SAN SEBASTIAN– Founded in 1999 by Alvaro Longoria, Juan Gordon and Lucrecia Botin, Morena Films is now a strapping 15, celebrating its fifteenth anni with vigorous international expansion and early moves into TV production.
As Spain – indeed, the world’s – indie film sector seeks ways to maintain a sustainable business model, Morena is a pointing to possible solutions.
Its most dramatic moves come last year and this. Last September, Morena opened up offices in Los Angeles, headed up by one of its three longtime producers, Pedro Uriol.
Now one year later, it has launched the just-announced Mare Nostrum Productions, a Paris production joint venture created with Alexandra Lebret, the highly-connected managing director of the European Producers Club, which is also based out of the French capital.
In L.A., Chris Sparling- writer of Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees,” with Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts, and Rodrigo Cortes’ “Buried,” with Ryan Reynolds – has delivered a final English-language version of “The Warning,” working from an original screenplay by Jorge Guerricaecheverria (“Day of the Beast,” “The Oxford Murders,” “El Niño”). A Spanish elevated genre director is soon to be attached, Uriol said.
Morena is also moving into TV production, focusing on cable and premium content, he added.
Mare Nostrum is co-producing two Morena productions; Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” a battling mother drama starring and co-produced by Penelope Cruz; “Altamira,” an English-language family period drama with a soon-to-be announced international cast.
But, Lebret stressed, Mare Nostrum will also produce movies beyond Morena co-productions.
L.A. offices and a Paris joint venture give Morena a production base in the world’s two most important movie production film-sales hubs.
Setting up in Los Angeles and Paris reps part-riposte to Spain’s domestic film market slump. Buffeted by a perfect storm – piracy, economic crisis, an 8%-21% cinema ticket sales tax hike in 2012- gross box office in Spain plunged 16% in 2013 to €508 million, per Rentrak, the worst result since 1999. Tabbed at 3% of broadcasters’ revenues, compulsory private-sector TV investment in local films has roughly halved as TV advertising plunged 53% from 2007 to 2013’s €1.65 million ($2.3 billion).
“Last year, we could see that Spain’s market was being reduced to ashes. We weren’t going to die with it,” said Gordon.
“We want to be a truly independent international producer, not a Spanish one. The crisis has accelerated this transformation,” argues Longoria.
International – the eagerness to work with overseas partners and make films for foreign markets – has, however, always been in Morena’s ADN: One of its very first productions was 2000’s Gordon-produced “One of the Hollywood Ten,” starring Jeff Goldblum as blacklisted Hollywood writer Herbert J. Biberman, making “Salt of the Earth.” By 2003, it was producing Oliver Stone’s Fidel Castro doc “Comandante.” Produced with Laura Bickford, Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” and ”Che: Part II” won Benicio del Toro a best actor award at the Cannes Festival in 2008.
Making over 40 features, documentaries, animated works and TV series since 1999, Morena has worked with some of Spain’s top-echelon filmmakers – Iciar Bollain (“Even the Rain,” a at Berlin), Carlos Saura (“Iberia”), Julio Medem (“Room in Rome”) and Javier Bardem, the producer on Alvaro Longoria’s directorial debut, Goya-winning docu “Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony.” It saw one of its productions, Daniel Monzon’s “Cell 211” go boffo at the Spanish box office, grossing €13.1 million ($17.3 million)
But Morena has also produced Stone on what proved a docu trilogy, 2003’s “Comandante” and “Persona Non Grata” and 2004’s “Looking For Fidel,” worked not only with Soderbergh, but also Ken Loach scribe Paul Laverty, writer of “Cargo” and co-writer of “Even the Rain,” as well as Latin America directors from the good and great (Arturo Ripstein, on 2007’s “La carnaval de Sodoma”) to leaders of a new generation such as Pablo Trapero (“White Elephant,” a 2012 Cannes Un Certain Regard entry) and rising talents: For example, Uruguay’s Rodrigo Pla, with whom Morena made “The Zone.”
Both docu-features, neither of Longoria’s directorial outings to date turns on Spain: “Sons of the Clouds” portrays and analyzes the fate of the Sahwari people, living in refugee camps in Algeria, pawns of post-cold war real politik; “Korean Dream,” now in post, tackles how people really live in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one of the last bastions of pure-play communism.
Why the internationalization? The key to Morena’s longevity, and its success, is “the people, the people, and the people,” says Gordon. That’s also true about its internationalization.
Gordon is an alum of USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program, Longoria studied business administration at Boston U and NYU’s Stern School of Business; Managing director Pilar Benito worked in the media sector for U.S. accounting firm Arthur Andersen, before joining Morena in 2002.
Morena’s new geographical spread also reflects generational change. Nearly 20 years ago, when Gordon began working in the Spanish film industry, “there were few international producers, but nowadays you can find easily fifteen companies which have daily dealing with international markets.”
The move also makes commercial sense. “There came a time when we realized that it was better to make a film with a limited public in every country that a film with a big public in just one market,” Longoria said.
He added: “Diversification into France and the U.S. is a prolongation of our initial objective: Morena always wanted to make films which had an international appeal.”
