Catalonia spends big on blockbusters

Prolific regional film force invests more coin per pic

BARCELONA — It is 1808. Along the jagged limestone sierra outside Barcelona, Bruc, a Catalan drummer lad, squints cautiously up at Montserrat’s cliffs. Napoleon Bonaparte has dispatched thousands of troops to capture him.

Muddied, bloodied, with a huge head bandage, he almost single-handedly makes the might of Napoleon’s army taste its first defeat.

Feel familiar? It should.

“It’s a Napoleonic ‘First Blood,'” says Edmon Roch, producer of “Bruc.” It’s also much more.

Budgeted at E5.5 million ($7.9 million), “Bruc” is one of a score of productions in the $5 million-$22 million range, well above Spain’s average $2 million pic cost.

Size now matters in Catalonia. Barcelona-based Catalan movie production is growing fast, and the rising budgets say a lot about the region’s ambitions.

Thinking bigger, Catalonia may be making a virtue out of necessity. It’s already Southern Europe’s largest regional film force. Its Catalan Institute of Cultural Industries (ICIC) sunk $26.8 million worth of subsidies into its film industry last year. In 2008, Catalonia produced 74 features, nearly as many as the whole of Scandinavia. Spain produced 173.

“We’ve got to escape the vicious circle of small-budget films and 173 productions a year,” insists Mediapro founder Jaume Roures.

ICIC’s now pushing into bigger, more mainstream fare. “State subsidies must have social returns,” ICIC audiovisual department director Ferran Tomas says, citing such goals as international festival selection.

Catalonia indeed boasts a vibrant tradition of left-of-field minimalists, exploring documentary and fiction frontiers: Isaki Lacuesta’s latest, “The Damned,” is one of San Sebastian’s most-awaited titles; Marc Recha’s “Petit Indi” and Luis Minarro’s “Blow Horn” played Locarno.

However, Tomas argues, if a government puts a lot of the citizens’ money into a film, that film should benefit a lot of citizens. Since 2008, ICIC and Catalan pubcaster TV3 have plowed $2.4 million per pic into four higher-bracket Catalan-language projects: “Bruc,” “Eva,” “Heroes” and “Pa negre.”

“Without the new subsidy system, ‘Pa’ wouldn’t have been viable,” admits Massa d’Or producer Lluis Ferrando.

“Spanish broadcasters already want to invest in bigger films that can travel,” Rodar y Rodar’s Joaquin Padro adds.

Catalonia’s big-pic state push coincides with changing production parameters.

“New, young, risk-taking producers are breaking through in Catalonia,” says “Heroes” producer Luis de Val Jr.

These producers have “attended multiple international markets, are opening up filmmaking to historical epics, futuristic dramas, fresh comedies — and exploring financing sources beyond subsidies and TV coin,” agrees David Matamoros, who’s launching Zentropa Intl. Spain.

Catalonia’s seeing a production makeover: From financing-driven models, where movies’ budgets are dictated by available coin, to market-driven structures, where producers look for return on investment.

“‘Magic Journey to Africa’ isn’t made to get subsidies. Instead of incentives, we have investors,” says the film’s director, Jordi Llompart, who estimates 60% of “Journey’s” revenues will be Stateside.

International films don’t have to be costly. Versus’ Adrian Guerra brought Ryan Reynolds to shoot four weeks in Barcelona, fully financing “Buried” for $2.9 million.

But producers see an upside to bigger budgets: “To compete with Americans, you have to spend the same sort of money,” “Eva” producer Sergi Casamitjana says. “Higher budgets bring bigger-name thesps, longer schedules.”

Many of Catalonia’s more ambitious productions have international markets: Mediapro is co-producing and fully financing Woody Allen’s next three films.

Above all, there’s an avid market — producers, sales agents and auds — for Catalan genre pics, both its hallmark upscale chillers (“The Orphanage”) and beyond: StudioCanal has international on “Bruc”; Wild Bunch is negotiating “Eva”; Filmax’s “Magic Journey” and “REC2” have nearly sold out worldwide.

“International’s opened up. It’s not so difficult to tap into,” Guerra argues.

According to “Orphanage” producer Padro, “Hollywood’s studios and big European players — Pathe, Wild Bunch — want to invest in genre films made from Spain or with Spanish talent.” 

Rodar has “Julia’s Eyes” set up at Focus Features Intl., with Guillermo del Toro as a producer and Universal Pictures Intl. taking France, Spain and Latin America.

“Years ago, we said we’d make horror films; nobody believed us. Now they believe us. That allows us to raise the budget on genre pics,” says Filmax’s Julio Fernandez.

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