Latin America's Film Industry Paradox: 5 Countries With Loud Fest Titles (and Quiet Box Office Payoffs)

6:00 AM 2/13/2016

by Agustin Mango and John Hecht

Film production is booming and local filmmakers are thriving on the festival circuit, but homegrown projects remain no match for Hollywood at the multiplex.

Berlin_Film_Festival_5_Split - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

Berlin_Film_Festival_5_Split - H 2016

The state of Latin American cinema is something of a paradox: overall film production and box-office numbers seem to break records every year, and there is certainly plenty of talent, with local auteurs regularly making the jump to Hollywood (think Narcos co-creator Jose Padilha or Hateful Eight co-star Demian Bichir).

But while the festival circuit consistently honors the region's best with top awards, only a handful of local films — mostly comedies featuring TV stars — make a dent at the local box office. And when they do succeed, they take most of an already reduced share of the market, which is heavily concentrated and dominated by Hollywood blockbusters.

The contrast between the art house and the multiplex is especially acute in these five markets:

  • Mexico

    Once again, Mexican talent is chasing Oscar glory, and the country's most promising filmmakers are making their voices heard on the festival circuit. But back home, the box-office numbers tell a different story. Locally produced movies captured less than 6 percent of Mexico's box-office share last year, while the lion's share of a record-breaking year ($892 million in receipts) went to Hollywood distributors.

    Even the road movie 600 Miles, which won best first work last year at Berlin and had the potential star power of Tim Roth playing the lead role, struggled to connect with audiences, grossing $247,000 after a five-week run.

    600 Miles writer-director Gabriel Ripstein believes Mexican audiences are generally looking for lighthearted content, so he’s hardly surprised that his thriller, about an ATF agent kidnapped by a gunrunner, was received with less enthusiasm than, say, the animated hit A Rooster With Many Eggs.

    Of the year’s top 10 domestic releases, not one deals with heavy subjects like Mexico’s brutal drug war. "People want to disconnect from that reality," says Ripstein, a former head of production at Columbia Pictures Mexico. "If someone wants to make a strictly commercial film, I’d recommend a comedy."


    Freshman filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios, 37, made a big splash in Berlin two years ago with his black-and-white road movie Gueros, which won best first feature in the Panorama section. The stylish Mexico City-set slacker film, in which Gael Garcia Bernal served as associate producer, went on to nab more than a dozen prizes, including multiple awards at the AFI Fest, Tribeca and best picture and director at the Ariels (Mexico’s version of the Oscars). Up next for Ruizpalacios is Museo (Museum), a fascinating true- life story about an unlikely heist of some 140 artifacts from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.


    Total box office for 2015: $892 million
    Highest-grossing foreign film: Avengers: Age of Ultron ($50 million)
    Highest-grossing local film: A Rooster with Many Eggs ($11 million)
    Berlinale titles: Soy Nero (Competition), Panamerican Machinery (Forum), Tales of Two Who Dreamt (Forum), Tempestad (Forum)
    EFM title: We Are the Flesh (Sales: Reel Suspects)

  • Chile

    In 2015, Chilean cinema grabbed the lowest market share in five years (3.4 percent) in a concentrated market where the top 10 films took almost half the box office and only two local films — The Church of Karadima and Alma — sold more than 100,000 tickets.

    "This is a global problem: Hollywood has seized the theaters," says CinemaChile CEO Constanza Arena. "You can’t compare apples with oranges and pretend art house films deliver the same figures as the mainstream. There are many shades of gray between the two." Indeed, festival favorites like Pablo Larrain’s Golden Globe nominee The Club or Patricio Guzman’s The Pearl Button barely made it into the local top 10. "Auteur cinema cannot sustain itself in the commercial theater circuit. It’s like trying to sell a steak to a vegan. No way," says Arena.


    A 2014 Grand Jury Prize winner in Sundance with To Kill a Man, Alejandro Fernandez Almendras, 44, returned to Park City with Much Ado About Nothing, a probing look at contemporary Chile that was inspired by a real life hit-and-run case. Next up: Three Broken Men, a comedy set in the U.S., and a dystopian sci-fi flick called The Gray Beyond.


