Northern exposure

Spanish region expands, invests but lacks domestic impact

MADRID — Tucked in Spain’s northeast corner, Catalonia forged Spain’s industrial heartland. Tourists genuflect before its architecture (think Gaudi’s Barcelona), design, art and food.

But barring the launch of pubcaster Televisio de Catalunya (TVC) and a burgeoning toon sector, film and TV production largely languished since 1975’s establishment of democracy. The Catalan government had bigger fish to fry, such as popularizing the Catalan language.

But that is all in the past.

In November 2003, the Catalan Socialist Party won regional elections. Its film and TV subsidy board, the Catalan Institute of Cultural Industries will hike its budget 30% in 2005 to fuel new initiatives: a script development center and minifunds targeting the production of auteur films, feature-length docus, and animation and avant-garde pics, according to director Xavier Marce. Government aid will go to works made in Catalonia regardless of their language.

Export agency Catalan Films and TV is already functioning as a bigger-budgeted consortium.

TVC will raise Catalan industry investment 11% to S20 million ($26.0 million) in 2005, says director general Francesc Escribano. In the private sector, Barcelona’s biggest players are also swelling in size and ambition:

  • Mini-major Filmax Entertainment is opening Los Angeles and Miami offices. Diversified media group DeAPlaneta bought a controlling stake in Antena 3 last year. This September, it announced an eight-pic production slate. Production and services company Mediapro has taken equity in five pics. Vet animation producer D’Ocon launched a toon cable channel, Superene, in November.

  • Pic production companies are plowing into internationally targeted, often English-lingo fare. Manga has equity in the Penelope Cruz and Charlize Theron starrer “Head in the Clouds”; Mediapro is co-producing Isabel Coixet’s “The Secret Life of Words,” with Tim Robbins and Sarah Polley; DeAPlaneta is advancing on Vicente Aranda’s $16 million epic comedy “Tirant Lo Blanc”; Filmax is financing Jaume Balaguero’s “Fragile,” with Calista Flockhart, plus a raft of English-lingo including “The Nun”; Arcadia’s production debut, “The Birthday,” toplines Corey Feldman; Drimtim has made-for movie “Crusader,” with Andrew McCarthy, Michael York and Bo Derek, in post.

  • In October, Mediapro, D’Ocon Films Prods., TVC, CityTV, Diagonal TV and Prodigius opened 334,600-square-foot high-tech production and talent center Imagina; a 645,600-square-foot production center, the Terrassa Ciutat Audiovisual, is being built in Barcelona.

  • Beyond established players Els Films de la Rambla, Oberon Cinematografica and Messidor Films, a new generation of production companies is breaking through: ABS Production, Arcadia, Canonigo, Just Films, Bausan Films, Fresdeval, Arriska, Benece and Rodar & Rodar.

Newish companies are striving to attract even newer talent. At Sitges, Rodar y Rodar will unveil Esta Vivo!, a project to make films with young above- and below-the-line talent.

The net effect of this hustle and bustle is mounting media concentration. Its causes are various. Filmax diversified from TV rights-brokering to avoid a dangerous dependence on a single revenue stream, says prexy Carlos Fernandez.

DeAPlaneta prexy Alvaro Zapata argues that the purchase of Antena 3 has opened up a raft of synergies.

Mediapro has five co-productions advancing, all upscale potential crossovers by accredited auteurs such as Coixet, Fernando Leon (“Princesas”) and Miguel Albaladejo (“Volando voy”).

“It just doesn’t make sense for Spain to produce 150 films at $1.3 million to $650,000. Dispersion and industry are contradictory terms,” says Mediapro co-prexy Jaume Roures.

DeAPlaneta likewise is moving from fully financing pics to teaming on national and international projects, says Zapata.

“The industry used to depend on isolated initiatives. Without any formal share swapping, we’re now creating bridges,” says D’Ocon prexy Antonio D’Ocon.

In their drive into national and international projects, Catalonia’s main players can lever capital and often distribution clout: Spanish distribber Filmax runs a successful international sales arm. DeAPlaneta, also a Spanish distribber, has Antena 3; D’Ocon has Superene.

Consolidation’s net effect may well be a series of production alliances in Catalonia that approximate those between U.S. majors and indies.

Filmax, for instance, is establishing studio-style on-lot production arrangements with smaller producers, and selling third-party pickups internationally.

“There’s a lot of talent in Spain and Catalonia. We’d like to help its ideas receive the best possible distribution abroad,” argues Filmax chairman Julio Fernandez.

Yet Catalan film and TV face large challenges, some common to the rest of Spain. Barcelona-based distributors Lauren and Manga have been hit by tumbling sales to Spanish TV stations. Yet, despite June’s suspension of payments, Lauren will go on distributing, insists prexy Antonio Llorens.

Manga has diversified into pic production, while DVD maintains corporate revenue, says Manga veep Xavier Catafal.

Frenzied first-phase cinema construction is over. “The new trend is consolidation around fewer players,” predicts ACEC cinema circuit prexy Jaime Tarrazon.

Production is hardly a bed of roses, either. Catalan-lingo pics are cold-shouldered outside the region. Madrid has four nationwide broadcasters, Barcelona has none. As Marce observes, that limits growth at middling to small shingles. The industry simply needs better scripts, say many producers.

While production breathes a “certain optimism,” says Oberon’s Antonio Chavarrias, Catalonia — indeed, Spain — lacks across-the-board, up-to-date audiovisual legislation.

In film and TV terms, Catalonia is hardly a brand in Spain. For Sagrera’s Ramon Colom, “We laugh and cry with Spanish and Argentine films, but not yet on a nationwide scale with Catalan or Andalusian pictures.”

Outside Valencia and Mallorca, the Catalan-lingo TV3 is not watched or appreciated, for all its frequent excellence.

A benchmark for Catalonia is a similarly populated European Union state, such as Denmark. A comparison largely underscores the immaturity of the Catalonia’s audiovisual industry.

It talks the talk — industry, internationalization, integration. It is just beginning to walk the walk.

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