The huge drop in box office revenues, the definitive decline in DVD sales and the gradual desertion of the television networks from film funding are the three main factors that have contributed to the slow death of Alta Films, arguably the foremost exhibitor and distributor of homegrown and international art cinema in Spain over the last 30 years.
Its owner, Enrique González Macho, the current president of the Spanish Cinema Academy, has spent the last few days ruminating in his Madrid office over a situation that he never wanted to face: the closing of a company that over three decades has allowed tens of thousands of film fans to enjoy the works of the best Spanish, European, Latin American, Asian and American directors — almost always in their original versions. The huge list of filmmaking talent includes Woody Allen, Michael Haneke, Atom Egoyan, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Eric Rohmer, Michael Winterbottom, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mike Figgis, Mike Leigh, Manoel de Oliveira, Danny Boyle, Roman Polanski, Steven Soderbergh and Michael Moore, among others.
A man as popular in film circles as he is passionate, González Macho and his team have devoted recent days to searching for miracle projects that might be viable for Alta Films in this crucial moment. “We have made it this far, we have resisted while we have been able to... but people have stopped going to the cinema, the DVD retail business is ruined and the TV stations, above all the public network, no longer support Spanish cinema, nor art film in general,” he says. “But we will try to carry on, setting up something smaller; but the truth is... there isn’t much to do.
“The truth is I want to go,” he admits dejectedly.
González Macho has already started the process of closing the vast majority of the almost 200 screens that his firm came to manage in eight towns and cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Majadahonda, Palma de Mallorca, Zaragoza, Cuenca, Guadalajara and Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Bit by bit, he also plans to dismantle his central office in Madrid, which employs 39 people. “I’m only obsessed by one thing,” he says, “and that is if this ends, I end it in the most dignified way possible, and with everyone receiving compensation.”
The plan is to keep operating the Cines Princesa, the Renoir Plaza de España — the first theaters he opened in 1986 — and the Renoir Retiro venues in Madrid — “For the moment, although we will see.” Right now the Renoir Floridablanca in Barcelona, the Renoir Guadalajara, the Roxy in Madrid and the Renoir Tenerife all remain open, though it is not known for how much longer. On Wednesday the Renoir in Majadahonda screened its last films.
On the distribution side, González Macho worries that other Spanish distributors of independent films “will end up having the same luck as us.” In his opinion, “the current lack of political sensitivity to culture, including the VAT increase [which saw the rate on movie tickets hiked from eight percent to 21 percent last September] and the fact that chiefs at state broadcaster RTVE have turned their back on art film, have played a crucial role in bringing about the beginning of the end of the exhibition model that has been in place in Spain over the last 30 years. The choice of films in Spain is deteriorating,” he explains. “There is a huge mass of very interesting films that, apart from at festivals or fringe screenings, the Spanish public is not going to be able to see. The profitability of a film has now become something marginal. So if we manage to survive, it will be in another form, in a marginal way... but we distributed The Artist, which doesn’t exactly seem a marginal product, does it?
“The Spanish art film audience in theaters will continue to disappear as it continues to be left without any choice,” he predicts. “And that is the worst possible side of globalization, because we are going to end up with just one type of cinema to watch.”