    Total box office for 2015: $115 million
    Highest-grossing domestic film: The Church of Karadima ($1.3 million)
    Highest-grossing foreign film: Minions ($10.2 million)
    Berlinale titles: Much Ado About Nothing (Panorama), You’ll Never Be Alone (Panorama), Rara (Generation Kplus)
    EFM titles: The Church of Karadima (Sales: Ocio Films), The Memory of Water (Sales: Global Screen)

  • Brazil

    A Jupiter-size market in the LatAm solar system, Brazil continues to grow in film production (more than 130 films in 2015), audiences (up 20 percent), theaters (250 new screens) and market share for local product (from 12 percent in 2014 to 13 percent in 2015). In that concentrated scenario, only a handful of mainstream comedies are garnering serious numbers, while an array of films that make it big at festivals abroad hardly get by.

    "We only get to see lots of blockbusters in theaters. Then, when you make one art house film and try to enter these places, it seems as if the two don’t combine," says producer Antonio Junior. "I think theaters should be created for this kind of movie as well as a LatAm network that supports these theaters with LatAm films."


    Marco Dutra’s first co-directing gig, Hard Labor, screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard 2011. The 35-year-old helmer then turned to genre fare with When I Was Alive, produced by powerhouse RT Features, and co-wrote Karim Ainouz’s 2014 Berlinale entry Futuro Beach, starring Wagner Moura (Narcos). His upcoming relationship drama Era el cielo stars Leonardo Sbaraglia (Wild Tales).


    Total box office for 2015: $593 million
    Highest-grossing domestic film: Loucas para casar ($11.1 million)
    Highest-grossing foreign film: Avengers: Age of Ultron ($35.7 million)
    Berlinale titles: Don’t Call Me Son (Panorama), Time Was Endless (Panorama), Zona Norte (Panorama)

  • Argentina

    Concentration is a keyword in this market, where the top 10 films (out of 450 releases) grabbed 45 percent of the year’s film audience. While Hollywood is consistently dominant — the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens clogged half the country’s screens — a younger generation of Argentine mainstream filmmakers (Damian Szifron, Juan Taratuto, Ariel Winograd) is drawing larger audiences.

    Still, festival winners have a hard time breaking out, as the local market share for Argentine cinema (13 percent in 2015) is usually the result of only one or two releases. This year it was The Clan ($17.1 million), which garnered director Pablo Trapero a Silver Bear in Venice, and the cyber-thriller Abzurdah ($4.7 million).


    Erica Rivas’ acclaimed performance as a psychotic bride in the last episode of Argentina’s Oscar-nominated Wild Tales came after a successful stint as a TV comedian on the hugely popular local version of Married ... With Children. The 41-year-old actress next will be seen in Ariel Rotter’s 1960s-set drama Incident Light.


    Total box office for 2015: $228 million
    Highest-grossing domestic film: The Clan ($17.1 million)
    Highest-grossing foreign film: Minions ($36.1 million)
    EFM Titles: The Tenth Man (Sales: Filmsharks), The Black Frost (Sales: Still Moving), My Friend From the Park (Sales: Visit Films), Oscuro Animal (Sales: Gema Films)

  • Colombia

    The year 2015 was definitely a good one for the growing Colombian industry: a boost in production and three films in Cannes, with a Camera d’Or for Land and Shade and the now Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent topping the Directors’ Fortnight. However, attendance for local films remained scarce, and the industry was dependent on mainstream comedies. Apart from the mostly foreign-made doc Colombia magia salvaje, one-third of all tickets sold by local films came from a single feature, Dago Garcia’s Uno al ano no hace dano (1.1 million tickets), whereas festival winners barely cracked the 100,000-ticket mark.

    “We’re in a golden age that seems to be a sand age within the country,” says producer and Cartagena Film Festival director Diana Bustamante. “I don’t think the problems are just the exhibition chains — their goal is only to make money. It’s imperative that we strengthen the circulation of LatAm films within the region. We, the filmmakers, need to stop complaining about the perverse interests of the machinery and do our own thing."


    A co-writer on recent festival hits Los Hongos and La Sirga, Cesar Acevedo, 28, grabbed four awards at Cannes in 2014 (including the Camera d’Or) for his directorial debut, Land and Shade.


    Total box office for 2015: $164 million
    Highest-grossing domestic film: Colombia magia salvaje ($4.4 million)
    Highest-grossing foreign film: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 ($36 million)
    Berlinale title: Eden (Short Films Generation 14plus)