MADRID – Argentina’s Bernardo Zupnik, one of Latin America’s best-known and longest-standing film distributors, has been named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres — a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters — by French culture and communication minister Aurelie Filippetti.
Awarded to French citizens and foreigners for their contribution to or promotion of the arts and literature, the distinction goes to one of Latin America’s iconic figures in the distribution landscape who has battled since he entered the sector in 1968 to carve out a space for independent films from France, Argentina, the U.S. and beyond.
Zupnik has seen spectacular results in some recent years. His company, Distribution Co., which he runs with daughter Paula Zupnik, was the top-ranking indie in Argentina in 2009, thanks to Oscar winner “The Secret in Their Eyes,” which grossed $9.3 million on home-turf Argentina.
But indie distribution in Argentina isn’t getting any easier.
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Now a patrician figure on the festival circuit, Zupnik can access top-notch French titles. He is currently scouring for sufficient screens to open Gaumont’s “The Chef,” with Jean Reno, has released “The Intouchables,” Francois Ozon’s “The Refuge” and “In the House,” and multiple titles from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. He bought Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
The Dardenne brothers’ “The Kid with the Bike” punched $90,000. That, these days, is upbeat for straight-arrow arthouse in Argentina.
Argentina frames a paradox. Total Argentinean box office spiked 27% to Pesos1.2 billion ($234.2 million) in 2012, per IHS Electronics & Media (formerly IHS Screen Digest). That’s one of the biggest hikes of any larger territory in the world.
But Argentina’s paltry total screen count — 800 screens and languishing, year-end 2011 — pales before Brazil’s (2,373) and especially Mexico’s (5,166). Prime screen play-dates are pretty well covered by studio blockbusters.
There’s little sign, moreover, of Argentina’s exhibition sector growing much in the near future, either, Zupnik said. “Unlike in Chile or many parts of Latin America, there’s little investment in new shopping malls,” he added.
The French honor is “a source of immense satisfaction,” Zupnik enthused. It will also be some source of consolation as Distribution Co. seeks to continue in, for indies, one of the toughest markets in Latin America.