BUENOS AIRES — What do lab rats, an alien-hunted family and a Manchester United striker have in common?
Answer: They are subjects of a slate of films coming out of Argentina as the industry expands on its auteur reputation to reel in a bigger audience and profits.
From the breakout films of Martin Rejtman, Israel Adrian Caetano and Pablo Trapero in the 1990s, Argentine cinema has carved out a niche at arthouses, taken fest kudos and plied styles like minimalism and comic bathos with taste, from “Crane World” to “Bolivia” and Lucrecia Martel’s “The Swamp.”
Healthy subsidies have helped. With $30 million a year at its disposal, the state has led the charge in ramping up production from less than 30 features at the start of the ’90s to between 60 and 70 a year.
But now returns are narrowing as costs rise for studio time, wages and promotion. And competition is stiffening for coin as more directors take up the bat — there are more than 16,000 film students in Argentina — and the attention of foreign co-producers, another major source of financing, is shifting to new “in” territories like Romania.
Profitability “is the pending issue” for the industry, says Luis Puenzo, director of Oscar-winning “The Official Story” and a mastermind behind the subsidies program.
“Argentina doesn’t have the capacity to exhibit its quantity of productions, and it is practically impossible for those that are released to recover their costs within the country,” he says. “Production has improved, but getting films to spectators hasn’t.”
To be sure, Argentina’s 92 releases last year snared only 9% of total admissions, down from 11.6% on 74 releases in 2006. That was the poorest showing in years, despite star-brimming action comedy “Incorregibles,” a pair of toon pics and detective caper “La senal” (The Signal) as well as fest-laureled “El otro” (The Other) and “XXY.”
This sparked calls for measures to help Argentina compete with Hollywood, which notched up its share of admissions to 82% last year, from 79% in 2006. Foreign majors like Disney Intl. and 20th Century Fox often release titles like “The Simpsons Movie” on 120-plus screens — four times greater than average, meaning blockbusters rule multiplexes. With marketing blitzes that are unbeatable by local competitors and loopholes in a screen quota system, many homespun movies are confined to short runs at poorer times.
What can be done?
Some industryites want production trimmed to 30 or 40 features a year, making it possible, they say, to beef up budgets so quality, marketing and trailers are improved with the same state funds.
Opponents say this would stymie the emergence of fresh talent, which they see as a key to growth.
Changes are happening. There is a progression to higher-end productions including export- and audience-geared genre pics and animation.
“We need to find ways to get spectators back,” says Manuel Antin, helmer of “The Venerable Ones” and other films in the 1960s and ’70s, when productions often broke 2 million admissions and Leonardo Favio’s werewolf tale “The Nazarene Cross and the Wolf” even broke 3.4 million.
To rebuild this fervor for local fare, Pablo Fendrik, writer and director of conman tale “El asaltante” (The Mugger), says a way is “to start thinking more about the spectator in every scene, every act and every paragraph of the script. What will the spectator think here, how will they react, what will they want?”
The approach is gaining attention.
“Films are for consumption, and people come for a story, not the vanguard of artistic experimentation,” says Daniel Burman, helmer of Berlin-laureled “Lost Embrace.”
A new generation is coming to the scene with intentions “to make films while thinking about who will pay to see them,” says Puenzo, who produced last year’s Cannes-prized and hot B.O. hermaphrodite drama “XXY.”
His outfit, Historias Cinematograficas, is preparing a love tale, a futuristic sci-fi drama, a musical rock comedy and a political drama along the lines of his 1992 William Hurt starrer “The Plague.”
K&S Films, another top production house, is at work on a Caetano-helmed horror film, a sci-fi thriller and an animated feature about lab rats. It’s also working on a sci-fi action pic about a family and friends who must fight invading aliens and their army of giant insects, beasts and enslaved humans.
“Our aim is to do films that are exportable and that bring in an audience,” says K&S partner Oscar Kramer, who produced Caetano’s Cannes-entered “Cronica de una fuga” (Buenos Aires 1977). “Genre films — horror, comedy, police, science fiction and others — they work in the whole world.”
This isn’t alien in Argentina.
“We grew up watching Westerns,” says Martel, who is in post on, “La mujer sin cabeza” (The Headless Woman). “It’s like working on what we watched as kids.”
Horror films are a new focus. Sergio Esquenazi’s “Visitante de invierno” (Winter Visitor) will come out this year, the first in the genre to be made for theatrical release in two decades. It is about a man who seeks rest on the coast only to find a house in which kids enter but never exit.
Disney-backed Patagonik Film Group, the biggest producer in Latin America, is entering the genre with “Ataud blanco” (White Coffin), directed by Daniel de la Vega, who co-wrote and co-helmed Faye Dunaway starrer “Jennifer’s Shadow.”
“We want to explore this niche,” says Patagonik artistic director Juan Vera. “It is an unexplored genre in Argentina that has potential for growth. It has a public, and the relation of investment to return is high.”
Kickin’ it old school
Soccer star Carlos Tevez is another solid bet in the hunt for admissions. Actor Gaston Pauls (“Nine Queens”) and Alejandro Suaya are producing “Apache,” a $2 million biopic along the lines of Eminem’s “8 Mile.” It is about the 23-year-old Manchester United star’s emergence from a Buenos Aires slum to become one of the world’s greatest soccer players. Suaya expects “Apache” to bring in spectators, particularly in Argentina, Brazil and the U.K. — territories where Tevez has played professionally.
“Films need to rely less on the domestic market,” which has less than 1,000 screens, he says. “We need to increase our income from the international market,” including by arranging more co-production deals to help secure releases within Latin America.
The auteur lives
This isn’t, of course, the end of authorial projects.
“It is easier to raise funds for auteur films than commercial films,” says Hernan Musaluppi of Rizoma Films. “This happened to us with ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me,’ ” a romantic comedy by Juan Taratuto. “The auteur circuits don’t take on the more commercial projects, and if you don’t have a name director it is even harder.”
What’s more, commercial films can be difficult in international markets even despite a B.O. triumph at home, he adds.
His outfit is in post on “Amorosa soledad” (Lovely Loneliness), a romantic comedy about a girl who makes a vow of solitude after getting dumped, as well as Patagonia-set road pic “Salamandra.” Rizoma is prepping “Medianeras” (Sidewalls), the tale of two urban neighbors who cross paths but never meet.
“If you add elements that make auteur films more international, and if you do this well, then the films won’t lose quality and they will reach a market and travel better,” he says. “We want to bring together the auteur and the commercial.”