Spain sails for new world

Pic, TV exports on the rise, but producers need to up prod'n ante

MADRID — Madrid’s grand Palacio de la Musica picture palace, the Spanish gala of the year, Aug. 31: Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero posed for a photo with director Agustin Diaz Yanes and star Viggo Mortensen while Spain’s liberal establishment paraded up a pointedly black carpet outside and crowds hurrahed from both sides of Madrid’s Gran Via.

For Spain’s doggedly triumphant press, the $28 million “Alatriste” — with Mortensen playing a hired sword at the sleaze-soaked court of Philip IV — could mark a before-and-after for Spain’s troubled film industry. “Will ‘Alatriste’ save Spanish cinema?” El Economista, a financial daily, dramatically asked.

The answer, domestically, was a 17-day take of $15.8 million, nearing Spanish blockbuster status.

From 2003-05, Spain suffered the lowest national market share of Europe’s “big five”: 16.7% in 2005, compared to Germany’s 17.1%, Italy’s 24.7%, 34% for the U.K. and 36.8% for France. Through August, only seven Spanish bows grossed north of E1 million ($1.3 million).

International reach may be tougher, but that’s often been the case. For Spanish films, foreign sales remain the final frontier. Overseas is at least taken somewhat more seriously now, and exports are rising, though from a low base.

According to a study by Spain’s producers association, FAPAE, foreign Spanish film and TV exports more than doubled from 2000 to 2005, reaching E84.3 million ($108.2 million) in 2005. Film accounts for most biz: 70% in 2004. Europe and the U.S. repped 75% of overseas sales last year.

The U.S. aids export growth. “The U.S. market for Spanish-speaking movies is getting better and better,” says Wild Bunch’s Vincent Maraval.

Production sector attitudes have changed, say Spanish sales agents. “There is a greater interest in international, partly because local markets have shrunk. … Before, many producers went straight to a foreign distributor they knew. Today, everybody tries to go to a sales agent,” says Sogecine/Sogepaq’s Simon de Santiago.

“We’re increasingly tuned into the market, in the way we tell and treat stories. While a film’s being developed, so is its marketing,” says Rafael Cabrera of mini-major Filmax.

Prices paid per territory have, at best, held since 2000, Spanish agents say. A host of Spanish sales companies have launched since 2000 — Filmax, Grupo Pi, Latido, Wanda, El Dorado, DeAPlaneta and Notro — so many more films are being sold and more sales deals being made.

For the export biz to step up another gear, production has to up the ante.

That’s no easy task, partly because of film financing structures.

Spain has no tax coin to speak of; private equity, though growing, remains at a premium .

In high-end production, Spain is moving two ways. Auteur-driven pics from the likes of Carlos Saura, Alejandro Amenabar and Pedro Almodovar dominate.

“Spain’s a cinema of auteurs,” maintains Mediapro’s Jaume Roures.

The country’s leading players are now taking this policy to its logical conclusion through investment: producing auteurs, Spanish and foreign, who can travel worldwide.

Mediapro will team with Letty Aronson’s Gravier to produce a Woody Allen pic, a Barcelona-set romantic drama, shooting in summer 2007.

Sogepaq is co-producing Antonio Banderas’ sophomore pic, “Summer Rain”; Milos Forman’s Javier Bardem-Natalie Portman starrer “Goya’s Ghosts” is produced by Madrid’s Xuxa; Filmax has equity in Tom Tykwer’s “Perfume” and is totally bankrolling Brad Anderson’s “Trans-Siberian”; TV station Telecinco ponied up majority finance on Guillermo del Toro’s Cannes competish entry “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

A second production thrust is almost a kissing cousin: Beyond “Alatriste,” a number of big-budget films, for Spain at least, are advancing in production: Lola’s “Manolete,” toplining Penelope Cruz and Adrien Brody, from Menno Meyjes (“Max”), is in post; Antonio Hernandez’s “The Borgias,” broadcaster Antena 3’s flagship production, and Antonio Cuadri’s “The Heart of the Earth,” are way above Spain’s average $3 million budget.

The jury is still out on these films. (One forerunner, Vicente Aranda’s boudoir farce, “Tirante el Blanco,” set against the Turks’ siege of Byzantium, made modest B.O. of $1.9 million in Spain and, to date, slim foreign sales.)

But “Alatriste” could gross $20 million in Spain, be proclaimed a smash success and still be way out-of-pocket.

And big-budget production in Spain is a high-wire act with a low safety net.

State subsidies are capped at E1 million ($1.3 million).

” ‘Alatriste’ will get exactly the same subsidy support as the smallest, successful auteur film costing $2 million,” laments Lolafilms’ Andres Vicente Gomez.

The majority of Spanish films are not high-end but, as Pi’s Geraldine Gonard puts it, “auteur/independent cinema,” costing some $400,000-$4 million.

Here, what sells above all, agents say, are “films that don’t really resemble anything else,” says De Santiago, or “films with sparkle, originality of style and theme,” says Latido’s Massimo Saidel.

Again, Spain faces challenges. The major complaint about Spanish films is that, however superbly brought off, what they offer isn’t totally new.

That could reflect in part how they’re put together. In 2004, TV coin — $160.4 million — repped 47% of total local Spanish film investment.

“Most Spanish films are made for the general public, since TV finance is essential to their financing. Film festivals look for riskier, more innovative propositions,” says Adolfo Blanco of Notro.

(Some webs — TVE, TV3 and Telecinco — back a broader range of films.)

Meanwhile, the arthouse market is moving on, Sundance Film Festival topper Geoff Gilmore argues that Spain needs to promote a new generation of filmmakers who connect with a new generation of spectators, he adds.

Until then, Spain can offer surprises, discoveries — new helmers Javier Rebollo and Victor Garcia Leon compete at San Sebastian — directors pushing the envelope and — it’s very Spanish — out-of-the-blue pics that raise monuments to individual endeavor.

An export policy can’t be built on one-offs, but these films yield particularly intense pleasures.

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