The U.S. and France moves look set to take Morena to another level. Problems with distributing in France have driven companies out of the sector or out of business.
But at €1.232 billion ($1.619 billion), France’s B.O. is 140% larger than Spain’s, per Media & Technology Digest. In 2013, in their worst year in a decade, French movies’ market share stood at 33.3%, Spain’s at 14%, in a pretty well par performance.
Said Gordon: “Rather than consider the U.S. and France as potential markets we thought: ‘Let’s become a producer in French and American films.’”
“In France, there’s an opportunity not only to co-produce, but to access a French public, funding and talent,” added Benito.
Morena Films still has to walk its new international walk. In the U.S., on “The Warning,” Morena Films aims to announce cast, sales agent and financing this fall, Uriol said. Movie will be shot in North America.
It also has in development with one of the Hollywood studios a TV series spin-off from sci-fi feature thriller “The Last Days”, written and directed by the Pastor brothers, with whom Uriol is also putting together ‘Phoenix’ a sci-fi thriller feature in the vein of “Looper.”
“Morena can only grow as a company internationally by entering strong mature markets which still have growth potential, and by entering other businesses, especially television, which is booming in the U.S. market and is open to experienced feature films producers.” Uriol commented.
In film, Morena aims to make international commercial cinema out of North America combining European and American talent and financing, he said.
“It’s not the same to originate, develop and finance a film out of Europe by merely translating the script into English and adding an American actor, as to shoot American stories in America, using American talent (actors and writers) and a top sales agent, which is crucial for the packaging and financing of this kind of international commercial films, and the key,” he added.
A strong sales agent reassures actors’ agents and foreign distributors that a project will actually get made, Uriol argued.
Mare Nostrum will have three main production lines, said Lebret: French local movies, made on more-contained budgets than some French films targeting France auds; European productions; and “big international productions,” drawing on European financing sources and production partners.
In terms of production levels, Lebret said she would like Mare Nostrum to produce about three-to-four European productions, one local and one international movie a year.
She will continue as EPC managing director.
Morena’s international double move leaves it in an enticing place. It hasn’t given up on Spain, or Spanish productions. Two, both produced by Gordon, are “No Crook No Crime” – – now in pre-production and helmed by Daniel Calparsoro (“Combustion”), from a Guerricaechevarria screenplay – and relationship dramedy ”Sheep Won’t Miss the Train.”
It will continue to do what it does best. “The key to our longevity and sustainability comes from management and from control over producers,” said Gordon, himself a producer.
He added: “That’s not only about budgets and overheads but having control over a company’s numbers, its business plan, what is going to happen to a company over the next three years, and also running all scenarios for a film, including its failure.”
A longtime client of Paris’ Natixis Coficine, Morena is a specialist in international co-production – diminishing dependence on a decimated Spanish market – plus Spanish tax-break film financing.
Benito cites “financial and management control of films” as one of Morena’s competitive advantages. Kicking in 2008, and used on 13 films to date, Spanish AIE tax schemes have allowed Morena to up the ante not so much on the number of films produced as production budgets on select features, without increasing financial exposure.
Spanish tax breaks in practice give investors – usually for Morena, high-net-worth individuals or corporations – an around 12%-15% break on films shot on Spain’s mainland, 30%-34% for Canary Islands-based investors on spend in the Canary Islands, Benito said.
Morena will now be able to ever more reduce its dependency on Spain. Sourcing tax break finance, as well as regional funding and TV equity finance, “Altamira” will tap just 45% of finance from Spain, “The Warning” most probably far less, said Benito.
And Morena is already ringing its options. “Ma Ma” has shot in Spanish in Spain, “Altamira” will be made in English in Spain, “The Warning” in English in the U.S.
Said Benito: “Something we’ve thought through a lot is: What do we know we can do? We know how to make films, not Spanish films but films. We’ve made films in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Switzerland, Germany, the U.K.. Our expertise is making films anywhere.”
MORENA PRODUCTIONS: MORE DETAILS
“ALTAMIRA” Rolling late September, a family-skewing historical drama, based on true events, about the 1879 discovery of stunning pre-historic paintings in Spain’s Altamira Cave, from a screenplay by “Girl With a Pearl Earring” scribe, Olivia Hetreed. Longoria produces, together with Botin, Lebret and London-based Sympathetic Ink’s Andy Paterson, the producer of “Girl.” A director and international cast will be confirmed shortly.
“THE KOREAN DREAM” Longoria’s second movie as a director, a docu-feature about propaganda in North Korea, produced by Morena, Mare Nostrum Productions in France, and Germany’s Elemag Pictures. United Talent Agency represents the project for the U.S. Longoria and Met Film Productions’ Al Morrow presented first images of “The Korean Dream” at a pitching session held at Toronto’s Hot Docs docu forum in late April.
