BUENOS AIRES — Film distribution in Argentina has been a lean business since the 2001-02 economic crisis, leaving moviegoers with less selection, especially in art films. Now a new player, Quasar Films, is bucking the trend of closures and cutbacks with an ambitious slate of pix.

Charlize Theron-starrer “Monster,” its first distribution effort, sold 80,000 tickets with 25 copies in its first two weeks in April, making it a top-10 release despite record-breaker “The Passion of the Christ.”

Distrib is planning an eclectic slate, from art films like Chilean helmer Gonzalo Justiniano’s coming-of-age story “B-Happy” to the mainstream “Halloween 4 — The Return of Michael Myers” and “House of the Dead,” says topper Alejandro De Grazia, a former exec of the local subsid of Mexico-based distrib NuVision.

Quasar is the Argentine distributor of Chile’s Phoenix World Investments, a pan-Latin American distributor and rights broker run by vet producer-distributor Arturo Feliu.

It plans to distribute 40 films through 2005, with heavy promotion aided by lower-cost deals with big media companies. It is aiming for an average of 15 to 25 copies for each release, less than the 60-100 for a blockbuster.

Quasar is entering a marketplace that is improving after two gaunt years, when a sour economy deterred attendance. With the economy growing, ticket sales reached 10.2 million in the first quarter of 2004, up 25% from a year earlier. The box office is on track to reach a record 35 million admissions this year.

“We believe Argentina will once again be a very profitable market,” says De Grazia.

Still, profit margins will remain narrow at 5%-10% until the peso strengthens against the U.S. dollar, he adds. That’s because most distribution costs are in dollars, whereas revenue from ticket sales is in pesos.

“Today, the market is not for making big fortunes,” he says. “It is a medium- to long-term bet.”

Quasar also plans to produce two domestic films a year, starting this year. “We are looking for scripts,” says De Grazia.

A main objective is to export, taking advantage of the rising interest in Argentine films at international festivals and theaters. Foreign sales also bring in stronger currencies at a time when production costs are low in Argentina.