CINEMA

Is there an audience left for independent film in Spain?

The demise of distributor Alta Films will mean considerably less choice for moviegoers Hollywood will end up taking an ever-larger share of the market

An original-version movie being projected in one of Alta Films' Renoir cinemas.
An original-version movie being projected in one of Alta Films' Renoir cinemas.LUIS SEVILLANO / EL PAÍS

The gravest danger to the Spanish movie industry, as to those of so many other countries, has long come from Hollywood, which churns out around 500 features a year and is determined to share them with the rest of the planet. As a well-known US producer pointed out to Jordi Solé Tura, the culture minister under the Socialist Party administration of Felipe González in the early 1990s: "Look, I know that in Hollywood we make good movies, mediocre movies and bad movies. But we want to sell them all, the good, the mediocre and the bad."

Back then the US majors would often only sell their blockbusters as part of a job lot that also included some of those mediocre and bad movies. More than two decades on, the US movie dominates the Spanish market: the European Audiovisual Observatory (OBS) reports that 70 percent of films shown in Spanish cinemas in 2012 were made in the United States.

The result is that the main distributors are unwilling to take on smaller, homegrown productions. Independent distributors garnered just 18 percent of the Spanish market in 2012, with the majors taking the remainder. But the picture is not the same throughout Europe, where some of Spain's neighbors have managed to keep the Americans at bay.

In France, for example, independent distributors have a 50-percent share of the market, in Italy the figure is 41 percent, while in Scandinavia it is clear the home markets are well protected: independent distributors in Finland have an 89-percent share of ticket sales, while in Denmark the figure is 56 percent.

Independent distributors took just 18 percent of the market in 2012

Last week, Spain's ailing movie industry was delivered another blow with the news that Alta Films, one of Europe's leading distributors of independent cinema, was shutting up shop. Founder and owner Enrique González Macho said he would be closing all but a handful of the 200 screens that Alta has managed over the last three decades, many of them some of the few spots showing foreign-language films in their original versions in Spain.

The news has sent shockwaves through the independent distribution sector, which has been warning for several years that without support from state television, and having been abandoned by the Socialist Party and the Popular Party, the future looks bleak for small-scale moviemakers.

The problem has been aggravated by the digital revolution, meaning we now watch more movies on our computers or on DVD. So far the movie industry has yet to come up with a viable plan to deal with the new reality. Many in the sector blame piracy, saying that the Spanish authorities are doing nothing to prevent the downloading of copyrighted material from peer-to-peer sites.

In which case, what future is there for independent cinema in Spain? Will movie houses continue to show a range of films, or will the distributors continue to play it safe and show only blockbusters? Some in the industry are deeply pessimistic; others say independent cinema will adapt and continue to find an audience. Elvira Lindo is a writer whose best-known work, Manolito Four-Eyes, was adapted for the big screen in 1999. She describes the closure of Alta Films as "a symptom of the times we live in, when anything that doesn't produce a quick buck is looked down on. There is a change in the way we see cinema that is impoverishing this art. What's more the government is not protecting culture, and in fact is making it more difficult for the creative arts. That vital minority that nourishes a country is going to get smaller still," she concludes.

Some of Spain's neighbors have managed to keep the Americans at bay

Román Gubern, who has written extensively about and for the Spanish movie industry, says the ever-shrinking numbers of people prepared to pay to see original-version foreign-language films should come as no surprise. "There have been changes in the ways the audience watches cinema throughout the Western world, but in the case of Spain, it has been worse, because there has been no political will to defend the sector, in the same way that there has been no effort to protect our theaters," Gubern says. "The world has changed and the younger generations have moved on to digital entertainment."

He describes himself as belonging to a generation for whom movie houses were "a kind of refuge, a place to dream." His adolescence was defined by the films of George Cukor, Fellini, Godard and Truffaut, he says. "The closure of movie theaters that offer their own selection of quality films is something that will impoverish us all, whether we go to the cinema or not," he says. "This type of cinema has nothing to do with mass entertainment. The work of Víctor Erice or Pere Portabella are experiments that put cinema in the elite."

Gubern goes further, and as well as calling on the European Union to take measures to guarantee a future for independent cinema, says we are witnessing the twilight of a once-lively culture that emerged out of the ashes of World War II.

Less alarmist, but arguably more pessimistic, is the assessment of Pere Gimferrer, a poet and member of the Royal Academy of Language, who says that digital technology will do away with the need for distributors completely, and that films will go straight to movie theaters.

