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Spain’s top independent sales agents are prepped and ready for this year’s online American Film Market; however, most are eagerly awaiting the return of in-person events, seen as a more productive platform for selling independent cinema abroad. The optimism is cautious, though, with theatrical prospects for international independent films in a post-COVID world still hard to predict.

Traditionally, AFM has been a popular launchpad for Spanish films to find distribution in the non-Spanish-speaking world but, while most of the regular faces will be attending digitally, many are holding back their bigger titles for Berlin, where they can be pitched in-person and meetings can be held face-to-face.

“Online markets have been really important for us over the past year, but now we need in-person events. The success of MIA in Rome is proof of that,” said Latido Films general director Antonio Saura, who hosted three market premieres at the Roman film market including Nicolás Postiglione’s “Immersion,” Violeta Salama’s “Alegría” — both included in the company’s nine films at AFM — and Inés Barrionuevo’s “Camila Comes Out Tonight.”

Saura believes, as seems to be the consensus in Spain, that the usefulness of online marketplaces is wearing thin as a return to in-person events becomes more realistic.

“After all, an online event is, in reality, just a few days wrapped around a familiar name and time period where we do the same thing that we do every day in the office, since we’re working 24 hours a day year-round,” he explained.

“We really need there to be a strong face-to-face market again,” Filmax international boss Iván Díaz concurred. “Then we can begin to bring bigger titles back, because many customers have told me they will not buy anything until next year, the end of 2022.”

To that end, Film Factory has a four-pack of more mainstream, thriller-type features to this year’s AFM, catered to its wider range of buyers. The lineup includes Alberto Rodríguez’s “Prison 77,” Víctor García’s “The Communion Girl,” David Martín-Porras’ “Skin in Flames” and Colombian director Laura Mora’s “The Kings of the World.”

Extolling the virtues of in-person events, Saura elaborated that “in-person events offer for a greater exchange of information, create buzz for these films on a big screen, allow for the establishment of new contacts and create an emotional atmosphere and a tension due to their inherent limits, particularly time.”

But newer titles must wait for a huge backlog of films that would have been released theatrically over the past two years but could not, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to clear. Those titles are fighting for limited exhibition space now. According to Audiovisual From Spain, a promotion agency operated by Spain’s Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, more than 50 films of Spanish origin are set to hit theaters before year’s end, the most crowded two-month window since before COVID.

Major titles coming in the next 60 days include Dani de la Torre’s “Live Is Life,” produced by Atresmedia Cine and distributed by Warner Bros.; “The King of All the World,” from Carlos Saura, produced by Pipa Films, distributed by Syldavia Cinema and sold internationally by Latido; Clara Roquet’s Cannes Critics’ Week player “Libertad”; and “Veneciafrenia,” the first production from new label the Fear Collection, a production collaboration between Sony Pictures Intl., Amazon Prime Video and director Alex de la Iglesia’s Pokeepsie Films.

Perhaps the most internationally ambitious Spanish title on the way is Jaume Balagueró’s already heavily pre-sold English-language heist thriller “Way Down,” starring “The Good Doctor’s” Freddy Highmore and “Game of Thrones” star Liam Cunningham alongside Spanish heavyweights Luis Tosar and José Coronado. It’s produced by Telecinco Cinema, Think Studio, and Ciudadano Ciskul, distributed in Spain by Sony Pictures with TF1 Studio selling internationally.

One of the most pressing questions then, is how long it will take to clear the backup.

“Who knows?” said Saura. “Six months? A year? Two years?”

Spain’s bottleneck is less severe than in many countries, with Spanish theaters having remained open for most of the pandemic, although under strict health and safety guidelines. In Spain, masks are still required throughout the duration of a film unless during eating or drinking, seating is limited in many theaters and added sanitary measures such as hand sanitizer dispensers, plastic shielding at concession and ticket areas and deep cleanings between screenings are all still in effect.

Despite the great lengths that cinemas have gone too in ensuring a safe moviegoing experience, there is still a concern in consumer confidence, according to Saura, and the problem of more films than spaces to exhibit them will continue “until people feel safer going to theaters, which have proved to be very safe so far,” he said.