“MA, MA” Now in post, and repping Penelope Cruz’s first venture into production, “Ma Ma” is helmed by Julio Medem, one of Spain’s most foremost auteurs (“Vacas,” “Lovers of the Arctic Circle,” “Sex and Lucia”). In it, Cruz plays Magda, a gutsy, vital mother who battles to overcome tragedy. Cruz, Medem Longoria and Lebret produce, in association with France’s Backup Media Group. CAA represents U.S. rights. Seville International, the boutique sales arm of eOne Films International, sold the film – and well – at Cannes where Cruz made a flying visit to talk up the motherhood drama with distributors.
“NO CROOK NO CRIME” One rainy morning, six armed men pull a job at a bank. But what appears a quick in-and-out heist hides a hidden agenda. The Daniel Calparsoro-directed bank heist suspenser rolls Oct. 27. Morena, Vaca Films, a partner on “Cell 211” and “Invader,” produce out of Spain with Telecinco Cinema.
“SHEEP WON’T MISS THE TRAIN” An upbeat, ensemble relationship dramedy centering on two sisters’ relationships with friends and family and directed by Spain’s Alvaro Fernandez-Armero (“It’s All Lies,” “Blinkers”). Boasting a strong Spanish cast, led by Inma Cuesta and Candela Peña.
“THE WARNING” Morena’s flagship U.S. project. After the tragic killing of his best friend at a robbery in a gas station, a thirty-something maths genius discovers that there were other murders in the same place following the same numerical pattern. The next victim, he deduces, will be an unknown 9 year-old child.
“I’m very happy about the screenplay’s reception, Uriol said, “and also with the results of the strategy of optioning material in Spain, working it with a Spanish screenwriter, then finding a top-echelon American writer to pen the adaptation to the American market.”
1999: Founder-partners Alvaro Longoria, Juan Gordon and Lucrecia Botin create Morena Films, a Madrid-based film production company. Pedro Uriol joins soon afterwards.
2001: August 1, 2001 Distributed by Sony Pictures in Spain, Morena’s first release, via Hispano Fox Films, Jorge Iglesias’ youth comedy “Fish People,” grosses €2.3 million ($3.0 million). “It was a hit, we partnered with Fox: So we started with a bang,” Longoria recalled.
2002-04 In a first international breakthrough, Morena produces three Oliver Stone non-fiction features: “Comandante,” “Persona Non Grata,” part of HBO series “America Undercover” chronicling Stone’s attempts to interview Yasser Arafat on the Palestine-Israel conflict; and 2004’s “Looking For Fidel,” where Stone takes a small crew back to Cuba to interrogate Castro on his execution of three Cubans, who hijacked a ferry.
2002: “Comandante” attracts Wild Bunch, a newly-formed maverick sales agent set up by former Studiocanal execs, which comes on to rep international sales. Wild Bunch has gone on to sell, co-produce, exec produce or distribute in France key Morena titles: the Oliver Stone docu trio, “Che, “Che: Part II,” “Even the Rain,” “Room in Rome,” “White Elephant,” and “The Last Days,” among other titles. “’Comandante’ allowed us to work with Oliver Stone, move into big-budget theatrical docu-features, which weren’t being made at that time in Spain, and sell worldwide, with Wild Bunch as a sales agent,” Benito commented.
2007: “The Appeared,” from Paco Cabezas, who went on to direct Nicolas Cage in “Rage,” a novel attempt by Morena to set a ghoul chiller against the background of Argentina’s Dirty War.
2008: Starring Benicio del Toro, the Laura Bickford lead-produced “Che” and “Che Part II,” world premieres in competition at Cannes. Morena lead produced in Spain. For Benito, “with ‘Che,’ we gained know-how on how to structure, finance and organize the shoot of a big international production, bringing a huge quantity of talent to Spain.”
2009: Bowing Nov. 6, and written by Jorge Guerricaecheverria, Daniel Monzon’s “Cell 2011” becomes Morena’s first sleeper, breaking out to €13.1 million ($17.3 million) in Spain. Paris-based Films Distribution handled world sales. “The film had audience, critical and international recognition, its sales among our best ever,” per Benito.
2010: From a screenplay by Paul Laverty, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Luis Tosar, “Even the Rain,” produced by Morena, Mexico’s Alebrije Cine y TV (“Instructions Not Included”) and France’s Mandarin Films (“Little Nicolas,” “The New Girlfriend,” “Potiche”) ticks many right boxes, selling well for Wild Bunch, playing Toronto, winning Berlin’s Panorama Audience Award and a Mexican Academy Silver Ariel for Best Latin-American Film, and grossing €3.9 million ($5.1 million) in Spain.
2012: Pablo Trapero’s “White Elephant,” toplining Ricardo Darin and Dardenne brothers regular Jeremy Renier, another flagship Europe-Latin American co-production.
2013: Produced by Javier Bardem, producer-turned-director Alvaro Longoria’s “Sons of the Clouds: the Last Colony” wins the Spanish Academy’s Best Documentary Goya.
2013: Uriol re-locates to Los Angeles to head up Morena Films offices there.
2014: Seville Int’l., the boutique sales arm of eOne Films, kicks in sales on Julio Medem’s “Ma Ma,” presented at Cannes by star and co-producer Penelope Cruz.
Sept. 2014: Morena announces Mare Nostrum Productions, a joint production venture with Alexandra Lebret, based out of Paris.