How Top Spanish Film School ECAM Has Become an Industry Force to Reckon With

Over June 10-14, Madrid is welcoming 300-plus industry delegates for the inaugural ECAM Forum, which is shaping up as the next go-to market for Spanish projects and co-productions, considering the stellar list of projects and attendees lined up.

Hosting the event is not a private company nor the industry arm of an A-list festival, but a film and audiovisual school-Madrid’s prestigious ECAM.

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Founded in 1994, the school, which offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses to more than 300 students a year, is Spain’s leading breeding ground for some of the country’s biggest names in film, television and advertising such as filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen and regular writing partner Isabel Peña (“The Beasts”, “Mother”) or cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (“The Road”, “The Sea Inside”).

The reasons for ECAM being so industry-facing comes down to the school’s status and founding principles, as explained by Rafa Alberola, head of ECAM Industria (formerly known as ‘The Screen’), the umbrella regrouping the school’s industry activities to support emerging talent, boost film production and the overall Spanish audiovisual sector.

“We are a private non-profit cultural organisation, whose prime focus is education, but also fostering knowledge in the audiovisual sector, and building bridges with the industry to facilitate alumni’s access to the job market. Therefore,” he continues, “we are not restricted to our core academic curriculum; we have a very practical approach, and as a Foundation, we don’t report to shareholders.”

Headquartered at Ciudad de la Imagen just on the outskirts of the Spanish capital, the school is financed mainly by Comunidad de Madrid, in association with a group of patrons including La Academia de Cine (Film Academy), AACCE (Spain’s Academy of Cinematographic Arts & Sciences) and rights management agencies for authors, directors and producers (SGAE-EGEDA, DAMA). The rest comes from student contributions.

An ECAM alumnus in screenwriting, and a trained writer, director and producer, Alberola said he joined the school in 202, to head ECAM Industria just a few years after ground-breaking initiatives to connect the school with post-graduate jobs and opportunities were being pulled off by a team of visionaries including producer and former ECAM administrator Luis Ferrón, the school’s current administrator Alba Wystraëte and director Gonzalo Salazar-Simpson.

“They were there at the right time,” notes the Spanish executive, referring to the first wave of production boom in Spain, spurred by U.S. streamers investments and Netflix’s opening of its first European production hub in Madrid in 2019, a year after “Money Heist” was announced as its most-watched non-English series ever.

Going back to ECAM’s industry-led programs that coincided with Spain’s production surge, Alberola cites Open ECAM, which gave alumni and staff members access to the school’s facilities and technical equipment free of charge, outside of busy academic hours. “That made a big difference and helped many emerging talents gain more visibility.”

ECAM School
ECAM School

ECAM Incubator Talent Hotbed

Then came ECAM’s Incubator (La Incubadora) in 2018, which is to this day hailed as one of the most successful talent development schemes in Spain.

Described as “a bridge between ECAM and the European film industry,” the program offers fledgling Spanish-based writers, directors, producers (ECAM or non-ECAM alumni) development grants of €10,000 ($109,000) to five feature film projects a year (including documentaries), based on their quality and international potential, on top of six-month mentorships with top experts in scriptwriting, production, financing, distribution, festivals, marketing and sales.

The grants are available to filmmakers for their first, second or third feature film projects.
“At ECAM, we saw how difficult it was for some of our alumni, especially in production, scriptwriting and directing, to get their first project off the ground as they naturally lacked experience, knowledge and connections. We saw that this was true not only for ECAM students but for the entire industry,” says Alberola who also heads The Incubator.

Data summarising the success of the first six ECAM Incubator labs speaks for itself: out of 30 selected projects, Alauda Ruiz de Azúa’s “Lullaby” which premiered at the Berlinale Panorama 2022 and was endorsed by Pedro Almodovar as “the best Spanish debut in years,” scooped three Goyas; “Ane is Missing,” by Basque newcomer David Pérez Sañudo picked another three Goyas, on top of two prizes at San Sebastian.

