Spain’s Morena Films Adds Vertice Cine for Penelope Cruz Starrer, Talks Netflix Hit ‘Below Zero’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Juan Diego Botto, Penelope Cruz and
Credit: Sergio Lardiez/Maarten de Boer/Variety/LaDiapo

Morena Films, one of Spain’s biggest movie production forces, has closed Spanish distribution on “On the Fringe,” starring Penelope Cruz and Luis Tosar (“The Minions of Midas”).

The feature debut of actor-turned-director Juan Diego Botto (“White Lines,” “Good Behavior”), “On the Fringe” (“En las margenes”) will be released in Spain by Vértice Cine.

Scheduled to shoot in Madrid from October and sold by the U.K.’s Bankside Films, “On the Fringe” is produced by Morena’s Alvaro Longoria and Cruz and co-produced by André Logie at Belgium’s Panache Productions and by Spanish public broadcaster RTVE. Amazon Prime Video handles Spanish SVOD rights.

“On the Fringe” interweaves three stories, which unspool over 24 hours: of Rafael (Tosar), an activist lawyer; of Azucena (Cruz), a woman battling to save her son from a new wave of economic crisis, which has destroyed her life; and of Teodora, a grandmother wishing to say goodbye to her son.

Vértice Cine will also bow a second Morena title in Spain, Fernando Colomo’s sex comedy “Polyamory for Dummies,” which hits Spanish theaters on May 21.

News about “On the Fringe” comes just months after another Morena Films production, the propulsive action thriller “Below Zero” (“Bajocero”), bowed on Netflix on Jan. 29 becoming its No. 1 most-watched movie in 55 countries, including the U.S., according to independent website FlixList.

Netflix announced on April 20 in a letter to shareholders that “Below Zero” had been viewed by 47 million household accounts in its first 28 days of release, making it the third biggest first quarter non-English release among titles whose audiences have been detailed by Netflix. Last month, The New York Times chose “Below Zero” as one of five action movies to stream online.

In “Below Zero,” honest cop Martin (Javier Gutiérrez) is assigned to drive a night prisoner transport truck. As temperatures plunge below zero, his armored truck hits fog and a forest where it’s stopped by a spike strip. Lurking in the woods, a shadowy sharp-shooter informs Martin that he wants just one of the prisoners. When Martin refuses, the attacker cuts the truck’s heating.

From the ‘60s, most Spanish films seen abroad were arthouse titles sporting a clear social conscience, questioning the society dictator Francisco Franco created and or pushing in democracy for more social progress. The generation of Alex de la Iglesia and Alejandro Amenábar added genre tropes but that social consciousness remained. That mix now gives a moral depth to the action of “Below Zero.”

Its producer, Pedro Uriol, a Morena Films partner, and Morena CEO, Pilar Benito, drilled down on the reasons behind its global breakout.

How did Morena come to make “Below Zero?” 

Uriol: The director and co-writer Lluís Quílez and co-scribe Fernando Navarro brought us a story that was very local, very brutal and highly ambitious. It was also right up Morena’s street: Quality commercial cinema with attitude. The film had a high middle budget for Spanish cinema. Lluís had directed some highly interesting shorts and one feature that nobody knew. So we surrounded him with a highly experienced cast and crew. Netflix, public broadcaster RTVE and Catalan state network TVC boarded quickly. But “Below Zero” was created, developed and produced by Morena and Spain’s Amorós Productions.

What rights did Netflix take?

Uriol: All international outside Spain and the Spanish SVOD window.

Did the third-wave COVID-19 in any way aid the film’s platform release?

Uriol: In terms of the launch, we’d originally planned a theatrical opening in Spain, so had launched trailers and teaser posters. So the work was half done. Netflix backed the film strongly in the weeks before the bow. The launch coincided with a new lockdown wave and there was no direct competition on Netflix.

“Below Zero” stands out for its genre pivots, hitting jailbreak, mystery suspense and horror beats as the truck is attacked by a shadowy figure, before becoming a psychological and then survival thriller. Genre is comprehensible the world over. Its mix with a striking local setting is already one Netflix hallmark…. 

Uriol: Absolutely. Spain has a generation of talent that’s grown up with ‘70s and ‘80s American genre cinema. That can be part of the film’s success, its plunge into genres which American cinema has done so well, in an ambitious, brutal film, which was technically very difficult to shoot, but made from Spain, with our culture, characters, way of talking and tone.

From the emergence of the generation of Alex de la Iglesia and Alejandro Amenábar, directors have often mixed genre with the social-issue drive of an earlier generation. “Below Zero” looks like a case in point.

Uriol: Yes. It’s law vs. justice. The assailant, Karra Elejalde’s character, is loosely inspired by the father of Marta del Castillo [who spent years looking for his murdered daughter’s body]. I like to take a pure entertainment vehicle and fill it with relevant characters and important, contemporary issues.

Benito: “Below Zero” belongs to what’s almost a genre in itself in Spain: Thrillers which are very well constructed but deliver a final twist that takes them beyond pure thriller territory and adds a new dimension to the film. This appears to be working aboard and it’s certainly working for Netflix. It’s also a question of humanizing the film, Martín and the other characters.

Uriol: That can be seen in Spanish drama series, such as “Hierro,” “La Unidad” and “Riot Police.” They’re spectacular genre series, made by talent that comes from cinema, but they have the same humanist thrust, sporting local authentic characters and relevant issues.

After “Below Zero” are you thinking of making other thrillers?

Benito: We’ve always made thrillers. Quite a lot of our titles and hits have been thrillers. We think that there’s a niche both in theaters and on streaming platforms though currently only Netflix and Amazon are financing features. The rest work series and documentaries. Several recent thrillers have underperformed at the box office.

Uriol: What “Below Zero” suggests is that there is an audience. Maybe theaters are a tougher call these days but on a platform like Netflix, there’s a mass audience. We’re also pushing thrillers when it comes to series. One, “La Chica Invisible,” is a crime thriller based on a novel trilogy of the same name written by Blue Jeans. We will inject into it all our know-how gained from making movie thrillers.