Spain boasts an abundance of diverse locations. Its urban landscapes range from medieval to Moorish, with architectural gems and radical contemporary designs, while its natural settings include deserts, luscious forests and mountain ranges. Then there are the Mediterranean’s rocky coves and Atlantic’s sandy expanses that are soaked in an average 3,000 hours of sun each year — all connected by a reliable transport network.
But such visual delights would mean little to international producers without the financial incentives to go with them. In May 2020, the government enhanced the existing tax rebate from 25% to 30% for the first $1.2m (€1m) of local spend and to 25% (from 20%) thereafter. The cap for the total tax rebate on one shoot has also been increased from $3.7m (€3m) to $12m (€10m).
There are regional variations: Navarre, a territory within Spain that has its own taxation system, offers a 35% tax credit while the Basque Country offers a 30% tax credit (the incentive is applied with no quota limit). In the Canary Islands, which also has its own tax rules, the rebate for international productions is now at 50% for the first $1.2m (€1m) and 45% thereafter with a cap of $21.9m (€18m).
Spain’s production boom is being driven in part by the US streaming platforms, attracted to the country for its locations and also as a content provider for the vast Spanish-speaking global market. Netflix has chosen to base a European production hub in Madrid, and the streamer is making up the time lost due the pandemic lockdown in spring 2020.
Peter Welter, partner and executive producer of service company Fresco Film, explains the company is busier than ever, working with Netflix on three English-language series being shot in Spain: spy drama In From The Cold; steampunk series That Dirty Black Bag, starring Douglas Booth, Christian Cooke and Dominic Cooper; and season two of Top Boy. Fresco also worked recently with Sony on Uncharted, Ruben Fleischer’s feature starring Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg and Antonio Banderas, and German production Winnetou, produced by SamFilm for Warner Bros Germany.
“We haven’t stopped,” says Welter. “I warned my team we should take our time to rest a bit because I knew 2021 would be extremely busy. And now it’s full on. It’s going to be a record year for our company.”
Spanish-language content being made by and for streamers and premium cable companies includes Money Heist creator Alex Pina’s Sky Rojo for Netflix, and Alejandro Amenabar’s period sea-faring drama La Fortuna, for Movistar Plus, AMC Studios and MOD Pictures. Stanley Tucci heads the cast of the adaptation of a graphic novel by Paco Roca and Guillermo Corral, about the hunt for silver and gold from a Spanish ship sunk by the British in the early 1800s.
Once production was back up and running in 2020, Pedro Almodovar was one of the first behind a camera to make the short The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton, while one of the early features to return to business was The MediaPro Studio’s Official Competition co-directed by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat and starring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas.
International features shooting in Spain in the past year include Netflix’s Red Notice, starring Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds, and BBC and Amazon series The English, an epic western set in 1890 starring Emily Blunt, directed by Hugo Blick and produced by Drama Republic in association with All3Media International.
The English sees Spain doubling for the US — and the country’s versatile natural and urban landscapes make it an excellent stand-in for all sorts of locations, an advantage when pandemic restrictions continue to complicate global travel. For Netflix’s The Crown alone, Spain has doubled as Australia, Mustique, the US and Greece. “It’s a rarity that we shoot Spain as Spain,” says Mike Day, CEO of Mallorca-based Palma Pictures. “Most of the shows want to double Spain as an alternative destination. Requests can range from Syria and Afghanistan to the French Riviera.”
“For season three of The Crown,” says Andy Stebbing, a producer on the show, “we needed to creatively tell stories that were set in many varied locations. With Palma Pictures by our side, we found them all across southern Spain.”
Spain’s Canary Islands have long been a popular destination for international shoots, offering filmmakers generous financial incentives over the years. The volcanic archipelago has a different tax regime to mainland Spain and has, therefore, been able to offer significantly higher rates.
Since 2020, the tax rebate has risen from 40% to 50% for the first $1.2m (€1m) and 45% for the rest (up from a previous 40%). The per-project cap is set to rise to $21.9m (€18m), significantly higher than the $12m (€10m) in place for the rest of Spain.
