For the first time in 22 years, total film attendance in Chile stood at a 1-to-1 ratio, reaching 17.3 million admissions for a total population of 17.2 million, per the annual study by exhibition org CAEM. Though a whopping 23 local pics debuted in 2011 — more than double the output just four years ago — the most significant change is in the content itself.

“Chilean filmmakers today are exploring very interesting themes and more profound aesthetics,” says director Andres Wood, whose biopic “Violeta Went to Heaven” topped the local box office last year and repped Chile in the Oscar foreign-language film race. “One now sees (Chilean filmmakers’) third or fourth films displaying a greater maturity.”

“Maturity is the key term here,” concurs Constanza Arena, executive director of state-run film promotion org Cinema Chile. “These are films that don’t just seek artistic self-expression but also wider audiences, and that means developing projects that can compete on a level playing field with more mature markets, like Europe, Asia or the U.S.”

Chilean cinema is indeed making strides on the world stage, with more filmmakers tapping international talent and venturing into English-language projects.

At Berlin, Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media chose Pablo Larrain’s “No” to make its first-ever investment in a foreign film. Starring Mexico’s Gael Garcia Bernal, the Spanish-language “No” focuses on the true story of how advertising execs ousted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from power.

This new breed of Chilean filmmakers views the international market as a source of both funding and market revenues, a fact driven home by initial foreign distributor offers on “No,” which has already run into seven figures.

Nicolas Lopez, who created the first Chilean franchise with his hit “Que Pena …” trilogy, hooked up with Eli Roth, who co-produces and stars in Lopez’s first English-language pic, the action thriller “Aftershock,” based on the 8.8-scale earthquake that struck Chile in 2010. According to Lopez, FilmNation has already sold pic to 20 territories.

Sebastian Silva followed up his Sundance hit “The Maid” with an untitled English-language psychological thriller starring Michael Cera, Juno Temple and Catalina Sandino Moreno. The film, which revolves around a young woman whose mind descends into a netherworld while on holiday with friends in a remote part of Chile, is being fully financed by Frida Torresblanco’s Braven Films, with Christine Vachon, Mike White and David Bernad joining Torresblanco as producers. Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions pre-bought rights in the U.S. and other territories.

Alicia Scherson follows her hit romantic drama “Play” with the Rome-set, Rutger Hauer starring “The Future,” based on a novella by cult author Roberto Bolano.

Back at home, however, tensions remain between exhibitors and producers. Although the former group contends that they give local pics more playing time than foreign indies on the country’s paltry 320 screens, Chilean producers argue that their pics get less-than-favorable screening times, print copies and venues.

Last year, despite the 18% jump in attendance, Chilean pics accounted for only a 5.3% share of admissions, while Hollywood pics still grab an average of 90%.

“We producers have been in talks with exhibitors to see if we can strike an agreement over a voluntary screen quota for Chilean films,” says Larrain.

“If we manage to perfect the system, we won’t need a screen quota,” says Bruno Bettati, head of producers org, APCT.

“Chile’s big challenge now is to develop policies and structural incentives to allow its national cinema to compete fairly with Hollywood releases,” adds Arena.

Though Chilean television has yet to step up its support of local pics, some TV producers are seeking to make movie spinoffs. TV producer Nicolas Acuna unveiled plans at the Guadalajara Film Fest to helm and produce “Besieged,” both a TV skein and movie about the three-year siege of a Patagonian fort by Mapuche natives in 1599. Endemol Argentina and Chilean pubcaster TVN have boarded the project, while talks continue with Argentina’s Pol-ka.

TV producer Sergio Gandara of Parox is also working on a movie spin-off of dystopian thriller “Gen Maoa,” penned by “Mishima” scribe Enrique Videla. Matias Cardone’s TV shingle Invercine just started producing pics, starting with “Bombal.”

“Our primary objective is to connect with the local audience,” says Wood. “This is a challenge that involves not only filmmakers, but the state, distributors, exhibitors, television and all of those who believe that our cinema should exist.”

Spotlight: Chile
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