Massive Theater Attendance for Spanish Fiesta de Cine

Ticket sales showed a 98 percent rise over last year's edition and a stunning 633% over the same three-day period from last week.

MADRID -- More than 1.5 million moviegoers bought tickets during Spain's three-day Fiesta de Cine, marking a new high for the five-year-old event and sparking debate whether ticket prices are to blame for low theater attendance.

Some 1.8 million people registered to buy tickets for the annual fall event, encouraged by what turned out to be the most watched movies of the promotion: Captain Phillips, Gravity, Turbo, The Butler, Witching & Bitching and Prisoners.   

"The fact that 1.8 million people requested the pass to participate in the Fiesta de Cine speaks to the power to attract audiences that the big screen still commands and how, through an attractive promotion, theaters can still be packed," the president of exhibitors federation FECE Juan Ramon Gomez Fabra wrote in an opinion piece in the Spanish daily El Mundo.

The event and the long lines of people standing in the rain to buy tickets made news each day  this week, Monday-Wednesday.More than 320 theaters -- some 2,924 screens -- across Spain, more than 90 percent of the market, participated in the promotion.

The Spanish Confederation of audiovisual producers (FAPAE), the Federation of Film Distributors (FEDICINE), Cinemas Federation Spain (FECE), and the Culture Ministry's Institute of Cinematography and Audiovisual Arts (ICAA) are the official sponsors of the event designed to pull people back into the theaters.

Overall 2013 so farshow box office earnings down 13.5 percent at $486 million (360 million euros), with homegrown films earning $55 million (41 million euros), 7 million euros less than the same period in 2012, representing an 18 percent drop. Tickets sales this year have dropped 15.8 percent,  34 million tickets.

Two weeks ago, Spain's treasury minister blamed the sector for the drop in revenues, pointing a finger at poor quality and boring films.

In addition to a global downturn in theater attendance and rampant piracy, the Spanish film industry has also been hit by a 21 percent sales tax on ticket prices.

Movie tickets in Spain cost about €11 ($15) -- compared to the €2.90 ($3.90)for the three-day event.

According to figures from FECE and Madrid's Complutense University, an estimated 3 percent of the price of the ticket goes to authors' rights organizations, 21 percent goes to sales tax, 33 percentgoes to exhibitors and some 43percent to the distributors.

While the ticket price is lower than England, the U.S., Germany and other EU countries, Spain still suffers from vast unemployment -- as much as 25 percent in parts of the country -- and an ongoing financial crisis.

The contrast between the attendance during the Fiesta de Cine--a 633 percent jump from the ticket sales during the first three days of the previous week--prompted many to question whether people aren't going to the movies because it's just too expensive.

"The success of the initiative isn't just these three days," director/producer Alex De la Iglesia, whose Witching & Bitching is performing well in theaters, tweeted. "The great majority of people want to go to the movies, but they can't pay for it."

His sentiment is echoed repeatedly in the media and in box office lines.

"I would go more often -- and take my kids -- but it's just too expensive to do it regularly," Maria Sanchez, a mother of two said.

The packed theaters were like rain on a desert for the film industry.

"After so much bad news for so long, it shows that audiences are interested in seeing movies in theaters and paying to go see them," said Rentrak Spain's general manager Arturo Guillen. "And it shows that people are sensitive to the stimulus of lowering ticket prices."

But exhibitor Enrique Gonzalez Macho, president of the Spanish Film Academy, cautioned that while the positive figures do require further study, it's unrealistic to think a theater could exist with these prices over long periods of time.

"We have to rethink the commercial part of the industry," Gonzalez Macho said. "It's clear that the massive attendance [from the Fiesta] can't be maintained, but we should find a balance between attendance and price to reach profitability."

The academy president said he supported lowering ticket prices, but cautioned, "with 21 percent tax, it's impossible to think about any price cut."