Pix mix aims to shake up local B.O.

Spanish prod'n changes by courting wider auds

“You!” shouts the baseball coach. A 7-year-old Spanish boy in baseball cap and shirt drags his heavy, bronzed bat towards the mark.

“Not again, I can’t do it, and he’s not there,” the mite mumbles, looking forlornly towards his father’s empty stand seat. “Oh, snails!”

Then TV star Antonio Resines’ voice rings out: “Hey, kid, this is a Spanish film.”

The boy’s father dashes back — he’d just gone to get a sandwich. Suddenly, for the kid, everything is right with the world.

This TV ad, put out last year by the local industry, had a simple message: that only Spanish films capture the nuances of local life.

Americans have alien passions (baseball), habits (Spanish papas dote on offspring), and turns of phrase (they say “jeepers!” instead of “snails!”).

The ad’s mere existence underscores a swelling sea-change. Spain’s flailing market share — 13% in 2004, 8% through April 10, the lowest of Europe’s Big Five territories — has become a public obsession.

Director Fernando Trueba recently complained that Spaniards don’t talk about films, just industry matters.

The Spanish Academy’s 2004 annual report was called “La busca” (The Search). This, significantly, was for spectators, not artistic inspiration.

Critics often praise its kaleidoscopic nature. In one way or another, however, much Spanish production is courting wider audiences:

  • Ambitious producers are ramping up historical event pics: Origen and Estudios Picasso’s $28 million “Alatriste,” the DeAPlaneta/Carolina $17.3 million “Tirante El Blanco,” and Lolafilms hallucinatory mystic bio “Teresa.”

  • Others are amping up animation: Dygra has upped output to one toon pic a year. Filmax is prepping three pics. Continental has bowed a toon pic division. Recoupment cycles are long, but pics sell amply abroad.

  • From May onwards there will be a litany of popcorn fare such as “Isi Disi 2,” “School’s Out,” “The Protector” and unabashed youth-targeted pics such as “Endless,” “The King of Havana,” “The Calentito” and “The Two Sides of the Bed.”

  • Spain is consolidating genre production and leader Filmax has a new 2005-’06 slate. Expect more chillers (from Rodar & Rodar, Continental and Oberon), horror comedies (Arcadia’s “The Birthday”) and thrillers (Zebra’s “Oculto,” Vaca’s “Cero”).

  • Some large indies are mixing it up, making mainstream comedies — Lolafilms’ “Isi & Disi,” Tornasol’s “The Longest Penalty” — plus more upscale fare like “Teresa” and Tornasol’s arty drug-trade expose, “Heroine.”

  • Thrillers offer food for thought: Mariano Barroso’s lush noir “Ants in the Mouth,” Sergio Cabrera’s corruption pic “The Art of Losing,” terrorist nailbighter “El Lobo” and Mediapro’s anti-Franco activist actioner, “Salvador.”

The move toward bigger or mainstream films is partly defensive.

TV coin and theatrical distribution are tougher. In 2000, a top 10 film bowed on around 200 prints, according to a report by Spanish exhibitors lobby FECE. By 2004, its print run was 420, occupying 550 screens.

Commercial broadcasters Telecinco and Antena 3 only finance potential B.O. hits. Paybox Canal Plus is far pickier. Films are acquiring more market edge to guarantee distribution and snag TV coin, or compensate for its absence.

The mainstream move also underscores a change of guard.

A new generation of younger, more market-minded producers is emerging at indies (Amiguetes, Telespan 2000, Monfort Prods., Lazonafilms, Arcadia) or in executive posts at U.S. studios’ Spanish production ops (Columbia TriStar, Warner Bros.), media groups (Sogecable, DeAPlaneta), broadcasters (Estudios Picasso) or mini-majors (Filmax).

They have fewer qualms about making entertainment rather than niche pics.

Spain is progressing. There’s a new vitality in Galicia and Catalonia. Fresh talent continues to break through.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s socialist government has begun to dig the industry out of a hole, tightening TV investment quotas and near doubling Spain’s ICAA subsidy fund for 2005 to $82 million.

The fund’s endowment will nix a poison pill pro-rata provision, says Pedro Perez, prexy of Spain’s powerful Fapae producers lobby, under which the ICAA dolled out subsidies according to moneys available.

Whether Spanish filmmakers can radically hike market share is another question.

Spain’s expertise lies not in blockbusters but festival friendly artpics. B.O., many producers argue, isn’t everything. There’s already been one standout fest winner this year: docu “The Sky Turns.”

A heavily backloaded 2005 promises three fine crossovers: Isabel Coixet’s “The Secret Life of Words,” Fernando Leon’s “Princesses” and Montxo Armendariz’s “Obaba.”

It remains to be seen how a traditionally upscale industry, which primes culture as well as commerce, can seduce Spain’s high-tech youth, which has access to a vastly wider range of films and TV via Internet file-swapping.

Even when out of its hole, Spain will occupy just middling ground in European terms.

Capped at $1.15 million, Spain’s squat subsidy ceilings “favor low-budget films. On better, more expensive films, your risk climbs,” observes Mediapro co-prexy Jaume Roures.

Outside Galicia and Catalonia, banks shy away from film. Many producers underwrite credit lines with their own homes. “It’s near impossible to find investment in Spain on anything over e3 million ($3.8 million),” laments one producer.

Though high on Fapae’s list of demands, tax breaks of 20% do not look like a short-term reality.

Spain still has many miles to travel before becoming a consolidated film power.

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