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Javier Fesser’s ‘Champions’ Chosen as Spain’s Oscar Submission

The candidate is a breakout blockbuster which maintains Spain’s great tradition of social-issue movies

MADRID — Spain’s biggest national box office hit of the year, “Campeones” (Champions), has been selected by the Spain’s Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences as the country’s submission for a foreign-language Academy Award.

Grossing €18.5 million ($$21.4 million) in Spain for Universal Pictures Intl. Spain, “Campeones” beat out two other contenders in a submission shortlist: Ashgar Farhadi’s Cannes Festival opening film “Everybody Knows,” starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz,  which was shot in Spain and produced out of Spain, like “Champions,” by Spain’s Morena Films; and Jon Garaño and Aitor Arregi “Handía,” a flagship production of the building Basque cinema which won a Special Jury Prize at last September’s San Sebastian festival and then 10 Goya Academy Awards this January.

On paper, “Campeones” could have disappeared without trace at the Spanish box office, taking a difficult subject – intellectual discapacity – and rolling it into a drama-comedy about a top-notch assistant coach in Spain’s top ACB basketball league who has reached the end of his emotional tether. Brawling with the head coach, getting drunk, crashing his car, he ends up in court, where he is sentenced to social work: Teaching a team with varying intelectual disabilities to play basketball. The sentence proves his salvation.

What “Campeones” has going for it, however, is lead Javier Gutiérrez, maybe Spain’s biggest current marquee draw after turns in “Marshland” and Movistar + hit series “Spanish Shame” and a 2018 Spanish Academy Goya for “The Motive,” and Fesser’s career-long knack for choral comedy, incorrigible individuals, and movies which create large empathy with supposed social outsiders, generating often wide audience appeal: His “Mortadelo & Filemon: The Big Adventure,” for instance, garnered €22.9 million ($25.0 million) in Spain in 2003.

Played by actors with mental disabilities, the basketball team members come across as far more emotionally balanced and candid and far-less bloody-minded than the supposedly “normal” figures in the film.

“Campeones” has generated a spin-off – the doc-feature, ‘Ni distintos ni diferentes: Campeones,’ from Morena Films producer partner Alvaro Longoria, also a Goya-prized documentary filmmaker (“Sons of the Clouds,” “The Propaganda Game”), which will world premiere at this month’s San Sebastian Film Festival.

Produced by Morena Films (“Altamira,” “Cell 211,” “Comandante”), Luis Manso at Fesser’s Películas Pendleton, and Telefonica pay TV division Movistar + (“Tadeo Jones 2,” “Dragonkeeper”) and handled by Latido Films for international distribution, “Champions” has also sold strongly, including to prestige partners such as Jean Labadie’s Le Pacte for France. Longoria, a producer on “Champions,” said before leaving for Toronto Festival today that, if “Champions” were chosen as Spain’s Oscar entry this year, he hoped its submission would help snag a sale to the U.S., where rights remain open.

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