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ECAM’s Incubator Shapes Up as Top Spanish Development Powerhouse

Of projects, ‘Josefina’ attaches Emma Suárez, ‘Innocence’ rolls early August

MADRID — Multi-prized Spanish actress Emma Suárez, star of Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta,” is attached to topline “Josefina,” a co-production between Madrid’s White Leaf Producciones and Berlin’s One Two Films, whose recent films include Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale” and Isabel Coixet’s “The Bookshop.”

A romantic drama-comedy to be directed by Spanish short filmmaker Javier Marco (“One,” “The Dress,” “Classmate”), “Josefina” turns on 50-year-old Juan, a prison officer attracted to Berta, the mother of one of the inmates, who passes himself off as another parent visiting the prison in order to see his incarcerated daughter, Josefina.

Josefina’s presence, however fictitious, facilitates a relationship between two people with grave emotional deficiencies, “lending an optimism, and moments of near surrealism and comedy to the film,” screenwriter Belén Sánchez-Arévalo said at the inaugural The Incubator, a development program launched this year by the ECAM Madrid Film School.

Suárez, also the star of Michel Franco’s “April’s Daughter,” will play Berta. Also attached are Manolo Solo (“The Fury of a Patient Man”) and Mabel Ribera (“The Sea Inside”), the latter as one of Berta’s neighbors. White Leaf producer Sergy Moreno is now negotiating with an internationally renown actor to play the male lead role on the second-chance dramedy.

In further market developments on a second Incubator project, Catalan pubcaster TV3 has acquired regional free-to-air TV rights to “Innocence,” a female rights-of-passage youth drama directed by Lucia Alemany, an alum of the Escac, Barcelona’s best-known film school.

Produced by Lina Badenes at Turanga Films (“Que baje Díos y lo vea”) and Belén Sánchez, a producer on Meritxell Colell’s Berlin Forum and Cannes Atelier-selected “Facing the Wind,” “Innocence,” scheduled to shoot Aug. 6, has also tapped co-production finance and a pre-buy from Valencia’s new regional pubcaster À Punt. Telefonica’s Movistar + has acquired Spanish pay TV rights. The producers will announce key cast shortly, said Sánchez.

Targeting first or second features from directors anywhere in Spain, not just ECAM alums, the selection at The Incubator, which wrapped its first course July 6, takes in five projects.

Of other titles, presented at Buenos Aires’ Blood Window in November, David Casademunt’s buzzed-up “The Beast,” produced by Casademunt’s Fitzcarraldo Films and Laura Rubirola (Tàndem Entertainment), unspools at a benighted shack in the middle of nowhere: There, a kid and his crazed mother spy a chilling presence watching them from the horizon; it edges every day a little closer.

An auteur genre film – Casademunt cited M. Night Shyamalan and “The Orphanage” as influences – “The Beast” is “a film about the demons we have inside, how these demons transform us into defective adults,” he commented.

Selected for May’s first Focus CoPro, hosted by Cannes’ Short Film Corner and showcasing five first features by highly promising shorts dirctors,“The Garcías,” described as a documentary comedy, turns on an elderly woman who discovers a cache of home videos and then challenges her grandson – the film’s director Paco Nicolás – to use them to recreate the past: A family birthday way back in 1980, during happier times for its attendees.

“‘The Garcías’ explores generational issues, and asks why this family seems so happy in 1980 and if it’s really possible to represent the past,” Nicolás commented at ECAM.

Drinking deep from the well of Spain’s great Berlanga-Azcona film comedy tradition and more immediately from movies such as Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” said producer Jaime Gona, “Old Man in Love” (“El Profesor”) is Daniel Castro’s second feature after “Ilusión,” a Zonazine film and screenplay and Special Young Jury winner at 2013’s Malaga Spanish Film Festival.

“Old Man in Love” turns on an elderly senior university professor in Navarre, Spain, who, after a crimped academic career, travels to Latin America to meet “Claudia,” a young swimsuit model and online date who, remarkably, has apparently taken a shine to him. There’s a kind of pathetic nobility in the professor’s love, even if “Claudia” is a hoax.

These three projects are just initiating financing. Gona will attend early July’s Bogotá Audiovisual Market (BAM) to present “Old Man in Love”; “The Beast” will have a screenplay by the end of July and begin its financing phase in September, Rubirola commented. Their financing success will be determined over the next year.

