San Sebastian Film Festival Reinvents Itself

My Great Night Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

My Great Night Still - H 2015

With eight world premieres (including 'Regression' starring Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson) and strong support for Latin American and Spanish projects, Spain's Basque-city event holds strong amid a crowded fall season.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The San Sebastian International Film Festival used to market itself as the last big A-list event on the circuit, where awards contenders could get gala premieres and producers and distributors could gain access to the Spanish market. But with smaller, younger festivals like Telluride snagging world premieres and Toronto sucking up the awards-season oxygen, San Sebastian has had to reinvent itself to remain relevant.

The seaside town in Spain's Basque Country has a population of less than 200,000, but the 2014 festival sold nearly 170,000 tickets. This year's edition also will play to the crowd with a section of buzzy "best hits you missed" titles from Toronto and sidebars designed to appeal to ordinary film fans.

Still, professional attendance has shot up 36 percent during the past three years. Established as the world's premier Spanish-speaking festival, San Sebastian has positioned itself as the go-to location for buzzworthy projects from Latin America. Its Films in Progress com­petition gives buyers a glimpse at nearly finished movies from the region and awards postproduction and festival slots to winners. The key to San Sebastian's heightened industry appeal has been its Europe-Latin America co-production forum, launched in 2012, where producers and financiers from both regions can dis­cuss projects. This year, the forum will offer a Focus on Canada section, featuring a delegation of producers and distributors from that co-production powerhouse. "The co-production forum has revitalized us tremendously," says festival director Jose Luis Rebordinos. "It's brought in a lot of people who didn't normally come, and people who were already coming are much happier because they have more business options."

The festival promotes itself as an ideal hub for the European, Latin American and U.S. markets. That appeals to companies like Telefonica Studios, which has a hand in blue-chip projects that straddle the Atlantic from Argentina to Spain, including a few titles playing at the festival. "From a business standpoint, it is the most relevant film festival for the Spanish and Latin American industry," says Telefonica production chief Axel Kuschevatzky. "Almost every one of Argentina's entries at the Oscars played here, including The Secret in Their Eyes and Wild Tales."

Despite being squeezed by a crowded fall festival season, San Sebastian features eight world premieres in this year's Official Selection. The lineup includes two highly anticipated titles from Spain: the world premiere of Alejandro Amenabar's Regression, starring Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson, which will open the festival; and the European premiere of Alex de la Iglesia's My Great Night.

"From art house to mainstream films, from indie to potential Academy-winning features, San Sebastian has it all," says Kuschevatzky, in full booster mode, who then mentions the city's secret weapon: food. Renowned as the best place to eat in Europe, it boasts the world's highest per-square-foot concentration of Michelin stars.


Basque in Flavor 4 Ways

Industry executives will choose various festivals on the circuit as being most important for business, but nearly all would agree San Sebastian offers the best foodie experience with 15 Michelin stars sprinkled across eight top restaurants — including the world-renowned Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Akelarre, Mugaritz and Kokotxa. But some of the Basque Country’s most delectable treasures are served on toothpicks in the humble tapas bars crammed door-to-door in the old town. Called pintxos locally, the miniature gastronomic masterpieces are enjoyed best with a glass of txakoli — a slightly sparkly, very dry white wine produced locally — or naturally fermented hard apple cider.

San Jeronimo 19

An old-town must, this might be the most expensive local place. But the small $23 portions of grilled cepes with egg yolk are worth it, as are the spicy chistorra sausage pastries.

31 de Agosto 23

This classic pintxos spot offers a wide range of meat and fish tapas. Try the solomillo (seared steak with green pepper) and the roasted duck.

Pescaderia 5

Called the “Sistine Chapel of anchovies,” this iconic but humble spot specializes in imaginative preparations of tiny fish, including sardines with a smear of blueberry jam.

Borda Berri
Fermin Calbeton 12

Its melt-in-your-mouth veal cheeks and salted cod tacos are legendary. Borda Berri doesn’t display its pintxos on the bar top like other spots, but don’t be dissuaded: It is one of the best