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Fifteen years ago, only a handful of arthouse pics lit Colombian screens. But thanks to Cineplex and other indie distribs, smaller films from Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North America have found their niche in the country. Indies captured 5.9% of the market last year, compared with a relatively paltry 3.6% in 2003.

Among the local indies, the leader is Cineplex, which has been the most consistent player, putting out at least one pic a month and an average of 15 to 18 films a year for a total of 172 movies in the past 15 years.

Eight years ago, Cineplex expanded its distribution efforts to the rest of Central America. Cineplex prexy Elba McAllister and spouse/ VP Juan David McAllister have been indefatigable in their efforts to bring the works of Wong Kar Wai, Claude Chabrol, Agnieszka Holland and Ken Loach to Colombia and its neighbors.

“Releasing films in Central America has been a great challenge, given the diversity of its cultures and a market 95% dominated by Hollywood,” Elba McAllister says. Tastes in genres vary as well, she points out. “Comedies generate more revenue in Panama, while dramas and thrillers rule in Costa Rica. Guatemalans love horror,” she observes.

Cineplex’s vendors are pleased to have such a keen ally in the region. “(Cineplex) does a really good job at distributing our films in the best and most appropriate way in a market where releasing independent and French movies is not very easy,” says Delphine Martin, Unifrance manager for Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking countries.

Four years ago, Cineplex began forming alliances with other Latin American indies to jointly buy pan-Latin rights for such pics as “Satin Rouge,” “Evil,” “Broken Flowers” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Elba recently bought the latest Wong Kar Wai film, ‘My Blueberry Nights,’ from StudioCanal, showing strong enthusiasm and a great distribution work for its release in Latin America, where she implemented a very creative marketing campaign to ensure its box office success,” says Tahereh Khazrai, international sales VP for StudioCanal.

“They have been longtime partners of ours, and we are consistently impressed with Elba’s ability to successfully market challenging films in a region where that is no small feat,” Focus Features Intl.’s Peter Kujawski concurs.

Convincing moviegoers to eschew ubiquitous Hollywood blockbusters for specialty pics requires coordinating with universities, embassies and cultural institutions and organizing innovative grassroots campaigns. Whenever possible, Cineplex gets the helmers and/or thesps to fly in and stump for their pics.

With Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” which Cineplex prebought in partnership with other Latino indies, it organized marketing tie-ins with Levis, Universal Music (for the soundtrack) and a gay rights foundation. Marlboro sponsored the premiere in Bogota.

For Arturo Ripstein’s “El coronel no tiene quien le escriba” (No One Writes to the Colonel), tie-ins were linked with publishing house Editorial Norma, Parker Pens and mailing service Servientrega.

“My Blueberry Nights” had worldwide sponsor Louis Vuitton, EMI for the soundtrack, a pastry shop and Internet portals to help spread the word.

“I think (Elba’s) success in this really stems from the fact that she’s a film lover first, so that gives her the ability to immediately identify the heart of a project and get audiences excited about that,” Kujawski says. “It’s a skill you simply cannot fake.”

While still vastly underscreened, Colombia has seen notable growth in recent years, thanks in part to the construction of more shopping malls. Mexican exhibition giant Cinepolis opened its first megaplex in Colombia this month.

“Since the time we opened our first theater in Medellin in 1999 and seen more multiplexes proliferate, there has been growing room for independent cinema,” says Pablo Umana, prexy of exhib Cinemark Colombia, which runs 68 screens. Cinemark plans to open a fourplex this year in the city of Valledupar and an eight-screen theater in Bogota in 2009.

“Cineplex has been able to tap a growing audience for independent cinema,” Umana observes.

Meanwhile, Cine Colombia, the 80-year-old exhibition/distribution powerhouse that reps 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. in Colombia, aims to build 60 more screens over the next two years. It currently owns 180 of the nearly 500 screens in Colombia.

Despite the growth in screens and auds, it’s still a relentless uphill struggle for Cineplex. Few arthouse circuits exist, and a film can be dumped immediately if it doesn’t open well. But given the tenacity of its owners, Cineplex is well armed to do battle.

“More importantly,” says Elba McAllister, “we’ve brought in what we wanted: films that don’t need pretty faces, multimillion-dollar budgets, special effects or predictable endings.”