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Lack of cinemas slows Ecuador surge

Hollywood films still dominate the market

Politics, exhibition woes dog biz growth

The past few years have seen a boom in local films in Ecuador. Whereas a mere five pics were made in the entire decade of the 1990s, this tiny Andean nation of 14 million is now churning out an average of four to five films a year. And femme helmers and producers have been responsible for the biggest local hits.

While last year was an exception — “Pescador” (Fisherman), from Sebastian Cordero (“Ratas, Ratones, Rateros,” “Cronicas,” “Rabia”), arugably Ecuador’s most renowned filmmaker, snagged 110,000 admissions to lead all local films — writer-director Tania Hermida’s 2006 road movie “Que tan lejos” (How Much Further) has drawn the nation’s all-time best local admissions total — 220,000. (A local pic is considered a hit if it reaches the 100,000-admission mark; a typical Hollywood blockbuster draws no more than 1 million admissions nationally.)

Key to the general production upsurge has been the 2006 launch of a national film council and a $700,000 annual film fund, which has grown to $1 million annually, thanks to additional funding from Iberoamerican org Ibermedia.

Once government coin kicked in, the film org was inundated by as many as 200 projects a year.

“We’ve funded an average of 30 projects a year in eight categories, including features, shorts and documentaries,” says Jorge Luis Serrano, head of the National Film Council. Starting in 2007, Serrano says the institute has backed a total of 97 features, both narrative and docu. Of these, 51 were produced by women, and 22 had femme helmers.

The themes of the films the fund backs are diverse, ranging from personal stories to gritty urban dramas, as well as Ecuador’s first pic in the Quechua indigenous language, “Killa” (Moon), produced by Humberto Morales and directed by Alberto Muenala. But the pics that seem to resonate most strongly tend to focus on the travails of families, and many of those come from women.

In 2011, docu “Con mi Corazon en Yambo” (With My Heart in Yambo), a searing account by director Maria Fernanda Restrepo of her two brothers’ disappearance and her family’s decades-long struggle to unearth the truth, scored 160,000 admissions and earned critical kudos on the fest circuit. A year earlier, Carla Valencia’s “Abuelos” (Grandparents), about the helmer’s granddads, one a self-taught doctor, the other a union leader executed by the Pinochet regime, collected multiple fest kudos.

Film schools are proliferating, with plans to open one in Quayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest city.

“It’s important that the state-run U. of Ecuador creates a film department,” says Lorena Caicedo, who is producing Ecuador’s first sci fi pic, “Quito 2023.”

At least 15 projects from Ecuador were presented at confab Ventana Sur last month, with six of those headed by female producers.

“Our maternal instincts drive us to adopt these projects as if they were members of our family,” Caicedo says, in explaining the surge of femme filmmakers.

Hermida, who credits her confidence in the biz to open-minded feminist parents and studies at the Intl. School of Film and TV in San Antonio de los Banos, Cuba, professes surprise over the phenomenon. Her latest pic, the family-themed, “En el nombre de la Hija” (In the Name of the Daughter), a Match Factory pickup, lured more than 90,000 admissions.

Arturo Yepez, head of the national producers association and producer of Ivan Mora’s punk ballad drama “Sin Otono, Sin Primavera” (Without Autumn, Without Spring), says that most of the org’s producers are women, and that the nationwide production boom is spawning a savvier breed, more aware of the importance of distribution, exhibition and marketing as part of the whole filmmaking process.

“We are forging alliances with exhibitors, and pushing to have more screens allotted to local films,” Yepez says.

While Ecuadorians have been able to choose more homegrown fare amid the usual glut of Hollywood films (U.S. pics maintain a better than 90% marketshare) the sad reality is that there aren’t enough screens in the country (a paltry 220) to do them justice.

Local exhib/distrib Supercine controls a whopping 70% share of the market, while its smaller rivals include international exhib Cinemark, indie distrib/exhib Multicines and Consorcio Filmico, which releases studio pics as well. Cinemark has formed pacts with some filmmakers, while Multicine is deemed more supportive of local pics.

While current president Rafael Correa has been the biggest supporter of cinema in Ecuador’s history, and can be credited with championing the 2006 film law that created the National Film Council, along with enabling its annual funding, the country’s political parties do not share his enthusiasm, says the council’s head, Jorge Luis Serrano.

Bizzers are trying to expand the avenues for more coin by amending a law that prohibits television networks from investing in films which receive government funding.

Arturo Yepez, head of the national producers association, says a draft of a bill is in Ecuador’s congress to oblige networks to finance at least two pics a year. With elections pending in March, however, any legislation is unlikely to be acted on quickly.

Another sign of the nation’s attitude toward the biz is that it offers no tax incentives to filmmakers, and many feel that stance won’t change any time soon.

Nevertheless, Ecuador has attracted some big projects, the latest being German director Detlev Buck’s $13 million 3D period pic “Measuring the World.” According to producer Martin Rdesbeck, the country had several factors in its favor as a destination: jungles, mountains, the proximity of locations and a good film infrastructure. n

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