Other Incubator talents celebrated at top festivals include Álvaro Gago with “Matria” (Berlin 2023 Panorama), Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren with “20,000 Species of Bees” (Silver Bear best performance for Sofía Otera in Berlin 2023), Chema García Ibarra with “The Sacred Spirit” hailed by Variety as one of the best titles in Locarno 2021, and Jaione Camborda with “The Rye Horn”, a Golden Shell best film winner at last year’s San Sebastian. Meanwhile one Incubator project turned into a Netflix Original: the horror pic “The Wasteland” by David Casademunt.

Despite the wide festival exposure and critical acclaim of many ECAM Incubator titles, Alberola and his team still felt more was needed to further lift the next gen of Spanish nationals and Spanish speaking talents, and connect them with the global market. This is where the idea for the co-production market ECAM Forum emerged.

ECAM Forum Co-Pro Push

“At a time when production costs are spiralling and minimum guarantees from theatrical distributors are drying out, we felt it was essential to spotlight co-production to widen co-financing and distribution opportunities for emerging talents,” Alberola explains.

“Considering our close collaborations at The Incubator with top programmers from A-festivals ranging from Rotterdam, Berlin, Locarno, Sundance, Toronto or San Sebastian who visit us every year, we also wanted to build a bigger event which could benefit Spanish talent as a whole and boost their international visibility,” Albirola adds.

A total of eight Spanish features and co-productions in post-production, 14 in development, six short films and seven series in development are lined up for this week’s ECAM Forum. The Films to Come section, made up of projects in development looking for co-producers, take in five Incubator titles and three non-Spanish projects, invited through partnerships with Cannes’ Focus CoPro, Ikusmira Berriak (a residency program co-organised by San Sebastian) and BAM Bogota Audiovisual Market.

On the eve of ECAM Forum, Alberola felt the showcase was “already a success in terms of projects selected and people attending (300+ including around 50 international delegates).

Looking ahead, he said his priorities will be to consolidate both The Incubator and ECAM Forum, before turning to new initiatives. He will also focus on the other existing schemes: ‘La Distribuidora’ (‘The Distribution’), dedicated to the distribution of 10 ECAM graduation films and their festival strategy, international relations dealing with international seminars and partnerships, and ECAM talent job placements.

“Typically, the employability rate for our graduates in technical degrees – sound, editing, production design, etc – hits 80 to 90%. But it’s still tough for graduates in directing, scriptwriting and production, which is why again we have our initiatives,” Alberola concluded.

Spanish Pros Approval

A handful of Spanish industry reps added their voices to praise ECAM’s efforts to boost local productions’ and promising talents’ internationally, at a time when the government has put into action its 2021-2025 plan to make Spain the “Audiovisual Hub of Europe’ via soft credit facilities and tax breaks worth €1.6 billion ($1.75 billion).

“The majority of Spanish film producers do not consider the international market when deciding to produce a film, and when they do, it’s often too late,” noted Gloria Bretones, managing director of Begin Again Films sales outfit. “The ECAM Forum is therefore a much-needed initiative that I hope will help internationalize Spanish cinema.”

Spanish producer Eva Bodas of Entre las Piedras Films, behind Jorge Cantos’ project “Los Olvidados,” selected for Cannes’ Focus Copro 2024, cited both The Incubator and ECAM Forum as “ground-breaking and much needed” initiatives. “When you start in this industry as a young creator or producer, it’s always difficult to make a niche for yourself and develop your own projects, so initiatives like these allow new generations to have the best possible support. In addition,” she said, meeting other colleagues who are also developing their first features creates a network of support and friendships that is essential to have.”

Emmy-nominated Luis Gamboa (“Promesas de Campaña”) added: “I studied at ECAM, I believe in the film school, its community, its people and I completely support ECAM Forum and all ECAM industry activities. I love to just stay at home and write, but we need to gather to create a community and support each other,” he said.

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