Canales noted at least another year of overcrowded windows and believed that some distributors have already been forced to move would-be theatrical films to platforms or TV, and that even when the backup is cleared, “the international box office may stay low for some time and the acquisition of foreign films may be impacted.”

In response to several key factors such as ongoing changes in consumer viewing habits and new legislation, both accelerated by the pandemic, the three biggest players in Spanish indie sales — Latido, Film Factory and Filmax — teamed to launch VICA, an association of international audiovisual content vendors, earlier this year.

“VICA was founded with the will to establish a close dialogue with all the public and private-sector institutions, as well as with all other associations in the sector, but also with the desire to defend the interests of its associates in those legal aspects that we believe to be relevant to the national industry,” they explained in a joint statement at the time, adding that it was not “founded with confrontation in mind, but rather with a wish to collaborate.”

Going forward, there seems to be a consensus of hope among Spanish sales companies, and a determination that if they hold course and keep their nose to the grindstone, things will continue to improve, even if slowly.

“We’ve got to keep up the hard work and evaluate the market day-by-day,” said Saura. “We’ve got incredible titles coming next year and we have to care for each one of them to give them the chance to reach the audiences they deserve.”

“We must be more scrupulous every day. Even before COVID the market was pickier all the time and with box offices down, buyers are looking exclusively for gems,” echoed Canales. “As sales agents, we have to bring only the best to the market.”

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The Good Boss Credit: ©Fernando Marrero

KEY SPANISH TITLES AT AFM 2021

The Good Boss

Spain’s submission for the international feature Oscar, this dark workplace comedy directed and written by Fernando León Aranoa stars Javier Bardem.

Sales: MK2 Films

“Official Competition”

The latest from Argentine directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat (“The Distinguished Citizen”) premiered in Venice. Pic stars Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas.

Sales: Protagonist Pictures

Prison 77

The latest from “Marshland” director Alberto Rodríguez is produced by Movistar Plus and Madrid’s Atípica Films. Set in a men’s prison in 1977, it examines the historical push-back against modernity in Spain.

Sales: Film Factory

“The Communion Girl”

Spanish horror, among the country’s top-selling genres abroad, returns with this ‘80s urban legend feature co-produced by Atresmedia Cine, Ikiru Films and Warner Bros. Entertainment España, and directed by Víctor García (“Return to House on Haunted Hill”).

Sales: Film Factory

“Skin in Flames”

Adapting an award-winning play, David Martín Porras (“Inside the Box”) directs Óscar Jaenada in this politically charged story of a war photographer with a dark past.

Sales” Film Factory

Alegría

This feel-good drama that recently premiered at Guadalajara is directed by Violeta Salama and stars Cecilia Suárez (“The House of Flowers”) and Leonardo Sbaraglia (“Pain and Glory”).

Sales: Latido

“The Kids Are Alright”

The latest family comedy from “Torrente” creator-star Santiago Segura, Spain’s undisputed box office champion, pulled in $10 million at the Spanish box office.

Sales: Latido

The King of the Whole World

Spanish grand master Carlos Saura, now 89, returns to the fictional musical format of “Carmen.” Set in Mexico City, a dazzling mix of splintering fiction realities capturing the aesthetic rush of extraordinary dance rehearsal and Mexican modern classic song.

Sales: Latido

Beyond the Summit

An action thriller tracking a misguided attempt to summit Annapurna in winter by an inexperienced climber. Ibon Cormanzana directs stars Javier Rey (“Fariña”) and Patricia Lopez Arnaiz (“Ane Is Missing”)

Sales: Filmax

The Burning Cold

WWII drama from debut filmmaker Santi Trullenque and writer Agusti Franch unspooling in the frozen Pyrenees where a fleeing Jewish family looks to a small village for protection.

Sales: Filmax

The House Among the Cactuses

Debutant director Carlota Gonzalez-Adrio adapts Paul Pen’s U.S. novel “Desert Flowers” in this nail-biter about a family living in a remote part of the Canary Islands whose isolated lifestyle is thrown into upheaval with the arrival of a hiker in need of help.

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Beyond the Summit Credit: Albert Pascual