Directors leave as local market faces transition

MADRID — The title credits for Alex de la Iglesia’s “The Oxford Murders” — Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonor Watling — hurtle screen-forward as calculus equations mill in a maelstrom around them. “The film’s only for intellectuals,” says de la Iglesia, working on the teaser.

That’s a joke. His $13 million, English-language, serial-killer drama lensed in Oxford, 60 miles west of London, is one of Spain’s biggest plays for mainstream auds and distribution abroad.

It’s a sign of the times. A decade ago, few Spanish directors ventured abroad. Now there’s a directorial diaspora. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo helmed “28 Weeks Later” for Fox Atomic. Isabel Coixet has Lakeshore’s “Elegy,” with Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley, in post.

But most sallies are backed by Spanish companies.

“Murders” is made by Tornasol. Julio Medem shot Toronto player “Chaotic Ana” in Arizona for Sogecine. With Ariane-Ariete, Sogecine also has Mateo Gil lensing Gael Garcia Bernal starrer “Pedro Paramo” in Mexico late 2008.

Working for Madrid’s Drive, Agustin Diaz Yanes (“Alatriste”) will take Ariadna Gil, Pilar Lopez de Ayala and Victoria Abril to Mexico City next spring for a crime thriller, “Solo quiero caminar.”

Like much of his ’90s breakthrough generation, Iglesia wanted “to do something different, to grow. For that, you need international projection, to shoot abroad in English,” he says.

And, adds Tornasol producer Mariela Besuievsky, “These more ambitious movies reflect what’s happening in Spain.”

In finance and local market returns, Spanish filmmaking is hitting a wall. Few expect things to get better soon.

Several factors are in play. Auds are shrinking for the art films that are Spain’s forte. “The audiences we had for ‘Para que no me olvides’ and ‘Heroina’ no longer exist,” says Continental Prods. topper Pancho Casal.

Young Spaniards aren’t buying as many movie tickets and DVDs these days, and are spending their time with newer platforms.

In 2006, cinema admissions and DVD sales tumbled by 17% and 6% respectively. Internet usage, meanwhile, went up 46% and vidgames sales climbed 18%, beating Western Europe’s average 10% hike, says Screen Digest senior analyst Nick Parker.

These changes have rippled across Europe, but they’ve hit Spain the hardest. In the U.K., France and Italy, B.O. has held steady for five years. Spain, like Germany, suggests long-term decline: 2006 admissions were 17% below those from 2001.

Per an MPAA study, Spain lost 32% of its legal DVD biz to piracy in 2005, Italy 22%, France 20%, the U.K. 14% and Germany 11%.

Also, Spanish filmmaking has become the victim of a witch-hunt. Spain’s right has never forgiven its left-leaning industry for leading the country’s anti-Iraq war movement.

“Long live the Spanish cinema! Down with spectators!” taunted hawkish radio journo Federico Jimenez Losantos, about recent B.O results.

In a divisive environment, bulwarked by globalization, the familiarity factor — that you like what’s closest — has become less of a factor. “And films from abroad are better received by the press and Spanish public,” says director David Trueba, who’s toying with the idea of shooting in Argentina.

The crisis has galloped up on Spanish cinema. Only last September, local press was fondly imagining a future based around tentpoles such as the $22 million-grossing “Alatriste.”

The reaction’s been equally fast. A few companies have simply shuttered, while others — Continental, Filmanova — are retrenching into TV and more are cutting slates or marking time, seeing how things play out.

There is, however, a consensus on some ways forward.

Obliged to invest 5% of annual revenues largely in Spanish-language films, Spain’s broadcasters — led by Telecinco and Antena 3 — have become its new majors.

“We’ll continue producing new directors, with new ideas, who do things differently. A well-told story is always powerful,” says Alvaro Augustin, director of Telecinco Cinema.

Producers concur that production will polarize around event movies and minipics, minimizing upside and market risk.

“There are two options,” says Sogecine-Sogepaq topper Simon de Santiago: “films with large national appeal because of the director, cast or English language, that attract national presales and financing and eliminate risk; or low-budget, experimental works that festivals favor.”

“We’re making very low-budget, talent-driven films and big productions,” agrees Julio Fernandez, chairman of Filmax, which has two large projects, Jaume Balaguero’s poet-muse chiller “Lady Number Thirteen” and the Will Conway-written “The Blind Man of Seville,” both in advanced script stage.

In its bigger-pic focus, Filmax is not alone. Antena 3’s flagship project is the $14 million true-life espionage thriller “Garbo.” Telecinco will continue co-producing one or two event films a year, says Augustin. “We want to produce new directors, especially talented TV helmers,” says Adolfo Blanco, film topper for Vertice, producer of “Fermat’s Room” from TV directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena.

KanZaman has bought best-selling novel “Cold Skin,” a sci-fi island thriller; Morgan Freeman’s Revelations is co-producing its India-set oater “Moses Taite’s War,” toplining Freeman.

One crucial question is how many big projects get into production. Companies are investing in a reduced A list of auteurs, Spanish and foreign, who command audiences worldwide, specialty or mainstream.

Mediapro and Antena 3 are co-producing Woody Allen’s Spanish shoot. Morena and Telecinco have equity in Steven Soderbergh’s Che Guevara films, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla.”

Meanwhile, some producers are skewing projects toward markets that might hold. Jaume Collet Serra (“House of Wax”) has finished a draft of “Vurdalak” for Andres Vicente Gomez. A medieval tale of vengeance between bloodthirsty warlords, it’s got obvious vidgame licensing potential. But it’s a long-term bet.

“The industry’s in transition,” says Gomez. “It could stabilize in five years. But now, the objective is to survive, guerrilla style.”

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