Entertainment boom hits Buenos Aires

As Argentina economy burgeons, its biggest city prospers

Live events ranging from theater to concerts to sporting events are thriving in Argentina. Film box office is growing. But all venues face the double challenge of fierce competition and the country’s soaring inflation rate.

Traffic on Corrientes gets chaotic at night in downtown Buenos Aires, as cars and taxis drop people off at dozens of theaters on a 10-block stretch of the brightly lit avenue. The city has the busiest legit industry in Latin America, with scores of theaters and productions.

With Argentina’s economy is growing 8% a year; the local market for all manner of entertainment is expanding — and people are splurging. Creamfields, the international dance music festival, has had its biggest turnout outside the U.K. in Buenos Aires, drawing more than 60,000 people for the daylong event.

Movie box office rose 44% to $93 million in the first five months of 2011, up from $65 million in the year-earlier period, led by a 15% rise in admissions and 25% inflation that boosted ticket prices. Distributors this year are covering print costs with 320 admissions compared with 2,000 in 2002, when the currency lost 65% of its value against the dollar during an economic meltdown.

Hollywood is faring best, with the top 25 draws of the year, including “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Rio,” snaring 82% of ticket sales.

Three rock festivals fill stadiums each year. More are planned. A stream of acts, including Guns N’ Roses and Avril Lavigne, are rolling through in the wake of stadium-filling performances by AC/DC, Madonna and U2.

For Carlos D’Aquila, things can get bigger.

A former professional basketball player, D’Aquila is spearheading a $60 million project tobuild the first covered arena in Buenos Aires, a city of 10 million.

With 18,000 seats, the NBA-style Arena Center will be the largest in South America, with the promise of becoming a mandatory stop for any tour, from music and fashion shows to theater, sports events and circuses. It will be the latest large-scale arena in Latin America following venues in Rio de Janeiro and Santiago with 12,000 to 18,000 in seating capacity, and in line with the biggest arenas in Europe and the U.S.

“In Europe, any city with more than 3 million people has an arena. Argentina doesn’t have even one,” says D’Aquila, who is shoring up investment for the two-year construction project. “A lot of shows don’t come to Buenos Aires because there is no arena.”

D’Aquila says the NBA already has plans to play in Arena Center.

The arena will be built in Pilar, 40 minutes outside the capital and known for wealthy communities and a growing population. The facility will have bars, restaurants and a convention center, as well as parking for 4,000 cars. Heliports will allow artists to fly in and out for performances.

Musicians, who are increasingly dependent on live shows for income as CD sales sag can snare more spectators with fewer shows than in the smaller covered venues, like 8,000-seat Luna Park in downtown Buenos Aires. As for legit theaters, the city has hundreds of them, from 5,000-seaters to mini venues, with productions running Wednesday to Sunday.

“There’s a lot on, and attendance is steady, but not all productions are making much money,” says Ricky Pashkus, who has directed “Hairspray,” “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein.” “There are too many options.”

Musicals are thriving, with “Dracula,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The Sound of Music” and “Chicago” making a splash so far in the 2010-11 season. The pace has been steady for the past decade, says Pashkus. In Latin America, only Mexico City and Sao Paulo are starting to match Buenos Aires.

But, he adds, money remains a challenge, stuck between the pressures of reduced ticket prices and punishing inflation.

A legit production on average will fill 60% of a theater six times a week over eight months. To maintain attendance, ticket prices must be kept down even while a 25% annual inflation rate, among the highest in the world, pushes up production costs. “The only productions selling 300 pesos ($73) tickets are those for runs of one to two months or less, like Cirque du Soleil or internationally known bands,” Pashkus says.

That makes Broadway shows harder to produce, with rights running at $50,000.

“If you can’t charge more than 300 pesos per ticket or cut costs without sacrificing quality, it can be difficult to make a profit,” Pashkus says.

A solution, he says, is to step up domestic production to skip the cost of international rights. Talent is available, and Argentina is exporting actors and crews. Elena Roger will play Eva Peron in a Broadway revival of “Evita” next March following starring roles in West End productions of “Piaf” and “Passion.” Geronimo Rauch, who emerged from the “Popstars” talent contest in Buenos Aires, is in a Madrid production of “Les Miserables” on the tail of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

But more shows might not work, even if the city’s large middle class is keen to see the latest.

“There are times when singers come from the U.S. and play empty theaters because there are so many options for spectators to choose from,” says Pashkus. “You can’t go to all of them.”