The impact of the new incentives will be fully appreciated once the pandemic eases its grip on the industry and international travel, but the Canary Islands have already enjoyed a busy schedule in 2020‑21. Even at the height of the pandemic in Spain last spring, the archipelago was less adversely affected than the rest of the country and lockdown was shorter and less severe, giving more leeway to international productions to adapt their shooting plans.
Some productions resumed work in the second half of 2020, including HBO Europe’s first Danish original series Kamikaze, directed by Annette K Olesen and produced by Profile Pictures, which shot in August in Gran Canaria. Further productions to film over 2020-21 included George Clooney’s feature The Midnight Sky for Netflix, which was based on the island of La Palma in February 2020 with some filming taking place at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in Garafia.
Apple TV+’s Foundation, based on the sci-fi novels of Isaac Asimov and starring Jared Harris, shot on Tenerife. Meanwhile, Netflix’s new Alex Pina series Sky Rojo used locations on the islands as well as in mainland Spain, and the second season of Movistar Plus’s Pepe Coira-created series Hierro — which shares its name with one of the Canary Islands — also resumed shooting. Other titles shooting in 2021 on the islands include Danish director Frederikke Aspöck’s period drama Empire for Meta Film.
These join a portfolio that includes Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984, Universal Pictures’ Jason Bourne (where Tenerife stood in for Greece), Paramount’s Allied, Lucasfilm/Disney’s Solo: A Star Wars Story and Ron Howard’s In The Heart Of The Sea for Universal, as well as European shoots such as Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution.
The pandemic has also meant European brands such as Louis Vuitton and Volkswagen, that would usually shoot commercials in South Africa, have instead opted for the Canaries due to the travel restrictions.
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One of the country’s biggest selling points is its varied locations. Heritage and modernity sit side by side and the big cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Valencia offer a range of architectural styles, as do the Islamic-influenced cities of Cordoba and Granada. The country’s natural landscapes include mountain ranges and forests, as well as deserts, beaches and clifftops.
“It has been the number one tourist destination for years now due to its hospitality and breathtaking scenery including over 8000km of coastline in three different seas, that go from the tip of the Basque coast all the way down and around to Cadiz,” enthuses Walker at Aproductions. “Just three hours south from London and Paris by plane is a Spanish tropical paradise with 26C year round weather and incredible rainforest and mars-like desert locations.”
Amazon Studios’ series Hanna filmed in the Bardenas desert in the north east of the country and in Almeria on the south-east coast.. “We did a first scout based on the script, where most of the sequences were supposed to happen between Morocco and any place in the south of Spain,” says Ana Ibañez, a location manager on the series. “We were trying to find locations similar to Morocco to try to avoid travelling to another country. After the director’s scout, we were able to recreate many scenes in Almeria.”
Rachel Cole, line producer on Hanna, adds: “It was one of my best experiences shooting internationally. I hadn’t worked in Spain before, but the crew was exceptionally organised and allowed us to facilitate any type of filming that we wanted to reach our creative goal.”
HBO also has a strong association with Spain since filming parts of Game Of Thrones in the country. The broadcaster’s European arm has since shot an eight-part TV series adaptation of Fernando Aramburu’s novel Patria, directed by Argentina’s Pablo Trapero, in the Basque region in the north of the country.
Netflix shot parts of the first series of its hugely popular fantasy drama series The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill, on the Canary Islands in the south of Spain, and filmed parts of series three of The Crown in southern Spain.
"Seville was great for us," insists Stebbing, producer on the third series. "Amongst others it delivered the Beverley Hills Hotel (Hotel Alfonso XIII - who were fabulous with us – it’s always a challenge working in a hotel that is open to guests) and also Athens during the imposition of military rule in Greece during the late 1960’s. We had very good cooperation from the authorities including permission from the military to film in the Tablada Naval Base, which we used as a 1960’s LA film studio. Filming in the city was a very good experience, it felt smooth, without overly oppressive restrictions and a can do attitude. Of course being an Englishman, the weather helped."
