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When the curtain rises Friday at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, festivalgoers will notice something is different.
Yes. Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Judi Dench, Hirokazu Koreeda, Juliette Binoche, Robert Pattinson and even Danny DeVito are a few of the faces expected to spice things up in the majestic seaside town in Spain’s northern Basque region during the course of the event, which runs Sept. 21-29.
And, yes, the industry’s favorite sections — Films in Progress, Europe-Latin American Co-Production Forum and Glocal in Progress — have grown and stand as defining elements. The Golden Shell is still the festival’s top prize.
But organizers have added a new ingredient to the recipe for Spain’s only A-level festival — and the finale of the fall festival season: a one-stop shop for anyone interested in being or seeing new talent.
“We want to play an important role in everything related to discovering new talent, because we believe that is where we will have a crucial role,” festival director Jose Luis Rebordinos told The Hollywood Reporter.
Decades ago, San Sebastian made a splash in the festival circuit by offering the juiciest prize for its original New Directors sidebar. Today, that decision to keep a finger on the pulse of upcoming talent continues to guide organizers.
“Of course we want to bring the best films available, but we are looking to support those that are starting out, the ones who in a few years will be the established directors,” Rebordinos said. “Increasingly, many come looking for new talent to be able to follow them from the very beginning and participate in the whole creative process.”
The increasingly competitive market means that by the time a film makes it to San Sebastian’s New Director’s section, it most likely has secured a sales agent. According to Latido’s Antonio Sauro, development programs like Script East or local workshops like Torino Labs, along with Buenos Aires’ Ventana Sur and other markets, have gained importance so as not to miss the next breakout talent.
But San Sebastian still ranks as the “must-attend” event thanks to its focus on films in development.
“San Sebastian with its Films in Progress offers a magnificent showcase to discover Latin American gems, which is where we found Rara,” Saura said. “Of course, we also follow Glocal Work in Progress, where we have found a marvelous films — Dantza — which will premiere at this year’s festival. And the co-production forums always offer something interesting.”
Even so, the festival has decided to up its game.
With an eye on strengthening its portfolio as the place for new talent and fresh faces, the festival has added everything from a new-technology day on Sept. 23, featuring roundtables and case studies, as well as a master class by none other than Impossible and A Monster Calls director J.A. Bayona. The festival has also bulked up its series of film student classes into a new initiative called NEST.
NEST now includes film students’ shorts screening for the general public, master classes by directors like Alexander Payne and Jaime Rosales, an entire section focused on new directors’ first and second feature films and an unofficial commitment to include new filmmakers in the Official Sections competition. In this year’s competition for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Shell, five of the 18 directors will screen their first or second features.
The festival’s strategy is to nurture fresh voices and transform the one-week event into a year-round institution, building off of the festival’s co-launch of the Elias Querejeta Film School in 2017 with the local government. Unlike other film schools, this one not only teaches creation, but film restoration and curation, festival programming and critique.
“The idea is that someone who is just starting out can develop fully through the San Sebastian Film Festival experience,” Rebordinos said.
Even as the festival builds on its credentials as a must-see for anyone interested in a first peek at fresh faces, it decidedly still offers its unique niche: a gateway for industry insiders to do business with Latin America and Europe, and screenings packed with locals offering a glimpse at how films play to real audiences.
The numbers speak for themselves.
In a town of 186,000 people, the San Sebastian festival sold more than 174,000 tickets at 2017’s edition — thanks in part to fun sidebars that attract audiences.
As the world’s leading Spanish-language festival, San Sebastian has long capitalized on its enviable ties with the buzzworthy Latin American market. The Films in Progress competition allows buyers a rare glimpse at nearly finished films from Latin America and awards post-production and festival slots to winners. And the Horizons Section screens an array of the best Latin America has to offer each year.
“San Sebastian is important for us since we participate in the market and in Films in Progress where we find new Latin American talent, as well as young producers who will make excellent films in the future,” said Vicente Canales, managing director of sales office Film Factory.
But sneak peeks and hot talent aside, San Sebastian’s appeal grows every year despite the crowded fall calendar, thanks to its status as the most enjoyable festival.
Word of San Sebastian’s relaxed atmosphere, picturesque seaside location, world-class cuisine and easygoing Spanish flair has spread. Guests — as well as industry insiders — regularly rank it as one of the most likable festivals, which is probably how it still holds the caché attract directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Peter Strickland, Brillante Mendoza, Felix Van Groeninberg and Jacques Audiard, who, among others, are all due in town this week.
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