BARCELONA (Reuters) - The people of Catalonia are lining the Ramblas thoroughfare in capital Barcelona to catch a glimpse of a blonde starlet and a man in a green fishing hat shouting “action!”
Director Woody Allen has promised his new movie — starring current muse Scarlett Johansson — will be a “love letter to Barcelona, and from Barcelona to the world” in the same way “Manhattan” was to New York.
But Barcelona’s people are not so keen to be helping foot the bill for the movie, which local media have called the biggest public investment in the history of Spanish cinema.
Ten percent of the budget for “The Barcelona Project” — Allen’s working title — is being paid by the taxpayers of the city and the region of Catalonia.
Barcelona’s city hall is providing 1 million euros ($1.37 million) and the Catalan Regional Government half a million — a commercial investment the public widely misconstrue as a subsidy and which some argue should be going to home-grown works.
“He (Allen) must think we’re quite a stupid society,” said an editorial in Catalan daily El Periodico. Seventy-five percent of Catalans polled by the paper thought the public investment was “excessive”.
Although some officials say the investment is worthwhile to promote Barcelona to the world — the same way ‘Lord of the Rings’ helped New Zealand — the row has aggravated artistic tensions in the region where the first official language is not Spanish, but Catalan.
“The problem is ... they say there is no money for Catalan films, and they even put obstacles in the way of awarding subsidies to films made in the Spanish language,” Alberto Fernandez Diaz, leader of the opposition right-wing Partido Popular, told Reuters.
For authors and script writers who are excluded from local arts subsidies because they write in Spanish, such an investment in a film in English is particularly hard to swallow.
“There are talented directors here who can’t get their films made,” said one local director who did not want to be named for fear of making enemies in the industry. “Along comes Woody Allen with all his money and success and they help him? I could make five films with his budget.”
Barcelona’s mayor, Jordi Hereu, said it would be well worth the investment: “It’s a huge advertisement for the city that will be seen all over the world.”
Many within Spain’s film industry think the project is actually no bad thing for them either.
“The director might be American but everyone from the art director to the technicians is Spanish, so this is actually a Spanish film and will give our industry a huge boost,” said Pedro Perez, president of FAPAE, the Spanish Association of Film Producers.
A co-production only needs a 10 percent contribution from a Spanish production company to be considered a Spanish film. “The Barcelona Project” is a 50-50 co-production between Allen and Spanish company Mediapro, so is more thoroughly ‘Spanish’.
Perez argues it is inaccurate to portray Allen’s project as a big Hollywood filmmaker cashing in on European subsidies intended to foster home-grown talent.
The lead characters are played by Spain’s top movie stars, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. They first appeared together in 1992 in the steamy “Jamon, Jamon”.
Although the film’s storyline is secret it is believed to be a love triangle — with Cruz and Johansson vying for the same man.
Jaume Roures, executive producer with co-producer Mediapro, says the controversy stems from public misunderstanding that the money is a subsidy when it is actually a commercial investment.
“Barcelona and the rest of the country should be encouraging this kind of public investment which is normal in the United States,” he said.
“This isn’t about competing with American films, this is about showcasing Spain’s production capability, our talented technical teams, so of course it’s good for Spain’s film industry.”
Last year, Perez said, the production costs of all Spain’s 150 films put together did not equal the budget of Hollywood’s top blockbuster (Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End). That needs to change.
“People say Europe can compete with Hollywood because our scripts are better, or our actors superior, but if we can’t put more money into the production side, the reality is we can’t compete. Co-productions like this are the future.”
Marian Getino is one of many who are not convinced. She lives in the trendy Borne neighborhood of Barcelona, also home to the Picasso Museum. While she was happy to see a ‘little Hollywood’ on her doorstep, she thinks it is unfair that Allen should be paid for filming there.
“For someone like Woody Allen, who has so many resources, to be given public money is ridiculous,” she said. “And as for the film being an advertisement for Barcelona, this city is already famous, it’s not like we’re desperate to put it on the map.”