By John Hopewell
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - SAN SEBASTIAN -- Once, only a few years ago, ta question under discussion between the San Sebastian Festival and the Basque government, was how the festival, taking place at the Basque Country's most elegant seaside resort, could help the Basque film industry.
Now, increasingly, the talk is on how the Basque industry is energising the San Sebastian Festival.
Over the last week, as the 64th San Sebastian edition kicked into gear, a series of news announcements and events have underscored how the Basque industry has scaled in up budgets, ambition and international reach:
*"2 Guns" and "Everest" director Baltasar Kormakur has inked to co-produce "Red Fjords," a large scale crime thriller, set in 1616 Iceland, originated and produced by Bilbao-based Eduardo Carneros and also produced by Tornosal Films, which backed Academy Award winner "The Secret in Their Eyes."
*Entertainment One's Seville Intl. has acquired world sales rights to Basque Aritz Moreno's "Advantages of Travelling By Train" produced by San Sebastian-based Senor y Senora and Madrid's Morena Films.
*Basque Fermin Muguruza is set to direct, adapting his own graphic novel, "Black is Beltza," an original adult-targeting animated feature, chronicling 1967 U.S. counterculture - its icons, milestones and tumult - through the eyes of a young Basque observer.
*Bilbao-based Abra Producciones has clinched Mexican co-production for "Operacion Concha," a scam caper set at the San Sebastian Festival in the line of "Nine Queens" and "Ocean's Eleven," said producer Joxe Portela.
*Irusoin and Moriarti Produkzoiak, producers of "Loreak" ("Flowers") are in post on "Aundiya," a literal step-up in scale, turning on Mikel Jokin Eleizegi Artega, born in 1818 who, suffering gigantism, became the tallest man in Europe. A VFX-laden period piece about "sacrifice for the family," according to producer Xabi Berzosa,"Aundiya" is directed by "Loreak's" co-director Jon Garano and co-writer Aitor Arregi.
*One of the Basque Country's most prominent directors, Telmo Esnal ("Go!") will direct "Dantza" (Dance), set up at Txintxua Films, producer of Asier Altuna's San Sebastian competition entry "Amama."
One 2016 San Sebastian highlight has been the Moriarti-produced "Kalebegiak," a 12-part omnibus feature in which three generations of San Sebastian directors - among them, Imanol Uribe, Julio Medem, Daniel Calparsoro and Gracia Querejeta - deliver a personal take on San Sebastian.
Employing a 450-crew, "Kalebegiak" is a calling card for the depth of San Sebastian talent which punches far above its weight for a city of just 186,000 inhabitants, Berzosa said.
Launched in 2009, the San Sebastian Festival's Zinemira Basque sidebar boasts this year its biggest line-up ever, eight films in competition, seven out-of-competition, all world premieres.
In quantity and quality, "It's a good time for Basque cinema," said "Black is Belzia" producer Jone Unanua.
Basque Cinema's surge this decade is undeniable. Explaining it is another matter. Several factors are at play. Despite the crisis, the Basque government maintained its direct subsidy support for Basque films, which is crucial, said Joxean Munoz, the Basque government's deputy culture minister.
In contrast, Spain's central government funding for new directors has been slashed. ETB, the Basque public broadcaster, has become from about a decade ago a proactive partner in backing production, investing about EUR5 million ($5.6 million) a year.
From the '90s, a high-profile generation of Basque directors - Alex de la Iglesia, Julio Medem are just two - abandoned the Basque Country to pursue a film career.
"The big difference now is that there is a new generation committed to making films here," Berzosa argued.
The challenge now, to take the Basque industry to other level, is double-fold: Strengthening of financing links with the private sector; support to increase Basque cinema's international reach, including that of Basque-language films, Munoz argued.
That is already happening. "Red Fjords" will be co-financed with new 30% Basque tax breaks, up-and-running in the Basque Country's Vizcaya province, said Carneros. The co-pro pact was announced at the San Sebastian's Focus on Glocal Cinemas, a meet-mart network of policy makers, producers and creatives from European territories not using one of Europe's "big five" languages. It will host a pix-in-post showcase, Glocal in Progress, from 2017.
"Advantages of Travelling by Train" twins a Basque company with Morena Films whose Juan Gordon tutored Basque producers in the art of pitching international projects. The Basque government has put in place a bank guarantee scheme for the cultural and creative industries channelled through a Basque guarantee specialist, Elkargi, and supported by the Triodos Bank, which offers low-interest (1%) credit lines.
The program will be presented today at San Sebastian. One huge injection of confidence for the Basque film industry has been "Loreak," the first Basque-language movie to play in competition in San Sebastian, which was picked up for world sales by Film Factory and acquired by Music Box Films for U.S. release.
"One vital difference has been that the Basque-language in no longer seen as a factor limiting markets," Berzosa said.
Kimuak, a shorts program, has acted as a new talent hothouse, Basque filmmakers, highlighting talent.
"People of my generation built a Basque industry in a Spanish context. The next generation, often now in its early forties, and with a long experience in shorts, thinks much more in international terms," Munoz said.
Txintxua's Marian Fernandez agreed: "The generation before us put the financing tool for Basque cinema," both at the Basque government and ETB. Her around-40 generation is now reaping the benefits.
"I think the difference is the ambition of creators and producers, both economic and artistic," said Leyre Apellaniz at Senor y Senora.
Expect more significant international deals to be announced on "Aundiya" and "Operacion Concha," maybe in the near future.