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Cannes 2012: Latin American Film Sector Is on the Rise

Elefante Blanco White Elephant
Pablo Trapero’s Un Certain Regard entry "Elefante Blanco" from Argentina

Increasing box office numbers, hot local filmmakers and a strong showing in Cannes this year offer proof that the region's once struggling production industry is thriving.

It’s a good time to be part of the Latin American film industry.

With 600 million filmgoers and a number of countries showing significant GDP growth, the region’s economic stability has provided a relative safeguard from the global financial crisis. Even in larger markets like Argentina and Brazil, state and foreign funds, as well as co-productions (mostly with Europe) are still the main channels to make films. Indiginous film production is on the rise, and Latin American cinema has had a become a regular presence at international film festivals offering global audiences a glimpse of how the region has grown. New film legislation has also played a key role in jump starting once non-existent film industries in countries like Venezuela and Chile.

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Film audience numbers have also spiked, showing significant increases in attendance to local releases throughout the region. The market share for Hollywood blockbusters is still significant, thanks to a lack of theaters, but progress is being made in a number of countries.

Featuring a plethora of film locations and experienced crews, a number of Latin American markets are working together to organize a regional network of film commissions to make information and resources more accessible in an effort to tempt foreign shoots (more attractive incentives are still needed) like the Twilight saga and Fast Five, which were recently shot in Brazil, by far the continent’s most mature film market.

Argentina

Argentina is well-represented in Cannes this year, with Pablo Trapero’s Elefante Blanco, Alejandro Fadel’s Los salvajes, Benjamin Avila’s Infancia Clandestina and Gonzalo Tobal’s Villegas screening in various sections. Still a main beacon in Latin American cinema — next to Brazil and Mexico — the growing Argentine film sector enjoyed increased international exposure, although local market share dipped to 7.5 percent after a 16 percent peak in 2009. On the fest circuit however, the country had a very good year, with local hits like Sebastian Borenzstein’s Chinese Take Away and indies like Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias, Santiago Mitre’s The Student, and Milagros Mumenthaler’s Back to Stay picking up awards at Cannes, Rome and Locarno. But while the country’s film output is driven by a healthy number of independent-minded filmmakers — not to mention regional onscreen stars like Ricardo Darin (currently attached to Walter Salles Terra alongside star Gael Garcia Bernal) — the problem is not enough moviegoers are showing up for local fare.

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“A lot of films have been produced in Argentina in the last two years,” says Oscar winning producer Vanesa Ragone (The Secret In Their Eyes), “and a big part of it has been very good, but we’re experiencing an exhibition crisis. Audiences have lost interest once again for local films, and prefer Hollywood blockbusters. While film attendance grew, a significantly lower number of people went to see local films.”
Ragone points to the fact that the most popular Argentine release last year, Chinese Take Away, sold less than a million tickets, and only a handful of local releases passed the 100,000 admissions mark.

Adds Ragone: “We have excellent promotion policies for local cinema. We still need to solve how to exhibit what we produce.”

Brazil

Brazil’s numbers are booming. A long period of economic growth has helped insulate the Brazilian economy against the global financial crisis. This is the third consecutive year that Brazil has achieved an increase in its box office (12 percent in total sales and 5 percent in tickets sold last year), with 181 new screens responsible for approximately 50 percent of the market growth, mostly concentrated in Rio, a recent location for Hollywood fare like Fast Five and Twilight. Numbers for local films are down however after a historic 2009 in which Elite Squad 2 beat Avatar at the box office.

Says Rio film commissioner Steve Solot: “There has never been a more auspicious moment in the evolution of the Brazilian multiplatform film and television production, distribution and exhibition business.”  

Chile

In a region where foreign financial support is a pillar for film production, Chile has recently become a favorite among international funds like Hubert Bals, World Cinema Fund and Cinefondation. Chile’s increasingly robust independent film scene is aiming for a fourth chair next to main LatAm players Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico.

The number of local Chilean releases is on the rise, with 28 last year, a record number that accompanies Chilean cinema’s increase in market share, which topped at 5 percent in 2011. Created 3 years ago, the international agency CinemaChile has made progress in bringing film industry people together to promote the Chilean cinema brand in fests and markets.

“Chileans are successfully learning how public-private organization is greatly rewarded,” says Bruno Bettati, producer at local shingle Jirafa and director of the Valdivia Film Festival. “The increase in theatrical releases is a clear sign of vitality.”

Colombia

Together with Chile, Colombia is one of the main players in the growth of Latin American cinema. The Colombian film sector has been slowly expanding its market, and is now at an all-time high both in terms of its production numbers and a growing presence on the international festival circuit, landing two films in this edition of Cannes  — Juan Andres Arango Garcia’s La Playa, in Un Certain Regard, and William Vega’s La Sirga in Director’s Fortnight.  Last year was he biggest for the industry yet, with a 13 percent increase in film attendance and over 10 percent in total box office numbers. The 2003 "Film Law" provided the financial basis for a thriving film scene, with local releases showing increasing production values. 

“We are now seeing new talent constantly exploring different aesthetic and narrative styles,” says Cartagena fest director Monika Wagenberg.  “The ‘trickle up’ effect from the new Argentine cinema, which has made its way across the continent, has now reached South America’s northern-most country with a forceful explosion of talent.  So it’s not surprising that this year there are two films in Cannes, for the first time ever.”

Venezuela

Similar to the film sectors in Chile and Colombia, local releases in Venezuala have recently seen a rise, going from 8 to 14 in only 2 years, with increasing admissions as well. Venezuela’s film market also witnessed a regional phenomenon that takes place in markets with only a handful of local films produced per year, where a well-crafted genre film more than held its own againt the Hollywood blockbuster machine: In 2010 Diego Velasco’s action drama The Zero Hour broke box office records and became the highest grossing Venezuelan film in history, out-grossing Inception and Iron Man 2.

Elsewhere, Venezuela made headlines recently when Paramount cancelled all of its releases and pulled out of the country due to currency trade restrictions implemented by the Venezuelan government on all foreign companies.

Still, there is no denying the film industry is maturing, with local film fund FONPROCINE providing key support.

“We’re experiencing a honeymoon with the film audiences, they’re going to the theaters to see Venezuelan movies,” says actor-director Frank Spano. “Thanks to the FONPROCINE fund, a percentage of the box office is meant to finance the film production that has started to exist in recent years. The Venezuelan film industry has been growing and becoming more consistent.”

Read more from THR's Cannes Daily No. 4 here (PDF).