San Sebastian: A European Launchpad for Festival Titles

3:38 PM PST 09/18/2013 by Pamela Rolfe

A premier gateway to Europe for Latin American talent, Spain's top festival is an important part of film's global marketing strategy.

MADRID – Coming at the coda of the festival season, the San Sebastian International Film Festival struggled for years to snag world premieres from the likes of Venice and Toronto. But with the ever-increasing muscle of the Toronto festival -- which runs less than a week before the Spanish event kicks off -- that seemed like a losing battle.

So Spain's A-list festival has revamped its strategy, offering a powerful one-two punch when coupled with Toronto. Banking on the fact that films can get lost in the crowd at TIFF, San Sebastian trumpets its ability to offer a more boutique-style platform and a bridge into Europe.

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Films like Dallas Buyers' Club, Devil's Knot and The Railway Man screened in Toronto, but have found privileged slots in the 61st San Sebastian International Film Festival's official lineup.

Even so, the festival, which kicks off Friday and runs through Sept. 28 in Spain's northern Basque region, has stayed true to its niche as the gateway to Europe for Latin America and the natural home to all Spanish-language films.

Oscar-winning director Juan Jose Campanella's widely anticipated 3D animated Foosball opens the Official Section on Friday, with latest films from Spain's cult director Alex de la Iglesia (Witching & Bitching), David Trueba (Living is Easy With Eyes Closed), Manuel Martin Cuenca (Cannibal) and Oskar Santos (the comic adventure Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang) also finding space at San Sebastian.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in Marc Silver's Who is Dayani Cristal, one of 11 films in the Latin Horizons section, showcasing this year's harvest from Latin countries and filmmakers. Argentine director Lucia Puenzo's true story El Medico Aleman-Wakolda and Mexico’s Fernando Eimbcke's Club Sandwich are two films that testify to San Sebastian's commitment to Latin American filmmaking.

But beyond the Spanish flavor of San Sebastian is another festival trait: It's an incubator for fresh talent.

Seventeen films will vie for the coveted Kutxa New Directors Award -- the largest cash prize at any festival -- splitting €50,000 ($67,500) between the film's director and its Spanish distributor.

Buyers swarm around the Films in Progress and Films in Motion sidebars, which not only offer a preview of promising unfinished projects from Latin America and the Maghreb, respectively, but provide financing to the winners so they can complete production and offer a spot at the following year's festival.

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And -- true to form -- the festival spices things up this year with a steady flow of international stars. Hugh Jackman, Annette Bening and Oliver Stone are a few of the big names due in town.

The festival reportedly brought in some $23.7 million for the local economy last year, with another $15.5 million pouring into the hotels and other tourism-related industry by prolonging the summer season.

And this year figures are already looking up. Ticket sales on the first day rose nearly 12 percent over 2012's first-day sales, with 55,866 tickets sold Monday -- nearly 11,000 tickets more than on 2011's first day.

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