Directors find region green, lean, and serene

Asturias, a small mountainous region in northern Spain, is figuring ever more prominently on the film map.

Woody Allen’s Cannes entry, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” captures the region’s near-surreal stillness, the lushness of its grass.

Four of Spain’s most popular films last year — “The Orphanage,” “Suso’s Tower,” “Oviedo Express” and “Pudor” — were all shot in the “natural paradise” of Asturias, grossing an aggregate E26.5 million ($42.3 million) in Spain, an astonishing 30% of box office for all Spanish films in 2007, and 25% of Spain’s Goya noms and kudos.

“Orphanage” alone has grossed $80 million-plus worldwide, and counting.

“Asturias is a filmmaker’s dream,” says director Jim Box. “In less than 35 miles, you have beaches, mountains, snow, sand, rivers and forests.”

Asturias is strategically located at the heart of “Green Spain,” an area stretching from Galicia to the Pyrenees, famed for fierce independence and a wealth of local legends that tell of enchanted mountains and ethereal “xanas” (water and wood nymphs). “Orphanage” producer Guillermo del Toro is a self-proclaimed fan of the region due to its Celtic culture and “beautiful pagan legends.”

Asturias was once a vital force in Spanish silent cinema but only mustered an average of one local film in the intervening years. However, since the late ’90s a new generation of young filmmakers with a strong esprit de corps, such as Lucinda Torre and Ramon Lluis Bande, have forged the home-based New Asturian Cinema with a cluster of socially committed films.

Other Asturians have taken the emigrant route, such as Sergio Sanchez, who studied film at NYU and subsequently developed his script “The Orphanage” at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab.

Sanchez uses a Peter Pan sub-theme and pagan masks as the backdrop to a haunting tale in which a mother loses her son and her sanity in a Victorian mansion, surrounded by wild countryside.

As traditional mining and heavy industries enter into decline, the Asturian government is attempting to leapfrog the economy into the 21st century, making a major commitment to the creative industries, including new policies designed to lure Spanish and international filmmakers to the principality.

The government has announced that it will launch a film commission later this year, formally tied to the tourism board, that will provide logistical support to film and TV projects and facilitate access to local funding mechanisms.

“We aim to implement an ambitious series of measures over the next three years, in order to strengthen the cultural industries in Asturias and progressively link film support to other strategic support measures intended to finance new sectors that will bring high added-value to the local economy,” says Encarnacion Rodriguez Canas, councilor for culture.

One main initiative created is a new director’s slate, Primera Tomas (First Takes) produced by Juan Gona, who has offices in Asturias, Madrid and Alicante.

Films are budgeted at $3.5 million. The first pic — “Vete de Mi,” by Victor Garcia Leon — bowed at San Sebastian in 2006 to good notices and modest box office success ($300,000). Two more pics roll this year — Lucinda’s Torre’s “Alegria” and “Todas las canciones hablan de mi” by Jonas Trueba. Gona also will launch a screenplay competition.

Gona’s sold Austurian production in 2007 was “Oviedo Express,” which tapped a $2 million grant from Oviedo’s town council and was helmed by Asturia’s most prolific writer-director, 73-year-old Gonzalo Suarez, who has 20 features to his credit. Suarez is now prepping the Gona-produced “Yo, Elas y el otro,” to shoot in Asturias, Barcelona and Alicante.

Asturias’ major port city, Gijon, established its own support scheme offering $400,000 million grants for films that shoot 12-13 weeks in the area. One of Asturias’ key assets is the international acclaim engendered by prestigious local institutions such as the Gijon Film Festival, El Laboral culture center, the Prince of Asturias Awards and Europe’s projected biggest art center, the Niemeyer Foundation, due to be unveiled in 2010 with supporters including Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey.

The high-profile Gijon Film Fest attracts hordes of young filmgoers every year in a weeklong party atmosphere and is a pivotal player in building the local film industry. Fest director Jose Luis Cienfuegos aims to establish a permanent link with El Laboral and the Primeras Tomas program.

The main challenges for building a local film industry include Asturias’ small population (1 million), a nascent pubcaster with limited resources, lack of infrastructure and difficulties in competing with larger neighboring regions with comparable locations and culture, such as Galicia.

Fledgling Asturian pubcaster RTPA has been on the air for a little over two years, but already offers $4,500 support for short films and sponsors the Day in Asturias showcase in the Gijon film fest.

“Asturias has several key advantages, in particular its spectacular locations, but it lacks a strong base of qualified local directors, actors, writers and technicians,” Gona explains. He’s building an ambitious local film and TV production facility that plans to achieve annual revenue of $18 million.

In the meantime, Asturias is yet again likely to enjoy a high-profile box office presence in 2008 with Allen’s “Vicky” opening around the globe.

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