Season four of The Crown also filmed in Spain around Almeria. “We shot The Crown at the Taberna’s Natural Park in Almeria, doubling it for Iraq, the Paris Dakar rally and a farm in Australia," says German Traver, the show's location manager. "It is a fantastic, huge space of great beauty that offers, despite its desert appearance, different textures and a great variety of environments that make it possible to recreate different places.”
Recent big US films to have chosen Spain include Paramount/20th Century Studios’ Terminator: Dark Fate, which filmed scenes in the Murcia region in the south east of the country, doubling for Mexican story settings, and Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984, which shot footage in the nearby coastal region of Almeria.
When it comes to facilities, the country still lacks a big film studio on a par with those in the UK or Germany. Carlos Rosado, president of Spain Film Commission, admits this is “a chronic deficit, but digital technology has also impacted on the conception of shoots and made big studio facilities less imperative”.
Secuoya Studios in the outskirts of Madrid is looking to fill the gap with its ambitious Madrid Content City project in Tres Cantos, a facility already hosting Netflix’s production hub. Presently, the 22,000 square metre site includes five sets, production services, offices and an auditorium. The next building stage, aiming to finish by spring 2022, will include five additional soundstages (one of 2,000 square metres and four of 1,500 square metres), more offices, services and a university campus.
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In March 2021, prime minister Pedro Sanchez announced a $2bn (€1.6bn) investment plan for the local film industry from 2021-25 to increase production, attract international investment and talent, and strengthen the presence of Spanish productions in the international market. Raul Berdones, president of Madrid Content City, believes that both this and the 2020 enhancement of the tax rebate will boost the sector. “We anticipate a four-fold increase in demand from international shoots,” he has said.
However, one challenge yet to be overcome is that arising from Brexit: UK film and TV producers are major clients of Spain’s locations sector, and face greater logistical hurdles ahead of any planned shoot. “We are having to wait too long for the paperwork to be sorted by the consulate in London, the amount of formalities and the cost to obtain working visas to come and shoot in Spain could turn some companies away,” says Fresco Film’s Welter. “Something needs to be done urgently.”
According to the Spain Film Commission, steps are already being taken by the Spanish government to address these complications and ease the access of UK crews to the country.
Local crews are accomplished and the feedback from international producers on production assistants, sound, art and cinematography crews is very good. Spain can also provide specialists for underwater shoots. Spain Film Commission offers free services and assistance for shooting all kinds of audiovisual works. It also advises on financing, location scouting and administrative services.
“Spain has a great service infrastructure, as well as quality accommodation, food and leisure establishments. Its public health, security and emergency services are among the best in Europe,” suggests Susan E Walker of production services company Aproductions. “Buyout rates for on-camera talent are unbeatable compared to other European countries.”
In addition to the Netflix facility, Spain offers studios in cities including Madrid and Terrassa, but these are generally more suitable for smaller-scale shoots and TV production (Netflix’s studio is not open to third-party productions).
The Canary Islands
The construction of a new studio on Gran Canaria, with two soundstages of 1,200 square metres and 1,800 square metres and a height of 12 metres, will help attract international shoots to the Canaries. It is expected to be open to productions in early 2022. There are also the facilities of the Plato del Atlantico studio complex in Tenerife, with one broadcast stage of 420 square metres and two stages of 550 square metres each.
Like in the rest of Spain, crew and service companies are excellent, with companies such as Sur-Film (Wonder Woman 1984, Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Volcano Films (Exodus: Gods And Kings, Evolution) as well as companies specialising in underwater shoots.
A high-speed rail network, 290,000 kilometres of motorway and roads, and 48 airports help international crews move around mainland Spain’s nearly 506,000 square kilometres, including 5,000 kilometres of coastline. Productions can swap snowy mountains for a city or the beach in a few hours. Transport is well developed between the mainland and the Canary and Balearic islands. Most of Spain’s islands have international airports, thanks to the established tourist industry, as well as a huge array of hotels and restaurants. Most offer good value for money.
In times of pandemic, production service companies underline the fact the country has a good health system.