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Spain’s Morena Sets Up L.A. Operation (EXCLUSIVE)

‘Phoenix,’ ‘Warning' on first L.A slate

SAN SEBASTIAN – Highlighting the push into overseas markets of top producers the world over, Morena Films, one of the biggest and best financed of Spanish movie production houses, is setting up offices in Hollywood.

Already an energetic international producer, Morena’s credits include Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” diptych, plus Oliver Stone’s Fidel Castro docu “Comandante,” plus Euro franchise installment “Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia.”

Morena has also produced intricate Europe-Latin co-productions such as Iciar Bollain’s “Even the Rain” and Pablo Trapero’s “White Elephant.”

Morena producer Pedro Uriol, who produced this year’s “The Last Days,” helmed by David and Alex Pastor, the screenwriters of Film District’s Ryan Reynolds-starrer “Selfless,” will oversee Morena’s L.A. operation.

With it, Morena is looking to facilitate its building production drive into elevated genre, Spain’s much sought-after major movie export asset, as well as attract international shoots to Spain.

Uriol will team on a case-by-case basis on early film and TV project development with producer Sergio Aguero (“No Reservations”, “Y tu mama tambien”), a specialist in international and Latin-sourced material.

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First up are “The Warning” and “Phoenix.”

Currently being written by Jorge Guerricaechevarria, Alex de la Iglesia and Daniel Monzon’s regular co-scribe, adapting Spanish-Dutch novelist Paul Pen, the U.S. big city suburbs-set “Warning” has as its central character a twenty-something “Beautiful Mind”-ish numbers wonk.

Abandoning his medication, he discovers a string of murders at his local gas station follows numerical patterns. The next victim will be a 10-year-old child.

Morena is closing with a Spanish director, Uriol said.

Budgeted at $20 million-$25 million, and written and directed by David and Alex Pastor, “Phoenix” weighs in as a futuristicthriller that, typically for the Pastor brothers, raises larger social questions.

It turns on a 30-year-old man who, near death, returns to a time of his life when he was happy. He discovers others like him in the world, and has to decide whether, braving a Butterfly Effect, he uses his knowledge of the future to avert tragedies.

“Phoenix” is a sci-fi thriller about second opportunities, making it more attractive,” said Uriol.

A second-draft screenplay will be ready in a couple of months, he added.

Directors on Morena’s L.A-developed slate may be from Spain, the U.S. or beyond, said Pilar Benito, Morena CEO.

Uriol will also rep projects from Morena’s two other producers, Juan Gordon and Alvaro Longoria.

These include English-language family-skewed “Altamira” written by “Girl With a Pearl Earring” scribe, Olivia Hetreed, and co-produced by Andy Paterson through his London-based Sympathetic Ink, and Spain’s broadcaster-backed Atresmedia Cine.

Recession has slashed and slowed state funding, raising questions about its future, pared back TV coin and reduced B.O. on most Spanish youth-targeted movies.

Part-riposte to Spain’s crisis, Morena’s L.A. beachhead above all reflects gathering sea-change in international markets.

“We’ve always wanted to reach as many markets as we can. It is now easier to finance higher-budget films in English, and tap into international casts known in Spain and the world,” said Benito.

International returns on Morena’s Spanish-language films “aren’t as high as they could be,” said Benito.

Per Uriol, “Unless you have a international reputation director like Pedro Almodovar, 99% of foreign-language films are channeled through arthouse distributors.”

He added: “There’s nothing between this circuit and big mainstream foreign distributors. To reach these companies you have to make films in English with American cast.”

Morena’s aim in L.A. is to tap into talent and potential co-financing and distribution, Benito said. It would mix this with Spanish and European talent and co-financing, said Uriol.

Morena will not give up making films in Spanish, Benito added.

Pushing into English-language production, despite Spain’s crisis, Morena can still bring a lot to the table.

A longtime client of Paris’ Natixis Coficine, it is a specialist in international co-production and Spanish tax-break film financing.

Past co-productions include Benoit Jacquot’s France-Spain link-up “Farewell, My Queen,” David Pinillos’ “Bon Appetit,” with Germany and Switzerland, and “Neon Flesh,” from Paco Cabezas, who has just directed Nicolas Cage in “Tokorev.”

Using tax breaks to date on ten movies, Morena inked a milestone-for-Spain five-pic tax-driven slate financing deal with Spain’s Bankinter in 2012.

Spanish budgets are increasingly contained and make the most of limited resources: “Last Days” cost Euros5 million ($6.6 million), per Uriol.

Spanish talent, especially genre and thriller directors, is increasingly recognized abroad, as are key craft contributors and technicians, post Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible.”

Uriol will also use his L.A. base to strengthen relations with physical heads of studios as an increasing number of big studio movies and indie films are lensing in Spain, lured by Spanish tax break investment.

“As a company, Morena can not only provide efficient physical production services but bring co-production coin to the table,” Uriol said.

L.A.-based, and producing primarily international and Latin-sourced material, Aguero is in post-production at Pantelion on the Luis Guzman, Eugenio Derbez action comedy “Aztec Warrior” and developing “The Red Bands Society” at ABC Studios with Amblin TV and “Gen One” at Universal TV with Ken Sanzel.

The Pastor brothers are repped by CAA’s Stuart Manashil.

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