Spanish b'casters' involvement in film biz a mixed blessing

Deep pockets breed resentment

MADRID -- Proposals to make changes to Spain's film laws governing the way broadcasters invest in big-screen projects are creating a storm of debate in the industry.

The proposed changes come at a time when Spanish movies are in the pink, enjoying local boxoffice success, cross-border popularity and high standing on the international film festival circuit.

Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage," a co-production with Spanish broadcaster Telecinco, is expected to have breakout success this year, after the first-time director established himself as the summer's festival circuit discovery.

Mediapro, parent of TV channel La Sexta, is producing Woody Allen's next film, starring Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. And Sogecable has established itself as the go-to co-producer for Spain's A-list talent with names including Alejandro Amenabar, Julio Medem, Antonio Banderas and Cruz on the roster.

The widely held view is that much of the recent success of Spanish films comes from the involvement of the local broadcast giants in the sector, with most observers believing Spain's broadcasters and their production houses are "invigorating the sector."

Many argue that it is not the moviemaking business that attracts the broadcasters to film but rather the current government regulation requiring them to invest 5% of their overall revenues in domestic film production.

"Telecinco decided to create a structure dedicated exclusively to caring for those projects we're forced to invest in due to the 5% requirement," Telecinco Cinema CEO Alvaro Augustin says. "The idea was to try to turn the obligation into an opportunity. Lately, things are going very well."

But now the government wants to tinker with the setup and further regulate the broadcaster's involvement in the production sector.

The new film law -- being debated in parliament -- would require broadcasters to co-produce all of their projects, rather than the three-out-of-four now dictated, should they want to access subsidies.

Broadcasters are rejecting the change, demanding they be al¬lowed to decide how and where they choose to invest their cash.

"The undeniable trend over the past decade has been the growing participation of broadcasters and their production companies, which have been providing Spanish cinema with its best films," says Simon de Santiago, international director of Sogecable's production house Sogecine.

Telecinco's $31 million period adventure "Alatriste," by writer-director Agustin Diaz Yanes, was Spain's highest-grossing production last year, securing $23 million at the domestic boxoffice, while Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" -- 80% financed by Telecinco -- took in some $9.4 million in Spain and another $37 million in the U.S.

"Who's going to be the co-producer who puts out 50% of 'Alatriste'?" De Santiago asks. "It's surreal to think someone would match that. One out of four at least allows us a little freedom to have one big project."

This year's slate of titles with Spanish broadcaster involvement include Alex de la Iglesia's much-anticipated €10 million ($15 milllion) English-language "Oxford Murders" (Telecinco); Antonio Hernandez's "Garbo" (Antena 3); Miguel Bardem's "Mortadelo and Filemon" (Antena 3); and Mateo Gil's "Padre Paramo" (Sogecine).

De Santiago says the production sector can't afford to shut the door on the projects the producers cobble together for themselves. "The Spanish market is the real loser if we can't have freedom," he says.

Not everyone is happy with the broadcasters' involvement. Some producers complain the production slate is dictated by the demands of commercial TV's target audience rather than by a film's merit.

"Private channels have their audiences in mind and it always characterizes their decisions," says Pedro Uriol of production house Morena Films, which is co-producing Steven Soderbergh's "Che" with Telecinco. "It's difficult to convince them of the merits of an auteur or small product, even if it's high quality."    
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