Spanish cinema fraud revealed as subsidy inspectors find empty theatres

Film producers and cinema owners have been in cahoots to fake the numbers of tickets sold in order for Spanish films to hit the magic 60,000-viewer mark so that government subsidies will be paid out.

By James Badcock, Madrid

Leading figures from Spain’s film industry are accused of having been cooking the books for years in order to gain subsidies which make their productions profitable.

 According to an investigation led by inspectors from Spain’s culture ministry and which is now in the hands of court prosecutors, film producers and cinema owners have been faking the numbers of tickets sold in order for Spanish films to reach an audience target after which government subsidies are paid out.

The ministry targeted 12 films from 2008 for rigorous inspections, productions which between them carried off around €12 million (£8.5m) in public funding. When a film hits the magic 30,000-viewer mark, a sum of around €400,000 is automatically released to the producers, a figure which can rise to €1.5 million if the number of spectators reaches 60,000 and other requisites are satisfied.

What the inspectors found was that instead of thousands of spectators, some films were seen by just a few hundred people. One inspector told the newspaper El País that he was “the only person in a theatre” when it was recorded that more than 150 people had been watching. The ministry is now demanding that funds fraudulently obtained be returned to public coffers and has identified a further 32 films from the past three years which it suspects of having inflated viewer figures.

Mr Nice, a Spain-produced film from 2010 starring British actor Rhys Ifans, is one of the worst offenders, according to the reports by culture ministry inspectors. Two Madrid screenings of the biopic based on the real life of Welsh drug smuggler-turned-author, Howard Marks, were recorded as having 71 and 81 viewers, when in fact the real figure was two and one – in both cases including the inspector themselves.

There is no suggestion of any personal wrongdoing by Rhys Ifans.

In other cases, screenings which were cancelled due to the complete absence of an audience, were still accounted as having gone ahead with a fictitious number of spectators. The figures often follow a surprising pattern in that audiences appear to rise in the final weeks of a film’s run.

A film made José Luis Garci, who in 1983 became the first Spanish director to win the best foreign-language Oscar for Begin the Beguine, fell foul of an inspector in a La Rioja theatre, where 34 people were reported as having seen Holmes & Watson. Madrid Days, when in fact there were just two people present.

The former president of Spain’s Film Academy, Enrique González Macho, has been accused by prosecutors of involvement in a fraud totalling €731,900 in his capacity as a cinema owner. “I have never bought up tickets in my life”, Mr González Macho, who has since sold his business interests, argued at an event in Madrid last week, suggesting that there were political motives behind the investigation. “Bringing this up is a way of hiding our success; I am surprised it should come out now”.

Mr González Macho was at the head of the film industry when Spain’s pro-austerity government hiked VAT on theatre and cinema tickets from seven to 21 per cent, sparking bitter protests from the sector.

Miguel Bardem, a member of a veritable dynasty within Spanish cinema which includes the country’s most celebrated living actor, Javier Bardem, has accepted the accusation of fraudulently inflating audience figures for a 2007 film he had produced. At his trial in Madrid last week Mr Bardem agreed to pay a fine and return the subsidy received for El rey de la montaña (The king of the mountain).


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