Brazil battles image problems amid b.o. boom

"Elite Squad 2"

Officials want country portrayed more positively

It was the middle of the night in Jardim Tiradentes, one of Sao Paulo's rougher neighborhoods. A two-man crew was waiting to film a police raid when chief inspector Rafael Correa Lodi broke the bad news.

"If there's a risk of them killing the girl, there's also a risk they will fire at us -- so you guys have to stay here."

He was addressing director Jorge Atalla and his cameraman, who had been following the inspector's anti-kidnapping team for close to a year for the upcoming documentary "Sequestro." Now, just as the cops were about to storm a shabby building where a 6-year-old girl was believed to be held, Atalla was forced to withdraw.

If some had their way Atalla might cease making his film altogether.

With Brazil's film industry in the midst of a major resurgence, local filmmakers, intent on chronicling the country's character in unflinching fashion, find themselves at odds with a strategy to improve the global perception that Brazil is a crime-ridden land with little to offer the international film community.

Regardless of image concerns, within the local film sector plenty has changed and optimism is running at an all-time high. Box office revenues rose 33% in 2009, while the market share for indigenous releases was up 43% to 14.2%, according to Pedro Buchter, editor of preeminent local film trade Filme B.

Ticket grosses are up 20% through July and the film sector is expected to crack the R$1 billion ($568 million) mark for the first time by year's end.

"It's Brazil's time," says Sergio Leitao, CEO of Riofilme, a municipally funded organization that fuels film production in Rio. "We have to live up to the challenge."

Brazil is doing just that.

Massive initiatives both private and state sponsored plan to add several hundred more screens to the market in the next few years. In the private sector Mexican exhibitor Cinepolis, new to the territory, is investing $284 million into unveiling 290 new screens in the next two years, while the government's Cinema Near You program will extend low-interest credit lines to national exhibitors who build in small towns or highly populated urban areas that lack theaters.

Besides the expected growth in exhibition, well-funded new film schools and state-of-the-art studio facilities, government-sponsored groups like Cinema do Brasil and Riofilme are actively championing Brazil as a welcoming place to make movies.

Consider:

The city of Paulinia, a small oil-rich municipality near Sao Paulo, just spent more than $60 million on Polo Cinematografico de Paulinia, an expansive studio lot with state-of-the-art 3D animation stations and more than 5 million square feet of land reserved for sets.

Leitao's Riofilme is negotiating with Summit Entertainment to shoot part of the final "Twilight" installment in the Rio area and has reportedly offered to cover 50% of production costs that "Twilight" would accrue there. Instead of coming from Riofilme's budget, the city of Rio would invest a portion of its marketing budget into the production.

Riofilme is also working with Conspiricao Filmes on landing a Woody Allen production in Rio. After a visit to Rio's emerald shores late last year by Allen's agent, Steve Tenenbaum, and his producer, Letty Aronson, Mayor Eduardo Paes promised he'd raise whatever capital is required from private investors, if Allen commits. Riofilme also pledged $1 million toward the project, hoping Allen will conjure urban splendor similar to 2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

In addition to Paulinia and other sophisticated studios like Estudios Quanta, also Brazil's largest rental house, the country boasts versatile locales, agreeable weather and a thriving TV industry, meaning facilities and manpower are already in place. And while Brazil's currency has been strengthening -- at almost 1.8 Brazilian Reais to the dollar, compared with 2.6 in 2008 -- the rate of exchange is still appealing to international producers.

"With such a huge television industry, there are qualified crews everywhere," says producer Eduardo Levy, who recently started the Brazilian Film Network in Los Angeles to aid production companies considering a Brazil shoot. "Your average working week in Brazil is six days and you don't have to pay as much in overtime, pensions or health. The cost of personnel is much lower (than in other parts of the world)."

Against all this, however, comes the negative image of Brazil -- and Rio in particular -- as a center of violence, that films like Atalla's have unfortunately perpetuated.

Daniel Filho’s biopic "Chico Xavier" has taken in more than $17 million at the local box office this year.
 

"People think of Brazil in terms of corruption and only our bad side, and I am also a bit responsible for that," concedes director Fernando Meirelles, whose "City of God" (2002) both dazzled audiences worldwide while reinforcing stereotypes about the slums (or "favelas") surrounding Rio de Janiero.

In the eight years since "City of God," little has changed in the way Brazil is viewed around the globe.

"The negative [has not been] contextualized with the positive or anything in between, thus leaving the spectrum incomplete," producer Joshua Skurla says.

Many local filmmakers remain intent on creating portraits of Brazilian life that are as vivid as they are genuine, irrespective of the role they play in forming perceptions abroad -- as with Atalla's "Sequestro" and Jose Padilha's upcoming police actioner, "Elite Squad 2," the follow-up to the brutally violent original from 2007.

