Alicante’s Ciudad de la Luz film studio sell-off draws Hollywood big guns

Francis Ford Coppola among interested buyers of publicly financed studio which has struggled to attract production companies

It was to be a Mediterranean Hollywood, but in a few days the complex once described by the director Ridley Scott as “the best facilities in the world” is scheduled to be sold off in lots to the highest bidder.

The Ciudad de la Luz (City of Light) film studios were built in Alicante using €265m (now £195m) of public money supplied by the regional government of Valencia. However, the European commission has ruled that all €265m has to be repaid to the public purse. The ruling came after Pinewood Studios in London, home to the James Bond franchise, complained to Brussels in 2007 that subsidising first the studios, and later individual productions, amounted to unfair competition.

However, unlike many of Spain’s white elephants – airports with no flights, high-speed trains with no passengers – the Ciudad de la Luz could still have a bright future, bringing jobs and prosperity to south-east Spain where unemployment stands at 25%.

Step up Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, among other great films. Fred Fuchs, for 12 years head of Coppola’s American Zoetrope studios, is leading a consortium of US film industry people who want to buy the complex.

Fuchs, and Coppola’s right-hand man Michael McKay, are heading up a company called CineMar which is offering to pay off the complex’s €80mi debts and use it to produce up to 50 films and TV series a year. On a recent visit to Ciudad de la Luz, McKay said: “We want it to become a global point of reference for high technology, applying digital image’s infinite possibilities to cinema, video games and new platforms.”

The problem is the EU ruling obliges Valencia to sell to the highest bidder. A local entrepreneur, Isidro Bernabeu, claims he has the backing of 2,000 Chinese businesspeople who between them are willing to put up €160m to turn the site into the “Las Vegas of Alicante”.

The Valencia government now plans to sell it off in six or eight lots with the aim of keeping at least some of it for film-making. Juan Antonio Iniesta, president of CineMar’s Spanish partner Santa Ana, a real estate company, said: “Ciudad de la Luz shouldn’t be sold off to cover up previous bad management, it should serve the future economy of Alicante as part of the film industry. This can only happen if it’s sold in its entirety.”

Another problem is that Ciudad de la Luz simply isn’t worth €265m. The EU said in its ruling that no private investor would have built it in Alicante because it is hundreds of miles from the Spanish film industry’s centres in Madrid and Barcelona.

Costs soared as crews had to be shipped in and housed in hotels. The director of Asterix at the Olympic Games, one of the few major films made before the complex faded to black 2012, said he faced a $2.5m hotel bill for the production. On another production, the actors arrived each day by taxi from Valencia, a 200-mile round trip. To ameliorate costs, the government started subsidising individual productions, thus provoking Pinewood and other studios to appeal to Brussels.

“Bad management, people who didn’t know anything about the film industry, corruption, nepotism, incompetence – the problem wasn’t so much the location as it was run by people who don’t know anything about cinema. For example, it was the only film studio on earth that closed at the weekend,” said Eva Andújarwho worked as a film production coordinator in Ciudad de la Luz’s early days.

Andújar added that the incompetence was summed up by the time that director Quentin Tarantino came to visit and the doorman wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have a pass. The Pulp Fiction director went back to Madrid without seeing the studios.

Between 2005-9 the complex produced 28 Spanish productions and five co-productions, of which the most famous was Juan Antonio Bayona’s tsunami movie The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts. Manolete with Adrien Brody and Penélope Cruz was shot there and Coppola himself made some of Tetro at the site. Nevertheless, from 2004-10 the studios lost €84m against a projected profit of €12m.

The CineMar team say the location isn’t a problem as Alicante is well connected and furthermore people with skills will move there if they know there’s a flow of work. Iniesta also remains optimistic and says the Valencian vice-president has made it clear that the government wants it to remain a cinema complex.

“What the Valencia government is most concerned about now is to generate an economic recovery in the area and this is a magnificent opportunity to reinvent the region and bring a team here to establish what is one of the most powerful industries in the world,” he said.

The prize is within reach, but Coppola’s associates will have to make the Valencia government an offer they can’t refuse.

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