That said, as it closes its doors on its first year’s course, the ECAM’s Incubator says a lot about the importance and key facets of the development process, plus Spanish filmmaking at large. Here are 10 takeaways:

1.WHY INTERNATIONAL FILM PRODUCTION NEEDS DEVELOPMENT MORE THAN EVER

“The Incubator’s success is not necessarily linked with the success of projects, but also with films not getting made,” said ECAM director Gonzalo Salazar-Simpson.

Launched in March, The Incubator’s first course comes as arthouse-crossover movie industries in Europe, and indeed Latin America, face two fundamental challenges. Experts debate peak TV, movie sales agents and distributors lament peak cinema. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of films produced in the E.U. rose by 66.7% from 1,044 movies to 1,741. Over the same period, despite a financing crisis, Spanish production spiked 47.7% from 172 to 254 features, according to the Marché du Film’s 2018 World Film Market Trends. Figures for Europe and Spain last year suggest, that for the first time in years, theatrical feature film production may have actually checked, down to 1,676 titles in Europe, 247 in Spain. That’s one reaction to a movie surfeit. ECAM’s Incubator is another. As production levels hike, non-U.S. industries desperately need filter mechanisms, highlighting exceptional projects, and making them better.

2.GOING AGAINST ONE GRAIN OF AN INCENTIVE-TV COIN DRIVEN INDUSTRY 

In regions – think Europe and Latin America – which depend heavily on public incentive systems and TV funding to finance movies, producers without further revenues simply cannot afford extended development processes. Overheads are part paid by subsidies or TV pre-buys. So there’s a pressure in  traditional financing systems to present projects as soon as possible. Offering cash prizes for development of €10,000 ($11,750) per project – and significantly  hiking the possibility of projects getting financed at the level they require – The Incubator encourages extended first-class development.

3.TV STATIONS ARE SPAIN’S NEW STUDIOS

Introduced from January 2016, Spain’s new points-driven subsidy system prizes projects which have TV stations on board, having pre-bought project rights. More than ever before, TV stations are the new studios, and movie gatekeepers, of Spain.

“Our financing pillars are very basic. Either you have a  broadcaster on board, or you have a challenge producing a film in Spain,” said “Josefina’s” Moreno.

It’s crucial to have – and best to begin financing – with a national broadcaster: Other pieces in the puzzle – ICAA subsidies, for instance – can then fall into place, Rubirola added. Here, The Incubator offers producers of selected projects a key competitive advantage.

4.THE INCUBATOR’S MOST POWERFUL MARKETING TOOL: ITSELF

The Incubator’s five projects were chosen from 216 applications, all from first or second-time directors with a finished screenplay and producer attached, said Incubator project manager Gemma Vidal.

That’s a huge reach and hugely attractive, exacting ratio, making The Incubator a must-check out industry event for major broadcasters in Spain and global digital platforms that simply cannot afford to handle development without such outside help.

Netflix, pay TV operator Movistar +, Spanish pubcaster TVE, TV network production arm Atresmedia Cine, and regional public TV station Telemadrid all dispatched executives to the Incubator.

“New creators should know where to find financing and channels where to find [new] talent,” Fernando López Puig, TVE fiction-cinema head, said after his visit.

Having got to know the executives via The Incubator, it’s far easier to phone them, Salazar-Simpson noted dubbing The Incubator’s executive meets “targeted” networking in contrast to the “disperse” networking of many co-production forums.

Sales agents – Visit Films, New Europe Film Sales, Rise and Shine World Sales – as well as reps from the Media Program, Ibermedia and Eurimages,  also visited the Incubator.

CREDIT: Blood Window

5.NOT LOOSING THE BABY: THE IMPORTANCE OF ORIGINALITY

From the late 80s, Europe’s film industries sought to industrialize European filming, emphasizing classic screenplay formats, marketing and distribution. Cut to 30 years later, and the emphasis is not on conforming to industrial systems but originality. For many first-time directors, bereft of large budgets or stars, it’s pretty well all they have.

The ECAM Incubator writers/director mentors run a broad gamut: “Marshland” and “The Plague’s” Alberto Rodríguez; “Killing the Father’s” Mar Coll; Valentina Viso, writer of “María (and the Others)” and a collaborator on “Summer of 1993”; “Spanish Affair’s” co-scribe Diego San José; the iconoclastic cineaste Luis López Carrasco (“El futuro”). Each creator mentors one or two projects at most.

