Cultivating Catalonia

Spain's production powerhouse eyes outlets

MADRID — Pics from Spain’s richest region, Catalonia, were in the forefront at Cannes — in fact, the five films numbered more than those from Germany, Italy or Britain. But despite burgeoning quality productions, the government is taking a harder look at whether there’s any way to recoup the money it pours into the region’s films.

At Cannes, Juan Antonio Bayona’s disturbing psychological chiller “The Orphanage” and Rafa Cortes’ “Yo,” a mordant identity-theft thriller, both played Critics’ Week, while Jaime Rosales’ “Solitary Fragments” and Ana Katz’s “The Wandering Bride” were in Un Certain Regard. Yank Tom Kalin’s “Savage Grace,” which screened in Directors’ Fortnight, was 40%-financed from Catalonia.

Last year, Catalonia turned out 71 feature films, nearly as many as the U.K., which made 78. And in mid-June, Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem will blow into Barcelona, the Catalan capital, to shoot Allen’s next film.

With soaring production levels, as well as the Woodman’s arrival, Antoni Llado, Catalonia’s incoming film authority supremo, should be sitting pretty.

Such is not the case.

Llado, now director of the Icic Catalan Institute for Cultural Industries, is proposing new measures to stop a runaway success becoming a runaway train. Under Llado, the Icic is studying the idea of introducing screenplay subsidies. It’s upped aid for films shot in Catalan by 50% to E90,000 ($121,000) per pic. Behind these two modest steps lies the same concern.

Drawing on its avant-garde tradition (think Gaudi, Dali) and young helmer hothouses such as the Pompeu Fabra U., Catalonia has spawned a good crop of left-of-field filmmakers. A more mainstream entry in this tradition, Cesc Gay’s “Fiction,” a finely observed story of thirtysomething love, won top honors at March’s Mar del Plata festival.

Catalonia is becoming something of a brand name. For the most part, however, it lacks a market. Much state aid has been funneled into minority Catalan co-productions, made outside Catalonia without Catalans. In the past, a Madrid producer could phone up a Barcelona colleague, who’d put up 20% of a budget, which would trigger P&A and production coin from the Icic (roughly $215,000 on low-budget pics) and a near-automatic pickup from Catalan pubcaster TV3 (worth some $80,000-$200,000).

Now though, “Through industry consultation, we’ll rejig our subsidies to give more coin to those with more market or festival possibilities,” Llado says. Catalonia already has an Auteur Fund, which backs films on their artistic merit, not B.O. potential. Last July, it launched a state-backed film investment fund, Mesfilms Inversions, targeting high-return, internationally skewed projects.

But how to grow the market potential of films from the region is a larger question. Currently, both domestic B.O. and international sales are becoming tougher for all but a clutch of Spanish films, whether Catalan or not. One thing seems certain. The days of automatically getting coin from the Catalan state and TV are over. And the Icic and TV3, which have powered a dramatic regional film revolution, will be looking more closely at what money they give, and why.

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