Homegrown pix took nearly 45% of admissions

BUENOS AIRES — Argentine films are dominating the box office, with a slate of strong offerings from name directors like Fabian Bielinsky.

His “El Aura” (The Dawn), the story of an introverted taxidermist who plots the perfect crime, has led since its Sept. 15 release, beating “Bewitched,” “Cinderella Man” and “Wedding Crashers.”

In its first three weeks, Bielinsky’s follow-up to his hit crime caper “Nueve reinas” (Nine Queens) sold 358,000 admissions on 51 screens.

Spectators, too, lined up to see Damian Szifron’s police comedy “Tiempo de valientes” (Time of the Braves), Tristan Bauer’s Malvinas/Falkland Islands war story “Iluminados por el fuego” (Enlightened by Fire) and Marcos Carnevale’s old-age romantic comedy “Elsa & Fred.”

This past weekend, those films took nearly 45% of the 371,200 admissions, up from an average 10-15% share. It was the first time four domestic movies took so large a portion. Add the other 14 local releases, and the share reached 48%, according to ACNielsen EDI.

Normally, Hollywood films take 80-85% of admissions. “But when a local movie is critically acclaimed and the word on the street is, ‘you’ve got to see this,’ then there’s a rapid and huge response at the box office,” says Pablo Udenio, a director of Argentine film magazine Haciendo Cine. “This is what is happening now.”

Good press has helped. “Dawn” got an added push in the third week by its selection as Argentina’s Oscar submission. And ticket sales for “Fire” rose after it took the Special Jury Prize at the Sept. 15-24 San Sebastian Film Festival.

The films have star power, too, with Gaston Pauls (“Nine Queens”) in “Fire,” Ricardo Darin (“Nine Queens,” “Son of the Bride”) in “Dawn” and 30-film vet China Zorrilla in “Elsa & Fred.” Szifron, the director of “Time,” is known for his smash private eye TV series “Los Simuladores” (The Pretenders).

Timing has helped. Producers generally release bigger-budget pics after the June-July winter break, when kid titles like “Fantastic Four” dominate screens and spectator attention. From August to October, a scarcity of Hollywood blockbusters leaves more room for local fare, many of which are racing for release before Sept. 30 to be considered as reps for the Oscars or Spain’s Goya Awards. And cold weather continues to keep attendance high.

Another key is the films’ diversity of material. People are going to two, three or all of them, says Octavio Nadal, sales manager of Walt Disney-backed Patagonik Film Group, which co-produced “Dawn.”

“Elsa & Fred” is drawing an older crowd, while “Time” is a comedy and “Dawn” is complex and heavy, he says. “Fire” has a broad reach, given its treatment of Argentina’s 1982 war with Britain.

This variety is considered a sign of the film industry’s maturity. Directors are putting out an array of comedies, dramas, thrillers and science fiction pics, building on the low-budget auteur films that gained them international recognition over the past decade.

Indeed, international distributors, once focused on imports, are betting large marketing budgets on projects that are popular and personal at the same time, Szifron says.

Buena Vista is distributing “Dawn,” and Columbia TriStar Film is handling “Elsa & Fred,” while the leading indie distrib in Argentina, Distribution Co., is fanning “Fire.” Twentieth Century Fox is not only distributing “Time” but it co-produced, its first such venture in Argentina.

Could the boom bolster overall admissions this year? Not likely. Ticket sales are on track to fall 15%-25% this year compared with 2004, as fewer and weaker Hollywood movies fail to lure filmgoers in a nation where spending is getting squeezed by inflation. Yet with the latest hits, Nadal reckons national pics could take an above-average 15%-16% share this year.

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