Spain's new film star: Telecinco

Broadcaster turning 'obligation into opportunity'

For those who haven't been paying attention, Spain has a new heavy hitter in film production. Buttressed by the success of the internationally acclaimed "Pan's Labyrinth" and last year's top domestic boxoffice performer "Alatriste," Telecinco Cinema is now Spain's biggest producer.

The producer's glory was on full display at this year's Goya Awards ceremony in January. Those two films alone boasted 28 nominations. "Alatriste" was Spain's top boxoffice performer at $23 million, and Guillermo del Toro's "Labyrinth" set a new bar in Spanish-language cinema by securing six Oscar nominations.

Formerly known as Estudios Picasso, the film production branch of commercial broadcaster Telecinco changed its name this month to Telecinco Cinema as a sign of the broadcaster's increased emphasis on film production.

The decision comes on the heels of a winning streak that saw two of its films tally more than $33 million at the Spanish boxoffice, "Labyrinth" rake in some $37 million in the U.S. and the comedy sensation "The 2 Sides of the Bed" gross more than $10 million.

The irony is, Telecinco had little interest in producing movies until five years ago when the government passed legislation forcing Spain's broadcasters to invest 5% of revenue in domestic film production.

"We had no plans of getting into the movie business. We've done it out of obligation," Telecinco Cinema CEO Alvaro Augustin explains. "The idea was to try to turn the obligation into an opportunity. The truth is, it's gone well for us."

Much of that is due to a commitment to invest approximately €35 million ($45 million) annually in "films that make sense," Augustin says. Telecinco puts out about 10 films per year, with one or two big-budget movies annually.

"What distinguishes Picasso (Telecinco) from other broadcasters is its team, which has its own style and good taste. They are young, dynamic and aware of what's happening in the world around them," says producer Pedro Uriol of Morena Films, which co-produced "Salir Pitando" with Telecinco.

This year, the producer has two titles on its slate: Alex de la Iglesia's $13.5 million "Oxford Murders," starring Elijah Wood and John Hurt, and Juan Antonio Bayona's directing debut, "The Orphanage," with Guillermo del Toro taking a creative production credit.

The 2007 slate also includes Spanish-Chilean co-production "Santos," directed by Nicolas Lopez and starring Guillermo Toledo and Elsa Pataky; black comedy "Casualday," starring Juan Diego and Luis Tosar; teen romance "Ladrones," with teen heartthrobs Juan Jose Ballesta and Maria Valverde; and the comedies "Salir Pitando," "Un Buen Dia lo tiene Cualquiera" and "Nadie Dice que es Facil."

"We have a vision that goes beyond the midrange film that thinks only about the Spanish market be-cause that would be like committing suicide," Augustin said. "You have to think this film has a chance to travel. And you have to invest what it takes to make the film — not more and not less."

That vision pays close attention to the pulse of the 15- to 25-year-olds, who account for some 60% of movie ticket sales. But it also looks to support new directors, fresh faces and original stories.

"In the past few years, there's been an explosion of new talent that has opened up the kind of cinema being made in Spain and Picasso supports it," Uriol says.

But it's more than Telecinco's deep pockets that makes its films successful. It's also the channel's dedication to its projects.

"I really like how they launch their big films," says de la Iglesias, whose "Murders" is in post-production. "They strenuously support the film while it's in theaters and at festivals and that's terribly important."

Telecinco's rising star speaks well of the growing strength of the Spanish industry.

"The image for the Spanish industry of a director or actor at the Oscars is important. It was with "Pan's Labyrinth," as it was for "The Sea Inside," says Simon de Santiago, international director at production house So-gecine. "These are landmarks in an industry."

Uriol agrees. "Picasso's (Telecinco's) success is positive for all of us. They have the ability to financially support big projects that can be exported and seen abroad," he says.

Telecinco isn't looking to rest on its laurels, though.

" 'Pan's Labyrinth' and 'Alatriste' are two marvelous calling cards," Augustin says. "Many people don't want to take risks on making films. But if you make it work once, it opens doors the next time.