A Latin Screen Play

Spurred by the expected arrival of U.S. multiplexes and a booming economy, Brazil’s leading exhibitors are expanding vigorously.

Latin America’s largest country, with 155 million people, has a scant 1,250 movie screens. That’s just half the per capita screen count of Mexico – a fact that is earning Brazil the attention of Cinemark, AMC and other U.S. exhibs. So national chains are trying to plug the gaps first.

Rio-based Grupo Severiano Ribeiro, Brazil’s leading exhib, is in mid-expansion drive and will raise its screen count to around 135 by the end of 1996, a 40% increase in two years.

Grupo Sul Paulista, Sao Paulo’s leading operator, plans to add another 15 screens to its 60-strong circuit this year. General Manager Sergio Freixo told Variety he plans to build two 20-screen megatheaters in Sao Paulo (a city of 15 million) next year.

An industry insider dismissed the 20-plex idea, citing the enormous costs of land and parking space necessary, and guessed Freixo is trying to discourage U.S. would-be entrants.

Yet both Freixo and Ribeiro execs say they are open to partnering with a U.S. plex-builder.

“There’s a limit as to how far we can go on funding everything by ourselves,” says Francisco Pinto, Ribeiro’s director of expansion.

So far, all Ribeiro projects have been self-financed; with Brazil’s history of currency fluctuations, the company has been wary of seeking U.S. credit to accelerate expansion.

Company prez Luiz Severiano Ribeiro says the biggest problem exhibs now face is urban crime. Thus most new hardtops are 3- or 4-plexes leased at shopping centers, where parking lots are guarded and auds feel safe.

Pinto says he has recently convinced mall owners to allocate space for bigger theaters: “From now on we’re trying to build at least a 6-plex in each shopping center,” he says.

Some 15 U.S. theaters already exist in Brazil, owned by United Cinemas Intl. (formerly CIC) and Fox, and dating back decades. But no U.S. exhibitor has signed any leases for a while.

That may soon change. Dallas-based Cinemark, already operating in Mexico and Chile, has hired consultant Joel Resnick, formerly an exec VP at AMC, to survey the country.

Yet Resnick says Brazil’s potential does not necessarily mean U.S. exhibs will make announcements soon. “Look how long it took them to get into Mexico,” he says.

Whereas in Mexico, Latin America’s top B.O. arena, distribs and exhibs cite a ballpark figure of 2,500 to 3,500 screens as the optimum number (around twice the actual figure), few are guessing the size of Brazil’s pent-up demand.

Ken Higgins, president of Cinemark in Mexico, adds that the recent economic crisis in Mexico – the site of greatest U.S. interest in Latin America for several years – may be prompting some exhibs to shift their focus to South American countries like Brazil.