With "Squad 2" about to receive the widest release of any Brazilian film in the past 20 years, thanks in larger part to Padilha's own ambitions, he and his team are more interested in filling theater seats than rebranding Brazil's image.

"I want my company and the investors of the film to make as much money as possible so I can make other films," he says. "[But] every single movie that I have done has been about social commentary [which] I think can be entertaining. The more people that go to watch the movie the more debate I generate."

One project that could positively impact the country's image is Skurla's "Rio, I Love You," the latest installment in the Cities of Love franchise that includes 2006's "Paris, I Love You" and 2009's "New York, I Love You."

With principal photography planned for first-half 2011, Leitao notes that "the idea is to attract films to Rio and promote Rio in a positive way. It would be like product placement." Make no mistake, Leitao's Riofilme sees international productions not only as opportunities to shift the paradigm but also a significant measure to boost foreign spending in the local sphere.

For Meirelles, who, like Padilha, has already signed on to direct one of the "Rio, I Love You" segments, changing negative stereotypes matters.

"After showing the hard part, it's going to be good to show a good part of the city," he says. "['Rio, I Love You'] is going to be very positive, to compensate for 'City of God.' "

Perhaps.

But back in Jardim Tiradentes, that's the last thing on Atalla's mind.

Shortly after he and his cameraman were forbidden to enter the building, they managed to recruit one of the officers to carry a small DV camera inside. Atalla had to sit out, but the footage proved invaluable, capturing the liberation of the young girl.

When Atalla saw the footage, he was thrilled. Now that the film is finished, however, his feelings are decidedly mixed.

"Most people I know who end up coming here for a couple of days wind up wanting to stay more, but ['Sequestro'] could have a negative effect, that's for sure," he admits. "[But] a documentary needs to show things we have not seen before and I was trying to show something that I had not seen. I never thought about whether it would frighten people from coming to [Brazil]."



Five names to remember as Brazil prepares to conquer the global film world

Alice Braga (actress)


Since a breakout role in 2002's "City of God," Sao Paulo native Braga has quietly held her own alongside a number of Hollywood heavyweights. Her big break came in 2007's "I Am Legend," where she played a sizable role alongside Will Smith. Braga, who is the niece of Sonia Braga ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"), recently shared the screen with Forest Whitaker and Jude Law in this year's "Repo Men," followed closely by this summer's Adrien Brody starrer "Predators." Next up is the thriller "The Rite" with Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins, and a role in the Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."

Jose Padilha (director)


A former investment banker-turned-documentary filmmaker, Padilha made a strong impression with his first effort, "Bus 174," which landed a DGA nom for outstanding doc in 2004. He followed that up with the feature "Elite Squad," which not only won the 2008 Golden Bear in Berlin but also caught the attention of studio execs stateside. Padilha has an ambitious slate of features in development, including the prison drama "Marching Powder," which will be produced by Brad Pitt's Plan B and stars fellow producer Don Cheadle. Padilha is also on board to helm the sure to be action-packed "The Sigma Protocol," based on the novel by Robert Ludlum. Coming in October though is "Elite Squad 2," which will receive the biggest rollout for a Brazilian film in 20 years.

Frederico Lapenda (producer)

One of the founding fathers of mixed martial arts, Lapenda is nothing if not industrious since first transitioning into film with the HBO documentary "The Smashing Machine." After cutting his teeth working under Peter Gruber at Mandalay Entertainment, Lapenda has produced more than 13 films since 2002. He has four projects in various stages, including "Blood Out" starring Val Kilmer and 5O Cent, and "Sequestro" (Kidnapping), a hard-
hitting Brazilian documentary that Lapenda also plans to adapt into an English-
language feature.

Braulio Mantovani (writer)

After a long and winding road that included working as a PA and camera assistant, Mantovani acquired a graduate degree in screenwriting in Madrid before returning to Brazil to pen "City of God" in 2002. Mantovani followed that up with screenplays for "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation" and "Elite Squad," making him one of the primary forces behind three of the most acclaimed Brazilian films of the past decade. After having scripts in development at Lionsgate and Imagine, Mantovani is applying his talents to the Fernando Meirelles-produced "VIPs," out this year in Brazil, and a project for the U.K. Film Council about a nanny who travels from Bolivia to Brazil and then the U.S.

Seu Jorge (actor-musician)

After growing up in the slums of Rio, Jorge started acting in his 20s. Homeless at the time, he was mentored by a university drama professor who allowed him to attend classes during the day and sleep on campus at night. While pursuing a career as a musician he landed a part in "City of God," and a number of Brazilian roles followed. But Jorge is probably best known outside Brazil for his whimsical appearance singing David Bowie songs (in Portuguese, no less) in Wes Anderson's 2004 comedy "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." Handpicked by Jose Padilha for a meaty role in "Elite Squad 2," Jorge has plans to meet with Vincent Cassel this year to discuss working on the soundtrack of an upcoming project.
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