Catalonia’s co-productions thriving

International players learn a new language

BARCELONA — The star shuffled onto the stage. Flashlights popped. Security guards tensed. A posse of politicos stood reverently. Spain’s minister of culture fanned the star furiously with her fushia abanico.

Was it George Clooney? David Beckham? Hayley Williams?

No. It was Woody Allen in a fisherman’s hat, at July’s presentation of his Spanish shoot in Catalan capital Barcelona.

Toplining Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Allen’s untitled film is a Catalan co-production.

So, too, is Tom Tykwer’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” Brad Anderson’s Woody Harrelson starrer “Transsiberian” and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “His Majesty Minor.” And, for that matter, Mexico B.O. hit “KM 31”; “Liverpool,” from Argentine auteur Lisandro Alonso, London-based Becker’s remake of “An Uncertain Guest”; and Civil War drama “The Anarchist’s Wives.”

The two phenomena — Allen’s lionization and Catalonia’s co-production surge — are connected.

Catalonian cinephilia is historical. In Franco’s last years, Catalans transformed cinemagoing into an act of civil disobedience, driving from Barcelona to France’s Perpignan to catch films, such as Allen’s “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex,” which were still banned in Spain.

That passion for film, and Allen, has endured. Per capita cinema visits — 3.6 last year — is among Europe’s highest. Catalonia produced 72 features last year, more than Mexico (65), Argentina (60) and Sweden (51).

Seventeen features, up from 2005’s 11, were international co-productions, which is a huge leap from just one in 1999. Co-productions, say Catalan producers, offer large lures.

“You spread risk over a larger slate,” says Vertice’s Adolfo Blanco.

In Western Europe, however, after a 2002 hike to 390 co-productions, levels have flattened, dropping to 352 in 2006, according to Screen Digest.

The Catalan co-production boom remains a case apart, reflecting second-phase growth in a young movie industry.

Since 2000, powerful companies have entered film production: Mediapro, which owns broadcaster La Sexta; DeAPlaneta, which controls network Antena 3; and the high-tech holding Avanzit, which bought Barcelona’s Notro and Manga.

Filmax launched chiller Fantastic Factory in 1999, Rodar y Rodar a new talent label, Esta Vivo!, in 2004.

Filmax, DeAPlaneta, Notro and Manga began as distributors. But by 2000, the indie distribution market was contracting. Production –and co-production — offered upside.

From the late ’90s, Catalonia’s government turned from protecting its language to also projecting its culture, building ever-more sophisticated film support systems.

From 2002 to 2005, Catalan pubcaster TVC plowed $16.4 million a year into Catalan pic pre-buys. The Catalan Institute of Cultural Industries (ICIC) raised subsidies, now offering $325,000 per Catalan pic.

For distributors, “Co-production lets you tie down a film you believe in before it’s finished. You probably pay less and count on local subsidies,” says DeAPlaneta exec producer Pau Calpe.

“Producing, rather than distributing, you can tap new income streams,” agrees Luis de Val Jr, who’s teaming with Guillermo del Toro’s Tequila Gang on Andrea Martinez’s offbeat “Insignificantes.”

Catalonia’s Escac film school turns out crop after crop of new filmmakers.

“Catalonia’s got a huge amount of young talent,” says Rodar partner Joaquin Padro. Alumni include “Guest” director Guillem Morales and Juan Antonio Bayona, who helmed “The Orphanage,” a Picturehouse pickup and New Line remake.

Market trends are also accelerating co-production moves.

“The market’s collapsing for mid- and low-budget films,” says Zip partner Jordi Rediu, who co-produces “Wives.”

“Better to have a third of an $8 million movie, which can still open in Spain, than all of a $2 million film without theatrical distribution,” he adds.

“The only viable models right now are sizable international productions,” agrees Coach 14’s Jaume Domenech.

“We’re making very low-budget, talent-driven films and big productions” says Julio Fernandez, chairman of Filmax, which has two large projects, Jaume Balaguero’s poet-muse chiller “Lady Number Thirteen” and the Will Conway-written “The Blind Man of Seville,” both of which are at advanced script stage.

Filmax is producing “The Hairy Tooth Fairy 2” with Patagonik, and plans “a big new film” at Galicia’s Bren CGI studios.

“Given B.O. trends, it’s increasingly necessary to make bigger films. These require more resources, so it’s better to partner,” says Jaume Roures, founder of Mediapro, which co-produces Allen and “Majesty Minor.”

And what of Catalan co-productions’ future?

Oscars and B.O. for “Pan’s Labyrinth” have given a huge fillip to Spanish-language auteur genre movies. Sold by Paris-based Coach 14, Iris Star’s sister company, “King of the Hill” was acquired by TWC at Toronto.

Filmax bets on “large, longterm projects” made through “strong alliances with foreign companies,” says Fernandez. Padro posits a scenario where international co-productions lense or post in Barcelona. “Budgets here are very manageable,” he says.

Catalan film authorities are also pushing co-production. At Cannes, the ICIC inked collaboration accords with Baden Wuerttemberg and Rhone-Alpes. And at Sitges, it will host the European Regional Film Co-Production Meetings.

Soon, Woody Allen might not be the only famed foreigner lensing the cityscape splendors of Barcelona.

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