It is a difficult moment, but I am certain independent film will continue"

Gimferrer, who believes that training to be a film director is the same as learning to paint or write, says the biggest problem facing movie distribution in Spain is lack of knowledge. "This is the European country where people know least about cinema," he says. "We have a long-standing problem of education in this regard. Barely 10 percent of the important movies made around the world get here, and I'm not just talking about auteur or minority interest movies; big American movies as well: the most recent films by Coppola or Brian de Palma have not been shown here yet, nor Bertolucci's latest. We do not have the movie-loving tradition of France, Italy, or Britain, and the average Spanish viewer has dreadful taste. Anybody who thinks that television series are the best we have to offer in audiovisual terms is probably right."

Not everybody in the movie business is so pessimistic. Jaime Rosales, who has made three films since 2003's The Hours of the Day, believes there will always be a market for independent cinema. "If there are viewers who want this type of cinema, there will always be directors prepared to make it," he says. "We're not about to turn into mindless animals. Civilization is headed toward a lesser degree of brutalization. It is true that we are going through a difficult moment, a time of rapid change, but taking a longer-term view, I am convinced that independent cinema will continue because there will always be people concerned about ethics and aesthetics." The Barcelona-based filmmaker says there will always be a demand for movies that address grown-up themes: "movies that stimulate the mind, that question the way you think, and that don't offer any answers, in the same way that any other art form helps to educate and enlighten us."

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 will always be a demand for movies that stimulate the mind"

"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?"

Veteran novelist Juan Marsé, who has had more than half-a-dozen of his novels adapted for the movies, is not surprised at the decline of independent cinema, "bearing in mind the state of the arts in this country, irrespective of the crisis we are going through. The disappearance of independent cinema will contribute to the cultural impoverishment of Spaniards," he says. Marsé, who has also written for the small screen, says that cinema and television will have to find a way to work together if movies are going to continue to be made.

Television has long been one of the major distribution channels for independent cinema, and in recent years so have computers, tablets and smartphones. But while there is no doubt that these new platforms have grown at the expense of movie theaters and the DVD market, whether through legal or illegal downloads, everyone in the Spanish film industry agrees that television stations have largely turned their back on independent European cinema, instead trying to lure audiences, and advertisers, with Hollywood blockbusters.

The Spanish movie industry is particularly angry at the policy of state broadcaster TVE. In 2011, TVE purchased movie rights to the tune of 82 million euros, the vast majority of them through deals with the US majors. That same year, the amount of money set aside to buy European cinema added up to barely 1.2 million, an amount that was only possible thanks to an improved exchange rate with the dollar once it had paid off the Hollywood majors.

Everyone agrees TV stations have turned their back on independent cinema

TVE's budget has been cut by 20 percent this year, to 1.2 billion euros, and bosses there say the company is increasingly at a disadvantage to private channels. At present, around 45 percent of TVE's budget is funded by the taxpayer, along with a series of other taxes from businesses using the radio spectrum or paid by commercial television broadcasters based on the extra revenue they earn from advertising.

European Union legislation passed in 2009 now prevents RTVE from showing advertisements, starving it of around 475 million euros of revenue a year. Unlike France and Britain, Spain does not have a license fee to make up the difference.

TVE's remit also obliges it to buy a certain percentage of Spanish productions. In 2011, it bought 42 movies, 10 television movies, three animated films, and 37 documentaries, costing a total of 41.6 million euros, up seven percent on 2010. Columbia, Universal, Warner and Fox were the leading multinationals from which TVE bought productions, paying them 49.25 million of its 82 million budget, according to the Finance Ministry.

In some cases, TVE doesn't have the exclusive broadcasting rights, sharing them with other private and public entities. Despite the high price of Hollywood films, all too often they fail to capture the required number of viewers, something that is also noted in the tax office's accounts. The average price of a movie depends on the contract. Columbia does particularly well. The usual price of a premiere is around half a million euros, compared to the industry average of 338,000 euros. "It can be seen that the tariffs applied are higher than the agreements signed with Paramount or Fox, and there are fewer screenings," says the Finance Ministry report.

Despite the high price of Hollywood films, they often fail to capture viewers

TVE's most expensive purchase in 2011 was I Am Legend, the sci-fi blockbuster starring Will Smith, which cost the state broadcaster 819,200 euros, and was watched by 4.2 million people, a 22.3-percent audience share. But TVE doesn't always get it right: it paid 343,398 euros for Street Dance, showing it during its morning slot, and garnering just 383,000 viewers, or an audience share of 5.8 percent, or a cost of one euro per viewer.

Nobody in the Spanish movie industry believes that distributors will, or should, stop buying US products, but Ramón Colom, a former head of TVE and now an independent distributor, warns that steps will have to be taken to protect European and domestic independent cinema: "We cannot ban US films, but neither can we accept the de facto banning of independent and European cinema."

Meanwhile, González Macho and his team continue to search for miracle projects that could save Alta Films. "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 be done."

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