Recent years have seen a surge in production and worldwide kudos for Chilean cinema. Helmers led by Andres Wood, Pablo Larrain, Matias Bize and Sebastian Silva have been stamping their imprint on foreign soil.

Unfortunately, soaring international acclaim has not necessarily translated into boffo box office returns back home.

In fact, “More Chilean films debut in France than in Chile,” says Bruno Bettati, co-exec director of CinemaChile.

From 2007 to 2011, Chilean films made up 31% of all Latin American releases in France, he adds. Their local marketshare sank to 2% last year compared to 15% in 2003.

Theories on the root causes of this slump vary. Exhibs and distribs insist that Chile’s growing pantheon of filmmakers need to stop navel-gazing and make more commercial pics.

“The quality of our directors, directors of photography, etc. has never been better, but few are capable of seeing what the market really wants,” says Carlos Hansen, prexy and CEO of BF Distribution.

BF releases the bulk of homegrown pics in Chile and has co-produced some of them, including last year’s top-grossing fiction feature, Nicolas Lopez’s romantic comedy “Que pena tu vida” (Fuck My Life). But “Life” lured only 94,000 admissions, a far cry from the 900,000 admissions of “El Chacotero Sentimental” in 2009 and “Machucha”(2004). Despite 15 local releases last year, the number of people willing to see them plunged 35.8%, the lowest in a decade, according to a study by multiplex org CAEM. All told, soccer docu “Ojos rojos” (Red Eyes) actually did better than “Life” with 119,037 admissions.

“Total attendance hasn’t varied much in recent years but with more Chilean films being made, the audience has fragmented,” says writer-director Alicia Scherson, who unveiled her wry underworld drama “Una novelita lumpen” at the Berlinale Co-production Market.

Because Chile’s paltry 311 screens have been mainly programmed with popcorn and kid-targeted films, people have grown used to seeing only these kinds of movies, says helmer Cristian Jimenez, whose self-described tale of love, books and plants, “Bonsai,” has been selected for Un Certain Regard.

“People like me who seek more personal narratives watch them on DVDs or at film festivals,” he says. To compound matters, TV support for local cinema has waned considerably, with acquisitions becoming sporadic.

But this year may yet turn for the better. Aside from a few broad comedies in the works, a growing number of local filmmakers are crafting genre pics that could recapture auds at home and by extension abroad, or even vice versa. Jorge Olguin, the pioneering writer-director who made the first horror-fantasy pics to come out of Chile, is prepping “The Elementals,” an ambitious 3D English-language live-action horror thriller.

James Katz, who co-founded Chile’s first private equity film fund, Southern Lights Entertainment, is in pre-production on chiller “La Vina” (The Vineyard). One of Katz’s three founding partners, Igal Weitzman, is planning to shoot crime thriller “Moni” in July. Pablo Illanes’ “Baby Shower”is touted as Chile’s first slasher/gore pic.

Meanwhile, Lopez aims to build a franchise out of “Life” and has been shooting the first spinoff, “Fuck My Wedding” (Que pena tu boda).

Hansen is hoping to stem the downward trend with ripped-from-the-headlines drama “03:34 Earthquake in Chile,” which debuted April 21 and is projected to attract 600,000 admissions by the end of its run.

“The fact of the matter is Chilean cinema is not wanted in local multiplexes and needs to be exported in order to grow,” Bettati says. “Or it has to find local distribution in a circuit of new screens — i.e. digital.”

Fortunately, digital screen growth is well under way, per CAEM, which reports that 48 digital screens went up in 2010 compared to 13 the year prior, a 269% jump.

Spotlight: Chile:
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