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ARGENTINE GOV’T OKS AID

At the end of 1994, Argentina’s diminishing film industry resembled the pampas, flattened by the Americanization of the market. The solitary peak on the landscape was Carlos Galletini’s “Cohabitation,” which claimed only modest B.O. but at least rose above the graves of more ambitious efforts such as Hector Olivera’s “A Shadow You Soon Will Be.”

But it wasn’t only Hollywood’s might – scooping 69% of B.O. – that contributed to the worst-ever year for Argentine cinema. Lengthy bickering between film, video, TV and state interests delayed Congress from passing a long awaited subsidy overhaul: the Law of Audiovisual Activities.

Finally, Congress passed the law in mid-October, warming prospects for an industry revival in 1995 by deepening the annual subsidy trove from $10 million to an estimated $50 million. The new coin will come chiefly from Federal Communications Commission equivalent Comfer, which levies an 8% tax on all TV ad spending, a quarter of which will now be passed along to filmmakers.

Despite the regulatory delay, Antonio Ottone, the first head of the fledgling National Institute of Film and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) set up by the new law, went ahead and budgeted some of the coin for this year. The slate consists of 17 features, 18 telefilms and 15 short features, with an average contribution of $535,000 – 50% of the average total budget – for the features, plus further credit of up to $400,000.

Since it’s almost impossible for Argentine pix to recoup in the home market alone, Ottone encouraged an international approach to content. But leading filmmakers objected so strongly to Ottone’s criteria that the topper resigned.

Culture Minister Mario O’Donnell personally took the helm at INCAA March 13, appointing Bernardo Zupnick as his P.A. O’Donnell promised not to interfere with projects begun under Ottone, while Zupnick says INCAA’s goal is now to concentrate resources and make just 10 quality pix per year, instead of a planned 25.

To access the new credit, subsidy-seeking projects must enter quarterly contests to be decided by jurors appointed by INCAA’s advisory board. The first batch of entries currently are under review and jurors have until the end of April to greenlight the first four features.

The jury system is designed to remedy a recent up-and-down history of subsidy management. When Carlos Menem became president in 1989, things started well, with Jose Anastasio at the helm of the old National Film Institute (NFI). Anastasio’s term spawned two big 1992 successes: Eliseo Subiela’s “The Dark Side of the Heart” and Adolfo Aristain’s “A Place in the World,” along with Marcelo Pineyro’s 1993’s hit “Ferocious Tango.”

The revival came to an abrupt halt when Anastasio was felled by a heart attack. Guido Parisier proved an inept successor and was widely believed to use NFI cash for other than artistic purposes.

But now the industry is showing signs of recovery. Subiela’s “Don’t Die Without Telling Me Where You’re Going” is one of several pix that may start lifting the industry from its doldrums.

It also is the first to be financed by media giant Clarin, which runs top TV net Artear (Channel 13) and 550,000-subscriber cable operator Multicanal. Artear has previously worked with film directors on well-received miniseries such as Fernando Ayala and Hector Olivera’s “Nueve Lunas.”

Once the new subsidy law takes effect, Argentina’s top cable operators will be obliged to co-fund one or two films per year. The ruling follows a compromise between operators and the state, which had initially proposed a 10% tax on cable revenues. But Artear, keen to develop original product to feed Volver, a cable channel it programs, is jumping the gun.

Artear also is a major partner in “Wild Horses,” a $3 million road movie shooting in Patagonia. Pic reunites “Tango Feroz” director Pineyro with stars Cecilia Dopazo, Fernan Miras and Hector Alterio, as well as scribe Aida Bortnik.

The TV and film worlds also are meeting in Raul de la Torre’s “Peperina,” which stars renowned soap actress Andrea del Boca, a top draw across Latin America and parts of Europe. The move may set a precedent: Industry chiefs are considering luring other TV stars with overseas followings to the silver screen.

Other productions are looking to Spain – which co-produced Galletini’s “Cohabitation” – to help raise funding. Such projects include Jaime Chavarri’s sequel “Things of Affection 2,” which has already premiered in Madrid, and Adolfo Aristain’s Spanish-set “The Frontier.” Another co-production with Spain is Richard Wullicher’s “Calueche, la Nave de los Locos” (Caheuche, Ship of Fools), which will be the first Argentine film for more than five years to compete at Cannes.

During the hiatus before the new INCAA-managed subsidy program, a combination of sources helped to finance films: NFI credit, distributor coin, talent participation and other partnerships.

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