© Carlota Valera

How to create a Spanish film festival in the land of tulips

Virginia Pablos settled in Amsterdam in 2013 and, with no previous infrastructure other than her passion for the seventh art, created a Spanish film festival that in 2019 will reach its fifth edition, with more than 15,000 spectators. This is the story of a brave girl in love with cinema and with an infinite capacity to carry out her dreams.

A need. A visceral need, “wanting for things to happen”. That is the word that Virginia Pablos (1979) uses most often when she tells the story of how she managed to create and take forward the Amsterdam Spanish Film Festival (ASFF). “A very straightforward and unconscious need”, she explains, that she has been able to dress with the right doses of courage, passion, charisma, daring and, above all, a lot of work. Before living in Amsterdam, Pablos lived in Salamanca, Montevideo, Edinburgh, New York and London. It was while staying in the British capital, at the beginning of 2013, when the idea of ​​creating the festival was born. “We felt that the time had come to close the London stage and the professional possibility of coming to Amsterdam emerged”, she says. Pablos decided to investigate the Spanish film circuit in the Netherlands and discovered that it was null. “It was enough to know that there was no festival to start organizing it!”, she recalls, smiling. “I still remember the first call I made: I phoned the Cervantes Institute in Utrecht, to make sure there was no other festival. They confirmed it to me, but they also told me that there had been one and they had to cancel it because I did not have enough audience. The funny thing is that I was not discouraged at all: I did not even think about it. Necessity and passion were greater than fear”.


Degree in Audio-visual Communication, Virginia Pablos realized internships, years ago, at the London Spanish Film Festival and at a London cultural centre, where she literally did everything: from managing and promoting cultural activities to placing chairs for projections or taking tickets at the door. “It helped me to understand what cultural management and events were going on. At the moment you think those are experiences that will not be useful, but now, looking back, I realize they were”, she says. Interested in the narratives in the margins of conventional cinematography, Virginia decided to found the Sin Fin Cinema, with the intention of programming and enhance the less commercial Spanish cinema. “I did it from a very unconscious place, with a lot of passion”, she says. And, thanks to being daring and persistent, she got her first big project.

“The London Tate was preparing an exhibition on how Picasso had influenced British artists, so I prepared a Spanish film program about the painter”. Without sponsors or middlemen, she sent her proposal to a generic mail, “something like [email protected]”, she remembers. And they answered yes, they wanted it. “I do not believe in closed doors”, she says: “I’m more like, let’s try: I have nothing to lose“. She assures that the experience of working with the Tate Modern helped him to remove “the weight of the hierarchy”. “When, in the midst of London’s cultural jungle, the Tate tells you we want your program, that gives you a lot of security”, she concludes. “I learned a lot but, above all, that made me want to start flying”.


So, once in Amsterdam, she got down to work. “Before taking a chance, I decided to do something small: schedule a screening of Spanish films once a month”. The project was called The Spanish film of the month. Pablos got the contacts of film distributors in Spanish and found out when they were going to be the next releases of Spanish-language films. “I went to the distributors and I said: look, give me your movies, so that I gather them in a small project that will help you with marketing. You lend them to me for free, without screening fees, and I’ll promote them on my network. Actually, I had just arrived and had nothing like a network. My network was the passion I endured, “she explains, amused. Her self-esteem and her charisma did the rest. The distributors accepted the pact and then, she, faced the first great challenge: creating a network of spectators interested in Spanish cinema in Amsterdam. What did she do? She took her bicycle and went through all the movie theatres in town where there was a Spanish or Latin American film programmed. “I was going to the cinema exit and waited there with a list. When people left, I explained to them that I was creating this project and if they wanted to give me their mail to keep them informed of the projections that we organized about Spanish cinema. “In this way, she gathered a mailing list that ended up being an important tool for the festival. “I bluffed a little bit when I did not have anything like a network, to be able to get the movies” -explains Virgina Pablos between laughs. “And then it was like: I sold this, and now, I certainly do have to create a network, so I go to the movie theatres and ask frontally for mails”. And it worked.

The fact that Spain is a land very present in the Dutch imaginary was definitely helpful. Most Dutch people have spent a summer in that country or dream of moving to live there. According to Pablos’ experience, “Spanish cinema is the perfect tool to stay connected with the country you love. It is something that happens to many of the Dutch spectators that are faithful to the festival. They come to watch the movies, they drink a glass of wine and they feel they are in Spain, without leaving the Netherlands”, explains Pablos. One of the characteristics of the festival is that all the events end with a glass of Spanish wine or an imported beer for the attendees. Even, sometimes, there are ham and tapas tastings. Everything is always free. “Amsterdam has many festivals and you had to differentiate yourself in some way. The festival was born with this idea. I like to take care of the spectators, to give them that added value”. She achieved it by forging alliances with Spanish brands that wanted to settle their products in the Netherlands. “There is a lot of Dutch audience in love with Spain. It’s the people who come to the festival and it’s the same people who want to enjoy Spanish products. What we are trying to do is transfer the same target to the brands, in this is way we are going to benefit each other. So, I can avoid a cost and get attention while I pamper the sponsors and the audience”. Indeed, it is model of success, supported by figures and brand loyalty. “We all win”, says Pablos.


“The first edition was 50% Spanish public financing, 50% private financing. I took it forward with a budget of 8,000 euros”, recalls Pablos. Initially, the business model was based on sharing the proceeds of the box office in equal parts with the cinemas and, hence, covering the costs (screening fees for the films, design and printing of programs and flyers, Dutch communication agency, etc.). “I have not had money to invest in my company, I have invested my time. The economic income was not compensated”, explains Pablos. Everything changed from the fourth year, third year, when the festival began receiving more Dutch public aid. “When we showed the Dutch funding that there is an audience that is demanding to have Spanish cinema, we started receiving the funding that has helped us to have a healthier and more professional situation. And it is now, in the fifth edition, when we are settling down economically”, explains the director of the ASFF.

And, what about the future? “This year, my main goal is to grow in terms of audience. I want to have more money to be able to invest more in communication next year and reach more people. Let everyone in Amsterdam know that this festival exists”, says Pablos. “In addition, this is the second year that we took the festival to Rotterdam, and we want the community there to grow”. And, in the long term? “We would like to extend our arms to other Dutch cities and even to Benelux. To make a festival close to the tour format, with movies touring different cities, and keeping only a part of the events in Amsterdam”. Certainly, it is hard to believe that the ASFF may shrink. The current year, 20 films, a whole series, live music, a brunch and even a themed night party have been organized. “In the end, I always escalate and go on organizing activities”, jokes this unstoppable creator.