Spain’s forte gets fest ‘ole’

Genre pics, auteur fare & socially conscious films in Cannes spotlight

MADRID — A Spanish Armada has landed on the Croisette.

Spain’s Cannes presence is the biggest in a decade: “Volver” by Pedro Almodovar and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a Spanish production from Guillermo del Toro, in competition; “Salvador,” about Spain’s last garrote victim, in Un Certain Regard; and “Honor of the Knights,” an out-there take on the “Quixote” tale, and “Azur and Asmar” in Directors Fortnight.

So, having been left out in the Cannes cold before, is Spain suddenly hot?

The answer must be a qualified no.

“There’s been no quantum leap in Spanish filmmaking, but its presence is highly merited,” says producer Antonio Saura.

Spain’s higher profile does illustrate two trends:

  • Filmmaking that combines a genre grounded with artistic ambition — think Almodovar, Guillermo del Toro, Isabel Coixet, Fernando Trueba and Argentina’s Fabian Bielinsky;

  • the recuperation of Catalonia — over the last decade, Filmax, Mediapro, DeAPlaneta and Notro, all Barcelona-born companies, have plowed into pic production, plus Catalan pubcaster TVC co-finances many films.

“TVC’s support makes enormously risky projects just risky,” says “Honor” producer Adolfo Blanco at Notro.

Spain as a whole shouldn’t be written off, either. Its new socialist government nearly doubled film subsidies to E58.5 million ($71.8 million) last year.

Spanish films’ market share edged from 13.4% in 2004 to 16.7% in 2005 thanks to 17 pics passing $2 million plus “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Sahara,” both Spanish co-productions.

Compared with Europe’s five other big territories, Spain remains a smallish country with a medium-sized, though fragmented, industry, a middling market share by general European standards, and few facilities for making bigger-budget films.

But if you think that’s bad, look at Germany, and especially Italy.

Spanish filmmaking boasts many virtues. It just doesn’t always result in pictures you’d imagine competing at Cannes.

“There are always unexpected films. That keeps companies interested in foreign-language tracking Spain,” says Sogecine/ Sogepaq topper Simon de Santiago.

Foreign sales are lifting from a low base. International deals nearly tripled in 2004, compared with 2000, pulling in $78.9 million, per a report from Fapae, the Spanish producers association.

“More than countries showing a larger interest in Spanish films, there are more countries showing interest,” says Wanda prexy Jose Maria Morales. He cites Central America, Peru, Bolivia and China as growth markets.

Beyond select auteurs, Spain’s forte remains the small, socially conscious pic, adopting antiheroes such as ex-con junkies (“15 Days”), prostitutes (“Princesses”) or delinquents with attitude (“7 Virgins”).

Substance and social message predominate over style, or so runs a constant carp from foreign festival selectors.

Spain excels at low-budget docs and, starting with Alex de la Iglesia’s watershed “The Day of the Beast,” twinning genre with Spain’s esperpento dark humor. Again, these pics aren’t often considered major festival fare.

“Experimental” pics are rare. To tap major subsidies, films from established directors must gross at least $406,000 (rounded). “Our risk-based system encourages ‘commercial’ films, but it discourages experimentation,” Saura observes.

Coin-crunched, Spain’s Cannes producer contingent employ various strategies:

  • Director-driven fare with commercial potential, including abroad –the classic tack of Sogecine-Sogepaq, Mediapro, Tornasol, Tesela and upscale shingles.

  • Hiking or honing budgets. Spanish broadcasters and foreign distributors aren’t paying more for most Spanish films. “Production’s dividing, between very big productions with international appeal or low-budget films,” says de Santiago. Lola and Morena have low-budget lines as well as pics above $10 million, including Morena’s “Cargo” plus Lola’s “Manolete” and “Teresa.”

  • Financing international directors and projects. Milos Forman (“Goya’s Ghosts”), Brad Anderson, Tom Tykwer (“Perfume”) and “Asterix at the Olympic Games” are all shooting in Spain. Woody Allen has inked for a 2007 shoot.

  • Cultivating Latin America. Wanda co-produced Rotterdam Tiger winner “The Dog Pound,” Tornasol backedBielinsky’s “The Aura,” and Maestranza got onboard steamy “Rosario Tijeras.”

  • Pushing chillers/psychological thrillers. Genre leader Filmax is reteaming with Brad Anderson for “TranSiberian,” and Cannes market preems “The Kovak Box” and “The Backwoods.”

  • Novel finance sources. Just over 50% of Antonio Cuadri’s “The Heart of the Earth” has been put up by Surinvest Capital Andalusia, a new Andalusian private-sector film/TV investment fund while pics shooting at Alicante’s Ciudad de la Luz studios can draw down 3%-7% of budgets from the Valencian government via regional producers.

Despite the fiscal inventiveness, the industry remains fragmented. “Spain suffers from a host of small, unsuccessful productions,” laments Mediapro prexy Jaume Roures. “Any consolidation comes from private initiative, not state impulse.”

But where does Spain go from here, as other European countries batten down their film financing hatches?

“The 20% break for U.K. spend doesn’t pay for the increased cost of doing films in the U.K. U.K.-Spanish co-productions are over,” says Morena producer Juan Gordon.

Tax breaks aren’t on the government’s agenda.

“Spanish authorities still don’t believe Spain can have a strong film industry with export capacity,” says Filmax chairman Julio Fernandez. One hope is growing upscale markets.

“The market lately favors quality, not quantity. (Starting) next year, I’ll probably concentrate on a bigger quality film,” says Lola CEO Andres Vicente Gomez.

“We’re going to Cannes feeling that, after the Oscars, there’s a place for international co-production of around $10 million,” says Filmanova prexy Anton Reixa.

Or Spain may simply advance poco a poco: “We’re in transition. New players will appear in the next five years as the old guard disappear,” says Gomez.

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