San Sebastian sees ups and downs

Despite succsessful run, Spain market in doubt

SAN SEBASTIAN — This year’s San Sebastian Film Festival, the largest in the Spanish-speaking world, was one of contrasts.

Attendance boomed: even micro sidebar pics attracted SRO auds at the fest, which ran Sept. 20-29. Massive crowds blocked streets around the Maria Cristina Hotel for a glimpse of Donostia Prize winner Richard Gere.

Spanish film boards proudly paraded increased support for their regional industries.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 24, Abaco, Spain’s biggest exhibition circuit, went bust, blaming piracy. Spanish movie attendance is down 19% vs. last year, Fapae producers org confirmed the same day.

Launching at San Sebastian, Avei, a DVD distributors lobby, estimated illegal Internet downloads in Spain at around 200 million in 2007. Spain may well be Western Europe’s piracy champ. The consequences, and the potential of online distribution, both as opportunity and threat, dominated festival industry news.

Filmax chairman Julio Fernandez announced the creation of an online film and music megastore, and said Filmax will continue downscaling physical film distribution in Spain.

Production companies are tying down the few Spanish directors, as well as international auteurs, who still command audiences, especially abroad.

At a swell press dinner, Mediapro’s Jaume Roures, co-producer of Woody Allen’s Spanish shoot, said he was in talks with Allen to co-produce two films, including one in Europe.

But — another festival irony — Spain’s market malaise may be San Sebastian’s gain. Watching pirated movies and U.S. series on a PC can be a lonely business; the San Sebastian fest underscored Spaniards’ deep craving for direct contact with film artists. As the music biz looks to live entertainment for some sort of future, San Sebastian’s the nearest thing Spain offers, in film terms, to a rock concert.

As for the films themselves, David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” and “Buddha Collapsed out of Shame,” from 19-year-old Iranian Hana Makhmalbaf, were front-runners for the Golden Shell awards.

Of Spanish and newer competition films, Iciar Bollain’s “Mataharis” and Gracia Querejeta’s “Seven Billiards Tables” played to upbeat response. Manuel Poirier’s slow-building “La Maison” split reactions.

In the Zabaltegi sidebar, Nadine Labaki’s Lebanese beauty salon-set “Caramel” was favored by youths while Tom Fernandez’s Northern Spain-set coming-of-ager “Suso’s Tower” proved a crix and crowd-pleaser. Israeli war pic “Foul Gesture” was another buzz title.

But it was Gere, followed by Samuel L. Jackson — mobbed by photogs at a press conference — Lou Reed and Liv Ullman who grabbed the media stage. Demi Moore was expected to attend the fest closing ceremony.

San Sebastian will attempt to continue to hike its star quotient, says fest director Mikel Olaciregui. How that helps Spain’s beleaguered local industry is another question.

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