High spirits

English-language prod scares up mucho U.S. coin

MADRID — Spanish director alejandro Amenabar walked into the Sept. 6, Madrid premiere of his “The Others” as somber as a mourner at a funeral.

It’s understandable. He had star of “The Others,” the chipper Nicole Kidman, at his side and $60 million in the bag in the U.S., making the film Spain’s first U.S. mainstream hit ever. After “Traffic,” it’s the highest-grossing European pic Stateside this year.

But, as Amenabar said onstage that night, it was no longer his baby.

Behind “The Others” is a decade-old Spanish production house, Sogecine, who co-produced the pic with helmer Jose Luis Cuerda’s Las Producciones del Escorpion and Tom Cruise’s Cruise/Wagner Prods. At $19.2 million, Amenabar’s sleeper creeper is Sogecine’s first English-lingo midrange pic. But “The Others” speaks of Sogecine’s ambitions and its step-by-step natural growth, which have freshened the face of Spanish filmmaking.

Sogecine’s success cannot be separated from that of its parent company, film and TV conglom Sogecable, nor Sogecable’s managing shareholder, Prisa. In Spain, where business and politics mingle, Prisa is no ordinary media colossus.

In 1976, it launched Spain’s most read newspaper, El Pais, which helped entrench the country’s modern democracy. Since the ’80s, Prisa has set out to create an entertainment and news business befitting a contemporary European power — or, at least, Spain’s educated, liberal and stylishly heeled middle class.

Created in 1990 to feed startup Prisa/Canal Plus feevee service Canal Plus Spain, Sogecine is in line with the parent company’s larger ambition.

“There’s no editorial policy but I think we’re in line with other cultural products at Sogecable and Prisa,” says Sogecine CEO Fernando Bovaira.

It seems no coincidence, either, that the production passions espoused by Bovaira are similar to those of other international, capitalized production houses in Europe, such as Working Title or StudioCanal:

  • The nursing of new directors, who mine genres and appeal to sophisticated young auds.

  • Muscular marketing: P&A on a run-of-the-mill Spanish pic costs around 12% of the budget; Sogecine’s can reach 35%.

    Development: Sogecine’s resources mean it doesn’t have to rush into production to snag subsidies or TV ducats. Pics, such as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo upcoming “Intact,” can take two years from conception to pre-production.

    Persnickety post-production: Touching-up can last at times up to a year.

  • An international savoir-faire: Most Sogecine execs have studied or worked in the U.S. They are not fazed by foreign markets or execs.

  • Mini-major backing: From the Prisa/Canal Plus-owned Sogecable.

Sogecine hasn’t had it all its own way. After back-to-back hits, Imanol Uribe’s “Plenilune” clunked last year, by Sogecine standards at least.

Launching as a pic co-financing house in 1990, Sogetel was the right company in the right place at the wrong time.

“Most of the directorial talent was locked up, and other companies didn’t want our co-finance,” recalls Sogetel’s then-head of film, Fernando de Garcillan.

One early — and 100% Sogetel production — did manage to make waves, however: Julio Medem’s 1991 debut, “Cows,” which gave infighting and incest between rural Basque families a remarkable horror pic makeover.

Tapped in 1996 as Sogetel general manager, Bovaira took Sogetel further down the renewal road.

“We realized there was a natural, generational link between Spanish cinemagoers and the young directors coming (up) in Spain,” says Bovaira.

Sogecine — the company moniker taken on in 1997 — will work with established helmers, such as with Jose Luis Cuerda’s Spanish civil war coming-of-age tale “Butterfly” (1998). But most of its stable of directors are thirtysomethings, if that. Their styles stretch from kooky (Javier Fesser) to noirish (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) to out-there (Medem), to hard-boiled urban (Daniel Calparsoro) to classic genre brats (Alejandro Amenabar, Mateo Gil).

What unites them, says Medem, is the very “sense of style”: while Amenabar suggests it’s long hours at the Avid.

Sogecine is spreading its net wider, co-producing four to seven Spanish films a year, led by Anton Reixa’s “The Carpenter’s Pencil.” Its first pic with a foreign helmer — George Sluizer’s “The Stone Raft” — is in post.

With Sogecine fusing with sister distribber Sogepaq, it can compound its services, “offering co-production, finance or distribution to other companies,” says “Pencil” producer Juan Gordon.

But will there be other “Others”? Amenabar’s most immediate personal project is a holiday. Sogecine biggest announced pic is Fesser’s $6 million live-action version of comic strip “Mortadelo y Filemon.”

“The commercial potential for an English-lingo pic is infinitely greater,” Bovaira admits, but going English-lingo is no slam dunk.

“It’s not just a question of finding the right subject, but of working with directors who are comfortable with the pressures of an international shoot.”

That, however, has been a question that’s has been answered by what Sogecine does best — finding and bringing up talent to full potential.

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