The mentorship adapts to the project, and the state of the project, said Coll. On “Innocence” – about a 15-year-old girl partying away the summer, then facing a new term at school and unwanted pregnancy – just two months out from shooting, Coll’s aid was to help director Alemany on the typical pre-production screenplay cut when a film’s budget is finally defined. “The aim was to see where we could cut without losing the story’s essence. At a development program attached to a film school, it makes more sense to me to strengthen a film’s originality, its auteur’s voice,” Coll added.

The genius of “Josefina,” is that it is narrated and even scored by Josefina herself, an invention of another character, who lends her voice and even musical tastes to the film. “I always work in favor of what the filmmakers want. Being too interventionist kills talent,” Rodríguez agreed.

6.GETTING YOUR IDEAS ACROSS 

It’s not that first-time directors have nothing to say. Many times they have far too much to say. Their challenge is to get this across to an audience. Development courses can aid in clarity: “Valentina helped us focus on characters, eliminating things which weren’t really necessary. Alberto eliminated a couple of scenes, [made] the characters more defined,” recalled Sánchez-Arevalo.

“The fundamental bases of the screenplay haven’t changed during The Incubator. The work has been for everything the screenwriters had in their heads to be incorporated into a screenplay in a way that will be comprehensible to everybody who sees the film,” Rubirola reflected.

For Rodríguez, “One thing I’ve learned with time is that you should never lose your sense of direction, ask yourself to the point of extenuation what you want to say, why you are elaborating a certain scene in a certain way.”

7.PRODUCER MENTORSHIP: A MISSING LINK

Spain, as much of the rest of Europe, has some excellent screenwriting labs. What it lacks is producer mentorship programs, Salazar-Simpson argued. Incubator producer mentors also range widely: Marisa Fernández Armenteros at conglom Mediapro (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), 2013 and 2017 San Sebastian winner Koldo Zuazua (“Wounded,” “Handia”) and 2016 Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prix winner Felipe Lage (“Las mimosas”). Also advising is Susana Herreras, head of series development at Movistar +. “If you lack experience as a producer, you can row in entirely the wrong direction, attempting things that are just impossible in financing,” said Salazar Simpson. Here, The Incubator’s efficiency is, he argued, pretty immediate.

8.WHAT CAN THE INCUBATOR DEVELOPMENT ACHIEVE GOING FORWARD?

The Incubator was born in part out of a frustration at great screenplays from emerging talent never getting made. Many potential co-finance sources lie outside Spain. So one initiative, going forward, is for Incubator projects to slot into international industry showcases. “The aim is to lend visibility not only to the projects but also the people behind them,” said Vidal. In a pioneering move, ECAM has sealed pacts for some of The Incubator projects to be presented at November’s Torino Film Lab and January’s Rotterdam Lab.

9. DIRECTORIAL DICTATORSHIP

A film director is like an agreed-upon dictator: on a shoot, the buck stops with them for near any decision, large or small; collegiate consultancy is just not practical. Some first-time feature directors, accustomed to ultra-light shorts crews, can find that overwhelming. Also, there’s just no common consensus upon some matters, such as directing actors. Here, advice can indeed come in handy. “Rodríguez gave a lot of suggestions to Javier [Marco], given its his first feature, on directing actors and the crew,” said Moreno, of “Josefina.”

10.THE RUB

The Incubator’s five projects lay bear the fundamentals of national fiction in a globalized age. Caught on the penultimate day of classes at ECAM’s Incubator, the producers of all five projects, in very brief interviews, all made reference in some way to international markets. All five films turn on vital universal human experience – two are coming-of-age tales, two more second-chance later-life love stories, one about the disintegration of a family. These issues are captured, however, via a specific setting (“Innocence”), narrative viewpoint (“Josefina”) or film type (“The Beast”) which lends originality to observance. If you say something differently, you say something different, Roland Barthes once wrote. The first year ECAM Incubator projects are five cases in point.

Pictured (L-R): Sergy Moreno, Lina Badenas, Laura Rubirola, Jaime Gona

Second photo (L-R): Alberto Tortes, Sara de la Fuente, Belen Sánchez

“The Beast”

Poster for “Josefina”

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