Argentina picking up the pic pace

Trapero, Caetano, others have works in progress

BUENOS AIRES Argentina’s film industry is bustling.

Helmers who emerged in the 1990s, in a movement that’s gained comparisons to Iran, Finland and South Korea, are readying their second, third and fourth projects. Pablo Trapero (“El Bonaerense”) is lensing “Nacido y criado” (Born and Raised), about a man’s search for a new life. Adrian Caetano (“Red Bear”) is filming “Atila,” a tale starring Rodrigo De La Serna (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) about four men’s escape from a detention center during the 1976-82 military dictatorship.

Also in progress are works by Carlos Sorin (“Minimal Stories”), Veronica Chen (“Smokers Only”), Sandra Gugliotta (“A Lucky Day”) and Rodrigo Moreno (“El descanso”), among others.

Filmmakers have cranked out 50-70 films a year since 2002, up from 20-30 a year in the 1990s, as a weak peso — it has slumped 65% against the U.S. dollar since 2002 — makes it a low-cost place to produce and attracts foreign coin. The government, too, has increased annual film funding, now higher in peso terms at 92 million ($30.4 million) than in the 1990s.

However, many in the industry are asking: Is this pace sustainable?

A big obstacle is tight access to domestic exhibition, which makes it difficult for local fare to break even. Foreign majors dominate the box office, led by Hollywood pics. They pull in 80%-85% of ticket buyers.

In 2004, the government ordered exhibs like Hoyts and Village to screen more local pics and for longer. But loopholes and weak fines make it easy to sidestep the law, says Hernan Guerschuny, a director of Argentine film magazine Haciendo Cine.

Hence, exporting is a must. “We are dependent on international sales,” says Oscar Kramer, who is co-producing Caetano’s $1.5 million “Atila” through his Shok Films banner. “Costs are high (in peso terms) and domestic sales can’t cover this.”

Nevertheless, Kramer’s found one way to improve sales at home. He has lined up deals with 20th Century Fox, which provides advances for production and covers the costs of release, marketing and prints. This helped get Damian Szifron’s police comedy “Tiempo de valientes” (Time of the Braves) on more screens — 50 as opposed to the 10-20 without Fox. It was among the top five locally produced pics in 2005.

Yet these deals are available for only a handful of productions, depending on distribs’ interests, says helmer-producer Luis Barone (“The Hidden Tiger”).

That leaves most still reliant on state funding and foreign production coin.

And the latter may be getting scarcer, as international interest begins to wane in Argentina’s films. The latest movement, which started in the early ’90s and is known for auteur movies, “is a little worn out now,” with plots starting to be repeated, says Guerschuny. “There is a need for more solid scripts.”

This is worrying, says Vanessa Ragone, a producer at Buenos Aires’ Zona Audiovisual, which is behind pix such as Lisandro Alonso’s “Los muertos.” “It’s impossible to film a larger-budget film without co-production money from Europe.”

To get around this, she is looking for new themes and less-tried genres like comedies, and tapping markets that may be fresh, such as Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay, to attract European co-prod coin.

Another problem is that Buenos Aires, the country’s production hot spot, is getting expensive. A surge in demand from foreign productions of commercials, films and TV programs has led suppliers to jack up prices for crews, equipment and studio time.

“We came to Argentina because we thought it was cheaper than Los Angeles, but it is the opposite,” says Argentine Milos Twilight, who was to start directing “Emmanuelle Tango,” the latest in the long-running erotic franchise produced by Paris-based Alain Siritzky Prods., in December. “Two years ago it was really cheap to film in Argentina, but not now. An assistant director costs the same here, but in L.A. you get a genius.”

Yet Argentina may be hard to shake. The economy is growing, increasing B.O. receipts, from which most state film funding is derived. And a film school system of 16,000 students, strong literature and a thriving live theater scene is creating new talent and ideas all the time, says Barone.

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