Argentina: Sector seeks stories

Emphasis on auteur pics over traditional genres limits local industry

In the late 1990s, a flood of director-driven films catapulted Argentina onto center stage at international festivals with works such as Pablo Trapero’s “Crane World” and Adrian Caetano’s “Pizza, Beer, Cigarettes.” Today, that stream continues with new directors and 100 features a year, making Argentina the busiest in Latin America.

However, despite the volume, few films are making a splash in a country that has produced some of the world’s best-regarded art film practitioners of late, including Martin Rejtman and Lisandro Alonso.

Although Juan Jose Campanella’s “The Secret in Their Eyes” won an Oscar and topped Argentine B.O. in 2009 with 2.41 million admissions, most pics don’t surpass 10,000 admissions in a market 85% dominated by Hollywood.

This is prompting a rethink, with calls for less production, longer theatrical runs, more TV carriage and alternative exhibition circuits. Just as important is a push to find gripping stories that get the public in the door.

“This is a period of transition, and directors and producers are looking for what stories to tell,” says Hernan Musaluppi, who produced Rejtman’s separation comedy “The Magic Gloves” at his Rizoma Films.

In this search for tales, genres and literature are gaining attention in a country long focused on auteur minimalism.

“There is no culture of training young filmmakers to make genre films; it is focused on auteur films,” says Juan Pablo Buscarini, a producer at genre-focused Pampa Films.

According to Buscarini, there is a shortage of screenwriters because the pay is low and directors generally run the show. If there were more scribes, producers could build a stock of comedies and thrillers for scheduling around the availability of stars, he says.

That in turn could boost overall B.O. for local cinema. This year’s top homegrown grossers are black comedy “Un cuento chino” and horror pic “Cold Sweat,” both from Pampa Films. Another pic doing strong business is K&S Films-produced sibling comedy “Los Marziano” directed by Ana Katz, who made her name with San Sebastian-laurelled “Musical Chairs.”

To find a wealth of strong stories, directors and producers are looking to literature.

“There is a lot of originality and richness in Argentine novels,” says Buscarini, who has picked up rights to Pablo de Santi’s “El inventor de juegos” (The Games Maker) with plans to make a family film in which a boy uncovers a magical world while trying to invent games.

Other pickups include Reynaldo Sietecase’s crime novel “Un crimen argentino” and “Tuya,” an affair caper by Claudia Pineiro, author of 2009 crowd-pleaser “The Widows of Thursdays.”

“Audiences are tired of directors’ personal minimalist stories,” says Haddock Films topper Vanessa Ragone, who produced “Widows” and Campanella’s “Secret,” also based on a novel. “The public responds better to genres, which at least get them to go to the cinema. The trend among the younger crowd of filmmakers is to do a film that can satisfy at least a certain public.”

Ragone’s next projects are genre-based. “Everybody Has a Plan” stars Viggo Mortensen in a thriller about a man who takes on the identity of his deceased twin brother. “Thesis on a Homicide” is a legal crime thriller based on a novel by Diego Paszkowski.

The genre model also carries risks, however. In order to reach a wider public with a comedy or suspense pic, the budget often climbs from $500,000 to $1.5 million to account for stars, longer shoots and more and better infrastructure, notes Ignacio Rey, who produced “La Tigra, Chaco” and other shoestring fest faves at Sudestada Cine.

“It’s hard to raise $1.5 million if you don’t know if the film is going to work. It may not get exhibition, and this makes it even harder to recover spending,” he says.

With a small, solid and well-made film, “You can reach a specific audience, and this can be more secure that betting a lot more money on a genre film (with stars),” he explains. “Small films can sometimes bring a larger return than bigger ones.”

Some low-budget movies do shine at fests and the local B.O. “The Man Next Door,” made for $600,000, grossed $550,00 on 140,000 admissions in Argentina and pulled a profit on international sales for theatrical release in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

As directors Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat see it, a key for the success was the film’s universal theme of bickering neighbors, as well as telling a story that is full of uncertainties: “People get involved in the film. They take sides. You don’t know which of the neighbors is right. This opens up discussions. It’s like watching a soccer match, and the spectators get heated,” says Cohn.

Even if a film doesn’t work at home, having an appealing theme can pay off abroad. Natalia Smirnoff scored international recognition with her debut “Puzzle,” which tells the story of an older housewife who regains her passion for life by solving jigsaw puzzles.

The film drew only 8,500 amissions in Argentina, but screened in competition at Berlin and went on to sell for theatrical to 24 countries including the U.S.

“When the issue is universal, a film travels better,” she says.

According to Smirnoff, Argentina is full of stories, a fact that bodes well for the local film industry’s future: “We live in a permanent state of crisis. There is one crisis after another, and this generates a strong output of creativity.”

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