The Spanish box office may have risen in 2010 but the market remains squeezed by piracy. Chris Evans reports

Although the Spanish box office was up 3% year-on-year to hit $846m (€655m) in 2010, it remains one of the tougher European markets because of its rampant piracy and weak DVD sector.

Much of the year’s growth was thanks to the theatrical success of 3D hits such as Avatar (which grossed $69m in 2010), Toy Story 3 ($32.7m) and Alice In Wonderland ($30.4m). US titles dominated the Spanish marketplace, claiming 27 slots in the top 30, with the remaining three taken by Spanish titles: drama Three Steps Above Heaven ($11.5m), horror film Julia’s Eyes ($9.2m) and comedy Death To Ugly People ($9.2m). The largest hit outside of Spanish and US fare was The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, which took $3.5m, though this compares with $13.5m for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first film in the Millennium trilogy.

“Only a handful of local films succeeded in 2010 because they were packaged well with a clear target audience in mind,” says Manuel Monzon at distributor Vertice Cine, whose biggest hit last year was Shutter Island, with $11.3m.

In a market where the TV networks are picking up fewer films and piracy has spread like a virus, killing the Spanish DVD market and stunting growth of VoD, Spain’s independent distributors are becoming much more selective about what they buy. Spain accounted for 20% of worldwide illegal downloads on the top 10 films of 2010, and just before Christmas a new anti-piracy bill allowing sites to be shut down was dismissed by Spanish parliament, causing consternation in the industry.

“We’ve turned our focus to cast-led films and clear genre titles that we know will work across the three windows and are strict about what we choose,” says Robert Walak, a key buyer for Aurum and head of acquisitions at sister company Momentum Pictures, which are both part of Canada’s Alliance group. “It’s the titles in-between genres that face problems.”

Aurum, one of the largest independent distributors, scored success in 2010 with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($27m) and has picked up titles including Joel Schumacher’s Trespass, starring Nicolas Cage, for release in 2011.

Other larger independents include DeAPlaneta, which scored $4.3m from The Hurt Locker in 2010 and will release titles including Ironclad, starring James Purefoy and Brian Cox, in 2011, and TriPictures, whose top earner in 2010, Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past, took a disappointing $2.5m. The company is gearing up to release The Fighter and Season Of The Witch.

The market remains tough for the small to medium indie distributors such as Golem, Alta Films, Vertigo, Filmax and Wide Pictures.

‘We’ve turned out focus to cast-led films and clear genre titles that we know will work across the three windows’

Robert Walak, Aurum

“I’ve never seen it so bad,” says Enrique Gonzalez Kuhn, head of acquisitions at Alta Films, whose best performer last year was Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger ($5.7m). “Piracy is tearing the industry apart and the TV stations are picking up almost nothing. We’re buying fewer films and paying more money for them because there are fewer quality European indie titles available and greater competition to pick them up.”

“We’ll continue to show our own titles and are open to international projects that have potential to succeed at the box office, but won’t just pick any project at any price,” says Julio Fernandez, president of Spanish studio Filmax which had great success with Slumdog Millionaire ($15m) in 2009, but whose biggest hit last year, Precious, took just $8m.

“Distributors are only buying films if they are convinced of its potential at the box office, because theatrical is often the only way of recouping their costs,” says Klaus Rasmussen, sales manager at Bavaria Films International.

Nevertheless, Spanish distributors will still be on the lookout for standout titles at Berlin and Cannes, and 2011 should be a better year for the smaller distributors with Wanda Films’ Among Wolves having taken $3.8m since its release at the end of last year, Alta Films’ Even The Rain having taken $3.2m so far and Paco Cabezas’ Neon Flesh taking $600,000 on its opening weekend on January 21.

There is also a range of exciting local projects due for release, such as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intruders (UPI) and Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (Warner Bros).

Spain at a glance

Population 47 million
Number of cinema sites 744
Number of cinema screens 3,874
Number of digital screens 820
Number of 3D screens 620
Frequency of cinema-going per year 17.8% of Spaniards go to the cinema every month
TV households 99.7% of Spaniards own a television set
Internet/broadband penetration 51.3% of homes have access to the internet
Cost of piracy Legal content rights owners lost $6.83bn in the first half of 2010

Sources: ICAA, FECE, INE