This year’s Cannes Brazil Tribute is “a way of highlighting a country that people will talk about a lot,” says fest topper Thierry Fremaux, alluding to Brazil’s role as host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

The celebration also underscores Brazil’s rich film heritage and recent giant strides as a movie market and filmmaking force.

Two Brazilian films play in official selection at Cannes selected on merit: Walter Salles’ awaited “On the Road,” and a joyous documentary, “Music According to Tom Jobim.” Both say a lot about Brazil’s film industry.

Budgeted around $25 million, produced by France’s MK2, the U.K.’s FilmFour and Francis Ford Coppola, “Road” showcases how top Brazilian directors have broken into international filmmaking.

On May 7, AMC Networks acquired all U.S. distrib rights to the pic, which will be released jointly by the company’s film distribution labels IFC Films and Sundance Selects in the fall.

Brazilian helmers often return home, however. After “Road,” Salles has two Latin America-set projects. Another director, Jose Padilha, will segue from “RoboCop” to Brazilian badlands-set “Tri-Border.”

In “Jobim,” Dora Jobim and helmer Nelson Pereira dos Santos, a leading-light of ’60s Cinema Novo, celebrate “The Girl From Ipanema” composer Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, a legend of bossa nova, Brazil’s most international music idiom. Dora is Jobim’s granddaughter. The gala screening is followed by a dinner party and concert.

In general, Brazil’s presence — in pics, personalities, parties — spangles Cannes.

Carlos Diegues, whose 1962 “Cinco vezes Favela” kick-started Cinema Novo, chairs the Camera d’Or jury.

Diegues, dos Santos and Juliana Rojas — whose “Hard Labor” played 2011’s Un Certain Regard — present a Short Film Corner Brazil Day. Cannes Producers Network spotlights five Rio-based producers. Cinemas du Monde, a networking event, showcases Anita Rocha da Silveira’s project, “Kill Me, Please.”

“Our history is essential to building new talent,” says Brazilian audiovisual secretary Ana Paula Santana.

The bawdy “Xica,” from Diegues’ and Eduardo Coutinho’s 1985 “Man Marked to Die,” grace Cannes Classics. “Man” retells Coutinho’s first failed attempt to explain a union activist’s murder in 1964, as Brazil slipped into military dictatorship.

Times have changed.

As much as any Latin American country, Brazil has thrown its weight behind film. Government investments — tax incentives plus Audiovisual Fund subsidies — stand at 375 million reals ($199.4 million) in 2012, says Manoel Rangel, Ancine Film Board prexy.

To be sure, the picture isn’t entirely rosy. Brazilian movies’ first-quarter domestic market share plunged. But longer-term the picture is more heartening — as indicated by soaring box office numbers riding the crest of a boom in auds for films.

Brazil plans to develop its audiovisual industry still further on different levels, says culture minister Ana de Hollanda.

Already, says Conspiracao’s Leonardo M. Barros, Brazilian producers draw up to $3.7 million in tax breaks and $900,000 in straight subsidies per pic. Brazil produced 99 films last year, he adds — up from 32 in 1998.

Powered by multiplex construction — 181 screens were added in 2011 — 3D movies, dubbing and a burgeoning middle class, box office rocketed 33% in 2009, 26% in 2010 and 12% last year, according to Filme B, a Brazilian trade paper.

“Brazil’s middle-class growth leads to exponential growth of its culture/entertainment markets,” says producer Fabiano Gullane.

A historical high, Brazil’s $746.9 million 2011 B.O. surpassed Mexico’s ($724 million) and will soon overtake Spain’s ($816.4 million).

“The studios are discovering Brazil’s a key market. Junkets used to go to Mexico, now they go to Brazil,” says Chris Pickard, associate producer on Julien Temple’s “Children of the Revolution,” a F&ME-TV Zero co-production that shot in Rio this year.

Powered by “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” and “Our Home: The Astral City,” Brazilian films’ B.O. share peaked at 17.9% in 2010. Share settled back at 11.6% last year. But Brazil has achieved something few Latin American countries can equal: “Everybody wants to know what the next Salles, Meirelles or Padilha film will be,” says Pickard.

For Diegues, “Our cinema is now becoming a permanent activity, an industry.”

Perhaps inevitably, Brazil’s vibrancy has led to an increasing fixation on money. Brazil’s biggest 2011 production announcement, for instance, came from Padilha at October’s Rio Fest: his Rio-based Zazen Prods. label’s teaming with Daniel Filho’s Lereby Prods. to raise $60 million, financing 10 pics through 2015. They will target Brazil as their main market.

An international industry is emerging, however.

From 2009, foreign distributors have released Brazilian films with the aid of a Cinema do Brasil Distribution Support fund offering up to $25,000 toward P&A on a new Brazilian release.

“I see promising years ahead for Brazilian cinema,” says Rio Festival director Ilda Santiago, a Cannes Tribute collaborator. “Even more when we start being connected with Latin America and the world via co-productions.”

Two such co-prods play Cannes: Colombia’s “La playa,” co-produced by Bananeira Filmes, and Argentina’s “Clandestine Childhood” with Academia de Filmes partnering.

Key shingles — Conspiracao, Gullane, Bossa Nova, Dezenove — are pursuing international co-productions. One, “Violeta,” by Chile’s Andres Wood, won the 2012 Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury prize.

It is more than a beginning.

Cannes Daily Spotlight 2012: Brazil
Fest attests to upbeat biz | Brazilian pics vie with Hollywood for box office share | Ones to watch
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