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Spain’s buying bonanza may be over.

Since 1998, powered by new digital pay TV operators, Spanish indie distribution took up part of the buying slack from Asia, then Germany.

No more, it seems.

Nearly all Spanish distribs say they will be pulling back on pickups at Cannes. And looking to pay less. Some distribs are simply pulling away from distribution.

The reason is clear: TV.

Since January pay TV operators Sogecable and Telefonica-owned satcaster Via Digital slowed acquisitions radically and began to re-negotiate prices — even before they announced a merger on May 8.

Hit by slumping advertising, commercial nets Antena 3 and Tele 5 also claim full inventories. Antena 3 has bought sparingly this year; Telecinco “will not be cherry-picking on the open market,” says head of acquisitions Ghislain Barrois.

Several buyers not attending

The consequences are being felt through the industry. Several acquisition toppers will not even be attending Cannes. According to Antonio Llorens, CEO of Spain’s top indie distrib Lauren Films, his company will not be buying pics here.

Sogepaq is unlikely to step up to the plate: It “will be extremely cautious and very selective: we have enough in the pipelines for the next months,” says Sogepaq’s Jacques Roldan.

Aurum will have seen upside from its release of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” but nothing suggests it will be going on a shopping spree.

The arthouse market doesn’t look any better. Spain’s main arthouse distrib, Alta Films, will be buying “less than ever,” says acquisitions head Enrique Gonzalez Kuhn.

“In immediate terms, pay TV isn’t buying. When the single platform is created it will buy little for low prices,” he adds. Alta plans to concentrate on pic production and exhibition.

Many distribution issues remain unresolved, such as when nets will need to renew inventories, or when and under what circumstances Spanish or E.U. competition authorities will approve the Sogecable-Via pay TV merger.

Spain’s distribution woes reflect long-term trends, seen all over continental Europe, such as the increasing reluctance of free TV nets to pay high prices for movies, even top titles, and the crisis in digital TV.

“The merger is especially bad news for distributors of indie product,” says Llorens. Few doubt that.

In 2001, Sogecable became the first European digital TV operator to turn a net profit. One reason: powerful volume deals for films with six majors. Sogecable needs studio product. After a merger, Sogecable-Via will be obliged by local quota rulings to maintain or even increase its volume of investment in Spanish movies. Logic has it that acquisition-budget squeezing will most affect foreign indie fare pickups, particularly midrange pics.

But there is some silver lining the dark clouds. A few distribs are bucking the trend. “Inventories will eventually need to be renewed,” says Filmax head of acquisitions Jorge Tuca, who says Filmax will more or less maintain its normal level of buys at Cannes.

Top Spanish production house Lolafilms is back buying foreign pics for Spain. After a year concentrating on production, “Lola will be looking for five or six films a year to complement our production lineup,” Lola CEO Andres Vicente Gomez tells Variety.

Nonetheless, Spanish distribs have to put their lack of money where their mouths are, by not buying movies at Cannes, or buying at the pre-digital TV boom rate of 4.5% of a film’s budget. Whether they will achieve this remains to be seen.