San Sebastian Festival Preview: Why Organizers Say It's Stronger Than Ever

San Sebastian Film Festival - H 2015
CTK via Iñaki Pardo

Spain's A-list festival kicks off its 64th edition on Friday with a mix of Spanish-language and other films, industry insiders and big stars.

San Sebastian, the world’s leading Spanish-language film festival, seems to have taken a page from Pedro Almodovar’s 2003 Oscar-winning screenplay Talk to Her.

In the film, an unflinching bullfighter stuns spectators with death-defying bravado using little more than finesse and a red cape to convince an angry bull to charge past with a sliver of separation in a dance of showmanship and flourish.

One could argue that the San Sebastian International Film Festival, which starts its 64th edition on Friday and runs through Sept. 24 in Spain’s northern Basque region, has displayed the same bravado and finesse, sidestepping danger and death.

At the end of the festival season and big-footed by Toronto and Venice, the festival looked like a deer in the headlights not so long ago as the industry questioned the future of festivals in general and San Sebastian in particular. But Spain’s only A-list festival chose to stand its ground as the crossroads between Europe and Latin America, up its weight with buyers through industry-focused initiatives and widen its niche as the one-stop shop for up-and-coming Spanish-speaking talent.

It worked.

“San Sebastian is stronger than ever,” explains festival director Jose Luis Rebordinos. “San Sebastian always had the prestige of being a film lover’s festival, but it was missing the market angle. We’ve dedicated ourselves to improving that, and we’re in a great place now. We like to say we are the smallest of the big ones. From a place of modesty, we are enjoying a solid moment as a stable festival.”

Rebordinos points to the Latin American-Spanish connection, thanks to a shared language and common theatrical market, as the origin of a ripple effect that brings in Europe, Asia and the U.S.

The launch of the Europe-Latin America Co-Production Forum, which presents 15 to 18 new projects each year, turned the tides five years ago by beefing up the industry appeal for anyone interested in Spanish-language fare. The festival shrewdly scheduled the forum to overlap with the ever-popular Films in Progress sidebar that already had a following with buyers looking to get a first glimpse at unfinished films from Latin America.

“So what we have done is concentrate the forum and the Films in Progress sidebar in four days when all of the industry interested in Latin America can be in one place. The San Telmo Museum hosts both events and converges all of them in space and time in one place,” said Rebordinos.

The result: Some 700 industry insiders attended the first edition of the forum five years ago, with that number growing to nearly 1,500 registered to attend this year.

But if the buyers and sellers like San Sebastian for the sneak peek at fledgling projects off the English-language radar, audiences love San Sebastian because it looks to strike a balance between mainstream and art house fare.

The Official Section’s lineup promises international names in European premieres, such as Oliver Stone’s Snowden, Fernando Guzzoni’s Jesus and William Oldroyd’s Lady MacBeth, while staying true to its roots with Juan Antonio Bayona’s A Monster Calls and world premieres for Alberto Rodriguez’s Smoke and Mirrors, Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s May God Save Us and former festival director Diego Galan’s sociological portrait of men in Spanish cinema Manda Huevos (It Takes Balls).

Packed screenings mean distributors can get a feel for how an audience will react to a film. According to Rebordinos, that has made San Sebastian an increasingly attractive festival for U.S. majors.

“The majors appreciate the ability to see the audience’s reaction,” the fest director said, referring to the four American films in the official lineup — Snowden, American Pastoral, The Magnificent Seven and As You Are — as well as additional U.S. films Sausage Party and Storks, which will screen in the massive-capacity Velodrome theater. “U.S. companies find different spots where they can present their films, not just in competition. They can premiere, see how the film works with audiences and use it as a platform for the rest of Europe.” 

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 likeable fests, which is probably how it still holds the cachet to snag stars like Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere, Fan BingBing, Monica Bellucci, Hugh Grant, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Javier Bardem, Cynthia Nixon and Shailene Woodley, who are all due in town for this edition.

Emmanuelle Bercot will present her 150 Miligrams, which opens the Official Section on Friday night, accompanied by Sidse Babett, who plays a lung specialist on a crusade against a state-approved drug. And Hawke is scheduled to take center stage on Saturday, following a special screening of The Magnificent Seven, to receive the Donostia Award for lifetime achievement.