Dolder Grand in Zurich, which featured in the current Hollywood blockbuster “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. 

The film is up for a few Oscars on Sunday and the hotel is cashing in on the buzz by offering a special package (see link) which includes a limo to and from the cinema and a copy of the book on which the film was based. At up to SFr10,440 for two nights, you’d hope so.

Film Location Switzerland

Although Film Location Switzerland has existed since 1999, lack of funds has meant it has been little more than a website and enquiry service. At the annual meeting in 2011 it was decided that a new professional organisation was needed.

A three-year pilot phase foresees around SFr240,000 coming in annually from Switzerland Tourism, regional tourism boards, the Federal Culture Office/Swiss Films, Presence Switzerland (the national image department run by the foreign ministry) and the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (swissinfo’s parent company).

This money would be spent on local infrastructure (offices and staff), promotional material (website, DVDs), presence at international film festivals and support for ongoing projects.

'Tolkien tourism'

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-3) is thought to be largely responsible for the annual tourist influx to New Zealand jumping from 1.7 million in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2006. Other reports estimate the films generated media exposure for the country worth $25 million.

The Tourist Office of Queensland says “Crocodile” Dundee (1986) made Australia the popular destination it is today, with visitor numbers doubling within three years.

When the James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) was filmed on Phuket, most Westerners had never heard of the Thai island. Today it is a major tourist destination.

By Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch



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