Big-Budget Gambles Pay Off for Telecinco Cinema

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Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Few movie companies in Europe have done more over the past decade to boost the high end of their national movie industries than Telecinco Cinema, the film production arm of Mediaset Espana, Spain’s biggest broadcast network group, which turns 15 this year.

Its top 10 movies, all co-produced with Spanish producers, have grossed nearly $600 million worldwide. They include Spain’s No. 1 B.O. title in 2012, Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible” ($54.5 million), and 2014’s chart-topper, “Spanish Affair” ($77.5 million), which grossed four times its nearest Hollywood rival, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ($17.5 million) and helped Spanish films to a 24% domestic market share, their biggest since 1977.

Telecinco Cinema’s biggest hits point to the capacity of film companies outside the U.S. to make movies that can impact the international box office: “The Impossible” grossed $180 million worldwide, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” snagged $38 million (and three Academy Awards) in the U.S.

How and why Telecinco Cinema has emerged as a leader, however, is another matter.

“We don’t produce (films) out of vocation or as a business,” says Paolo Vasile, Mediaset Espana CEO. But it does out of necessity: Since, 1999, ME has been obliged by law to invest part of its annual revenues, currently 3%, in national film production.

Crucially, Telecinco Cinema has co-produced its movies with Spain’s indie sector, rather than simply pre-buying domestic free-to-air TV rights.

“We are producers, not just financiers,” Telecinco Cinema director general Alvaro Augustin says, adding that Telecinco Cinema wants to have input on the films it invests in. Co-producing with indie Spanish producers, Telecinco Cinema takes part of a film’s domestic B.O. in Spain and international sales. That has encouraged Telecinco to back its films’ theatrical bows to the hilt.

In 2006, having cut its teeth co-producing a string of more modestly budgeted comedies, Telecinco Cinema confronted its first big production, in Spanish terms at least: “Alatriste,” a 17th century historical epic based on a Spanish bestseller, starring Viggo Mortensen as a swashbuckling Spanish army captain.
“It was clearly an event film on its own merits,” says Ghislain Barrois, Telecinco Cinema CEO.

To promote its theatrical release in Spain, Telecinco Cinema parent Mediaset Espana enrolled in what Vasile calls “circular TV.” Broken in by “Big Brother,” which it aired since 2000, this sees marketing permeate a whole schedule: Specials, inhouse commercials, newscasts, talk shows, interstitials, etc. Alatriste’s broad-brimmed hat festooned a logo of Telecinco, the company’s main channel.

“The promotion we threw behind ‘Alatriste’ was colossal, emblematic, a case model,” says Barrois. It also helped power “Alatriste” to $21.2 million, then making it the fifth highest-grossing Spanish film ever.
With “Alatriste,” an industry model was born: Invest in films as co-production partners; have your parent network market the hell out of the biggest potential titles. Used by likeminded Spanish rival Atresmedia Cine, and now adopted with variations — in Argentina, for instance — the model is now powering up local industries in much of the world.

Marketing is hardly Telecinco Cinema’s whole story, however. “If a film is liked, it can take more or less time,” says Vasile, “but in the end it will triumph.”

Telecinco Cinema hallmark hits are often produced by young independent Spanish producers: 40something, cosmopolitan, artistically ambitious — think Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora,” or “Regression” from Mod Producciones. As Augustin observes, many, including himself, Barrois, Mod’s Fernando Bovaira and Apache’s Enrique Lopez-Lavigne, have cut their career teeth working at Spanish paybox Canal Plus.

“There is a generation of producers that has no boundaries, no prejudices, and has allowed a new generation of directors to break through,” Barrois says.

Telecinco Cinema has been highly competitive. The combined budget of Telecinco Cinema’s 10 biggest hits, which made about $590 million worldwide in theatrical box office alone, is roughly $168 million, Barrois says.

But it is not a popcorn player: Its films have won three Oscars, three Baftas and 62 Goyas, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars. Courted by Hollywood and Spanish exhibition chains alike, Telecinco Cinema’s tony fare appeals to a broader sophisticated demography — think “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Agora” and Bayona’s mother-son trilogy of “The Orphanage,” “The Impossible” and now “A Monster Calls” — that Hollywood no longer so much serves.

What Spain now needs is for other communications groups or state-backed broadcasters to back Spanish cinema with the punch that Telecinco Cinema has done, making a virtue out of necessity.