Government involvement stymies creativity, interest in film industry

Story by Danny Mortimer

SALAMANCA – Outside, the cafes along Avenida Portugal are bustling with life. Inside the lobby of the Cines Van Dyke, nestled in Salamanca’s lively main street, it’s hard to tell that the movie theater is open for business.

The Cines Van Dyke is one of many Spanish movie theaters dealing with declining attendance raising ticket prices due to value-added tax increases. Photo by Danny Mortimer

The Cines Van Dyke is one of many Spanish movie theaters dealing with declining attendance after raising ticket prices due to value-added tax increases. Photo by Danny Mortimer.

A handful of couples mill about waiting for Sunday night’s 10:30 shows. A lone ticket-holder buys popcorn from the only employee on duty. The poor attendance isn’t due to the film being shown – Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel has garnered strong reviews – but a more practical issue, a local man at the theater says.

“The problem is tickets are too expensive so now people don’t go,” said Juan Villerillos.

Ticket prices in Spain are rising to levels that are causing many Spaniards to spurn the cinema. “A couple months ago, you could buy tickets for about 3 euro,” or a little more than $4, said Isabel Barrios, a professor of Spanish film at the University of Salamanca. “Now they cost about 6.50 euro,” which is about $9.

The reason for the sharp increase is part of an ongoing political dispute. This year, funding for the film industry from the right-wing Partido Popular (The People’s Party) has been cut by almost 15 percent. Additionally, the value-added tax on ticket sales for theaters has been raised from 8 percent to 21 percent, causing many cinemas to increase their ticket prices drastically while others have been forced to shut down. In comparison, in France, the tax is 5 percent; in Italy it’s 10 percent.

Many believe this dispute dates back to the Iraq War’s start more than a decade ago. Some of the most vocal opponents of government involvement in the Middle East were Spanish actors and filmmakers.

The result, many believe, was a targeting of the film industry by the Ministry of Culture, led by Minister José Ignacio Wert. “Wert said in Parliament that actors did not pay their taxes and could not be trusted,” said Barrios. In particular, Javier Bardem was singled out, likely because his mother and uncle were known to support left-wing parties.

Raquel Martin-Maestro Arranz, spokeswoman for the ministry, said there is no evidence that the recent cuts have hurt the industry.

The lobby of Cines Van Dykes is emply, even just before a 10:30 pm screening. Photo by Danny Mortimer.

The lobby of Cines Van Dykes is emply, even just before a 10:30 p.m. screening. Photo by Danny Mortimer.

“Our website has all the information needed to see that Spanish film is doing well,” she said. Box office figures are not available on that site past 2010. However, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics lists data up until 2011, and shows that ticket sales have been steadily decreasing. Between 2004 and 2011, they dropped by 34 percent – which is even before the 2012 tax hike.

Spanish filmmakers feel under attack. “The taxes have been a catastrophe for us,” said Fernando Trullols, Spanish director and winner of the 2012 Goya Award for Best Short Film El barco pirata. “Anyone with common sense can see that it hurts us and our audience.” The cuts have led to what many artists and filmmakers in Spain have feared: a watering down and homogenization of film in the country.

Instead of more experimental and artistic films, which will almost always generate a smaller profit, directors are instead choosing to create films that the government deems “quality” in order to receive their funding and make money at the box office. “Not only are we dealing with lack of support from the government, but Spanish film has to compete with the movies from the United States,” said Trullols.

Another consequence of the increased tax on filmmaking is a lack of films being shot and produced in Spain, which is hurting the industry’s revenue. The situation in Salamanca is a fitting representation of the rest of the country. Not only are there fewer moviegoers; there hasn’t been a feature film produced in the city since 2006, whereas previously there was one being shot on location nearly every year since the 1950s.

“Most of the productions that film here now are documentaries,” said Enrique Cantabrana, head of the Salamanca Film Commission. “We have about four productions here per year, which is a bit below what it was in the past.” Cantabrana says that most of the films are not state-funded, but instead are financed by private groups either from Spain or out of the country. “The film industry only represents about 5 percent of the economy in Spain. It’s a very small part of it,” he said.

One of the most famous working Spanish directors, Pedro Almovódar, was quoted last year saying the Spanish government wants to destroy its film industry. Amid the budget cuts, tax hikes and outright confrontation of members of the industry in Parliament, Almodovar and many other filmmakers and actors worry that the People’s Party will cause independent Spanish films to suffer in quality and possibly disappear altogether.

“The government doesn’t respect the culture,” said Trullols. “This divorce between the state and the film industry is terrible for our way of life.” Already, the international film community is noticing that Spanish films are not making an impact at independent film festivals such as Cannes or Sundance, he said.

It will be up to the youth of Spain to continue the practice of artistic and creative filmmaking, despite the lack of support from their government. Next month, at the third consecutive La Rana Film Fest in Salamanca, hundreds of students from Spain, Latin America, Portugal and Argentina will do just that.

“The students are not bothered by the cuts,” said Mónica Alaejos, professor of audiovisual communication at the University of Salamanca and the faculty leader of the festival. “They just want to have careers in the industry and they’re making their best effort to do that. When they show their short films in June, it will be clear that there is still a lot of interest and talent inside these young people.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 16, 2014, in Reporting from Salamanca and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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