Argentina film business in a crunch

Local biz needs new models, aud-friendly films

BUENOS AIRES — Five years ago, Argentina’s film industry could have collapsed.

An economic meltdown and currency crash led to widespread firings, seizures of bank deposits and massive protests. Credit dried up, and anxiety permeated the air.

Instead, film production doubled to an average of 60 features a year, motorized by an increase in financing from the state, international festivals, film funds and co-producers. The country offered low production costs, technical talent and fresh stories, visuals and performances as directors came to terms with economic and social chaos. A movement of auteur filmmaking, already in motion, earned comparisons to the cinema heydays of Finland, Iran and South Korea. “A Holy Girl,” “El Bonaerense,” “Lost Embrace,” “Minimal Stories,” “Red Bear” and others won applause.

Now a crunch is threatening the industry.

“Foreign interest in Argentine films is drying up,” says Juan Jose Campanella, director of “El hijo de la novia” (Son of the Bride), an Oscar-nominated comedy that packed theaters in Argentina and Spain. “It peaked before reaching a high enough peak.”

Few films make it at the box office, and the interest of foreign financiers and festivals has shifted elsewhere — Bolivia, Chile and Colombia — making the market more competitive for limited financing.

This, of course, is a growing pain of a maturing industry. Game for the challenge, producers are upping the ante in budgets, sales and artistic ambition so Argentina can remain a production power in Latin America. New business models are being tried — and some promising productions are in the pipeline.

One focus is on the commercial.

“When we made our first films, we were living with our parents,” says Hernan Musaluppi, executive producer of Rodrigo Moreno’s Berlin-, Guadalajara- and Sundance-prized “El custodio.” “Now we are parents ourselves so we have to make money.”

That’s not easy. State credits, subsidies and prize money, the chief source of production coin, now only cover a quarter of the $650,000 budget for a debut feature as inflation erodes spending power. The box office, 80% dominated by Hollywood, offers little chance for profit. Most of the 74 domestic releases last year brought in fewer than 10,000 admissions each.

 “It would be hard to make a ‘Mundo grua’ today,” says Musaluppi, in reference to the multiprized tale of a man searching for a new start in life. The pic helped launch the career of Pablo Trapero (“El Bonaerense”).

So attention is shifting to genre films, which can bring in a loyal audience and, producers hope, attract a public weary of the social realism tales that have dominated for years.

“For a distributor to invest money, it looks at movies from the perspective of, ‘Would anybody pay money to see this?’ ” says Campanella. “Most Argentine films are not interested in capturing an audience. That needs to change.”

It might. Luis Barone (“The Hidden Tiger”) is in post-production on “Zenitram,” a $4.6 million superhero pic featuring Jordi Molla (“Bad Boys II”) and Steven Bauer (“Traffic,” “Scarface”). Musaluppi is also considering a terror pic, to be lensed in Peru and Japan. And the three biggest producers in Argentina — K&S Films, Pampa Films and Patagonik Film Group — are also betting on genres.

“We want genre films that can make it abroad, comedy, terror, thriller, action,” says Pablo Bossi of Pampa, a partnership with Spain’s Filmax Entertainment and helmer-producer Juan Pablo Buscarini (“The Hairy Tooth Fairy”).

“More of the same won’t build an industry,” says the founder and ex-prexy of Disney-backed Patagonik. “Auteur films were a novelty, and that was good, but people want something different. The production scheme needs to cover costs and make a reasonable profit. The international market is very important for recovering investment, so films need to tell universal stories that can cross borders.

“This is a model that doesn’t depend on the name of the director,” but on quality films with a commercial reach, he says.

He has a bold proposal: “Hadas y dragones” (Fairies and Dragons), a $10 million, English-language animated fantasy pic. It will be based on a book by illustrator Gustavo “Ciruelo” Cabral.

Like Pampa, Patagonik is mulling over bigger productions. In the cards is a biopic on Maria Soledad Rosas, a young Argentinian who lived as a squatter in Turin, Italy. Falsely accused of terrorism, she hung herself as supporters rioted for her freedom. “It is a project that requires European investment because the story will take place there,” says Juan Vera, head of production at Patagonik.

To do bigger films, a distribution partner is key.

Disney’s Buena Vista Intl., a shareholder in Patagonik, handles distribution of the outfit’s films in Argentina and has a first-look option to distribute theatrically in the rest of the world. Bossi has a deal with Filmax, and K&S with 20th Century Fox.

Costantini Films has an edge, too. Last year, Eduardo Costantini Jr. formed a Latin American investment fund with the Weinstein Co. and other partners. It will invest $30 million in 14 films over the next five years, banking on the Weinsteins’ prestige and U.S. distribution muscle for exhibition. The fund’s first effort, “Elite Squad,” a $3 million violent action film by Brazilian Jose Padilha, is in post-production.

“We want to find films that show the reality of Latin America and can travel beyond the country where they are produced,” he says.

Not an easy task. Of the region’s 300 productions per year, 10 have potential for successful runs, he says. “Most important is the director and the story. When you have a known actor, that helps.”

Costantini is hopeful. In his first eight months on the job, he received 80 scripts. Of these, there are more that could make the cut “than we can produce.”

Indeed, Argentina’s helmers are getting noticed. Israel Adrian Caetano (“Cronica de una fuga”) has signed on for “Leopardo al sol,” a $10 million production in Colombia about warring families of contrabandists. Jorge Gaggero (“Live-in Maid”) is to direct an adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel “Wild Life,” a $10 million, English-language film with John Moore (“The Omen”) producing. Alejandro Agresti (“Valentin”) directed “The Lake House,” starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

To help secure production advances, one strategy is to pair up international stars with stories filmed in Argentina, says K&S’ Oscar Kramer, behind last year’s Cannes contender “Cronica.”

It did this with “El pasado” (The Past), toplined by Mexican Gael Garcia Bernal. Next, Juliette Binoche will star in Santiago Amigorena’s “Another World of Silence,” an English- and Spanish-language co-production with Mandarin Films to lense in Argentina and the U.S.

“We have to give people a good reason to watch our films instead of the latest James Bond,” says helmer Daniel Burman (“Family Law”). “We don’t have a developed industry to compete hand to hand. We have to compete with stories, emotions.”

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