Distrib biz schizo in wake of TM hang-up

Spanish telco has reined in expansion at its media division

MADRID — It is the worst of times, and the best of times, for Spanish indie distribution.

The latest news broke at September’s San Sebastian Film Festival, a gossip mega-mill: Last July, film and TV conglom Telefonica Media and indie distrib Manga Films broke off months-long negotiations for Manga to become part of the TM fold.

Talks had turned on the TM-controlled net Antena 3 either taking a stake in Manga or channeling credit into the Barcelona-based shingle. Though supported by parts of Telefonica Media, the mooted move was finally vetoed by TM’s parent company, Telefonica. Hit by a 31% fall in stock this year and a $6 billion commitment to third-generation mobile telephony rollout, the giant Spanish telco has reined in expansion at its media subsid.

Manga could not be reached for comment. It is likely, however, to turn to another deep-pocketed partner.

The deal that wasn’t is a sign of the times: Spain’s indie sector is being rocked by conglom concentration, rumors of buy-ups and probable shifts in output deals.

Controlled by film and TV behemoth Sogecable, distribbery Sogepaq is merging with sister production firm Sogecine, creating a single Sogecable film unit, overseen by Fernando Bovaira, which integrates pic production, acquisition and overseas sales.

Sogecable announced its latest thrust at San Sebastian: the appointment of seasoned acquisition exec Jacques Roldan to fill the new post of director of Sogecable film distribution, reporting to Bovaira.

Buzz has it that even Spain’s most resilient indie distrib, Antonio Llorens’ Barcelona-based Lauren Films, may accept a partner. There could be a wide field of suitors; Lauren has ranked as Spain’s top indie distrib for 13 of the last 14 years and is emblematic of film commerce in its native Catalonia.

For all the upheaval, it’s a case of money being drawn to money; indie distribution is cash-flush, and domestic finance for mainstream indie distribs has rarely been stronger.

At San Sebastian, Telefonica-owned digital platform Via Digital revealed that in 2001 it will plow Pta9.4 billion ($51.7 million) into acquiring non studio pics via Spanish distribs. Hit by a TV ad slump, Spain’s free-to-air nets are nevertheless turning — if not churning — profits, powered by the fastest-growing economy in western Europe.

Indeed, according to a Variety program price guide for Mipcom, Spanish terrestrial broadcasters can pay higher prices for feature films (up to $1.2 million for most “A” titles) than their Italian counterparts.

But because some Spanish distribs have overpaid for underperforming movies, prices have been forced up in general. In 1995, for instance, Spanish distribs traditionally ponied up some 4.5% of a foreign movie’s budget. By this year, that figure often passes 6%.

With TV advertising slumping and Telefonica holding the phone on its foray into film financing, distribs are becoming comparatively circumspect, feeling the downward pressures in a kind of boom-and-bust cycle.

Beyond foraging for further finance, distribs are plowing their coin into local production (Lauren, Tripictures) or focusing on more mainstream movies. And they may not pay such fullsome prices.

Spain took up some of the buying slack caused by the crash of Asian markets in the ’90s. As sellers gird up for the London Screenings/Mifed double sales whammy this year, signs from Spain are not as promising.

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