Colombia’s uphill battle

Local films use commercial appeal to fight Hollywood

Colombian pics may be reaping a clutch of awards on the international film fest circuit, but they’re losing ground at the local box office. Last year, aud share was down to 4.5% with nine titles, compared to 9% with 12 titles in 2008.

Part of this slump is due to the rash of strong 3D pics from Hollywood that have edged out local movies. “Colombian films have lost their novelty appeal and now have to compete on a level playing field,” says producer Diana Camargo of Laberinto Prods., a co-producer on Ruben Mendoza’s debut feature “La Sociedad del semaforo” (The Stoplight Society).

Camargo also points out that better care is needed at the opposite ends of the filmmaking process — the screenplay and marketing. “It’s more cost-efficient to eliminate scenes at script stage, and marketing campaigns need to kick off at least two months in advance,” she says.

Many producers are responding to this box office dip by venturing into themes with more commercial and/or international appeal, and participating in co-productions to sustain their profit margins.

“We made the mistake of localizing some projects that had foreign potential in terms of cast, locations, etc,” says Julian Giraldo, general manager of RCN Cine. “We’re now evaluating the international appeal of each project before investing,” he adds, although he’s still backing pics with strong local box office pull.

The film unit of RCN TV, which kicked off its support for local pics in 2006 with blockbuster “Sonar no cuesta nada” (A Ton of Luck), has a slew of high-profile pics in various stages of production, including “Operacion Jaque” (Operation Checkmate) and “Sin tetas no hay paraiso” (Without Breasts, There is No Paradise).

Rival Caracol TV, which backed the annual output of comedian Dago Garcia for the past decade, formed a film division in 2008, enlisting producer Diana Bustamante to head it. Caracol has backed hits including “Rosario Tijeras,” “La estrategia del caracol” (The Snail’s Strategy) and, most recently, “The Stoplight Society.”

“For 2010, we’re also developing some TV movies, which are more cost-efficient and will allow us to recover from the box office slump,” says Bustamante.

TV support is key in a market where film screens are limited (560 are estimated to be operating), piracy is rampant and P&A costs continue to rise. Fortunately, a film law has provided soft monies and tax incentives, including one that encourages non-pro companies to invest in local pics in exchange for a tax deduction amounting to 150% of the investment value.

More female helmers are emerging. This year, six pics by first-time femme directors are in various stages of production, compared to just one or two in recent years. Immigrant drama “Entre nos” by Gotham-based Colombians Paola Mendoza and Gloria La Morte is slated for a simultaneous U.S. theatrical and VOD release through IndiePix in May.

New shingle Contento Films, run by former RCN Cine topper Alejandro Arango, is focusing on inexpensive genre pics and shooting them in English, Spanish or both.

“Colombia has a wealth of fresh stories, be they in the horror or magic realist vein,” says Arango.

Among its projects is $1 million psychological thriller “La Bruja” (The Witch), written by Brad Holloway, to be shot in Spanish with pre-agreed English remake rights.

Arango hopes to launch a film fund for English-language pics to be shot in Colombia.

The team behind private equity fund Dynamo Capital plans to launch an even larger one once its initial multimillion-dollar fund is exhausted in a year’s time. Fund has backed hits including “Satanas” (Satan), “Perro come perro” (Dog Eat Dog) and recent Sundance audience winner “Contracorriente” (Undertow).

A number of producers have been providing production services to the growing number of international projects filming in Colombia.

More film and TV projects are descending on the country thanks to the efforts of the fledgling Colombian film commission, headed by Silvia Echeverri, and the non-profit org Proimagenes, led by Claudia Triana. The past year has seen at least seven pics, four docus and seven skeins (either international or co-produced) shot in Colombia.

Sony Pictures Television, Fox and NBC Universal’s Telemundo have invested in studios and been producing skeins in Colombia. The Mouse House has been shooting the Latino version of “Grey’s Anatomy” in Bogota with RCN and Vista Prods.

In January, RCN’s production service unit Shoot Colombia serviced Paul Haggis’ thriller “The Next Three Days,” starring Russell Crowe and Olivia Wilde, which shot some scenes in Cartagena and Santa Marta.

Daniel Gillies’ “Broken Kingdom,” executive produced by Ryan Gosling, was shot mostly in and around Bogota and is now in post.

Dynamo made its first foray into television when it came in as a production partner with Spain’s Antena 3 and Notro TV on primetime miniseries “Karabudjan,” which shot in multiple locations in Colombia for more than three months.

In addition to shaving up to 30% off below-the-line costs, shooting in Colombia brings several advantages, says Notro TV’s Jacobo Bergareche, an exec producer on “Karabudjan,” the first all-Spanish TV skein to be shot in Colombia.

“Skilled crews, a temperate climate, varied geographical settings, security and limited red tape have been more important added values than the money we’ve saved,” he points out.

Despite the dearth of film schools in the former drug capitals of Medellin and Cali, a number of new filmmakers are surfacing from these cities and more projects have been shot in both. “It costs 50% less than in Bogota,” says Arango who points out that FX, the largest post-production facility in Colombia, has opened a branch in Medellin.

Colombia may not be on par with Argentina or Mexico in terms of output, but it’s getting there.

Expectations are upbeat for this year with 15 to 16 titles slated for release.

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