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Venezuela Feeds Audience’s Needs With Aggressive Film Funding

Despite the political and financial turmoil in Venezuela, local filmmakers are still churning out films — and audiences are finding a way to see them. Private financing has accounted for some of the health of the biz, as have screen quotas, but the key player is the country’s autonomous national film institute, CNAC, which was invigorated by a 2005 law that requires television, distribution, exhibition and production sectors to contribute to the funding it provides. And now the biz is seeing the mature fruits of the seeds planted nine years ago.

A month after street protests against the government erupted in mid-February, year-on-year cinema admissions had dropped by approximately 5%, according to industry research firm Asoinci. But by April, overall sales in numbers of tickets had shot up 27%, as barricades in middle-class neighborhoods — where most multiplexes are located — were taken down, even though protests continued to flare up (and filmgoing in the neighborhoods most impacted remained sluggish).

“I think people just had to go out,” says Bernardo Rotundo, president of exhibitor Gran Cine, which runs 19 multiplex screens and three traveling screens.

It’s not as if the Venezuelan movie biz hadn’t been healthy before the unrest. Luis Carlos Hueck’s “Papita, Mani, Toston,” a CNAC-backed romantic comedy set in the world of baseball — a national obsession — became the second-highest grossing movie of all time in the nation (behind only “Titanic”), driving home nearly $14 million since its December 2013 debut. Because the movie was Hueck’s first as a director, CNAC covered 90% of its budget.

CNAC expects up to 32 films to be released this year, including docs, with four or five local pics hitting the bigscreen every month from June to December. Not all of these are backed by CNAC, with many produced independently or by state-owned studio Villa del Cine, which mainly supports so-called historical movies (which some refer to as propaganda).

This year, CNAC expects to spend roughly $20 million on 80 projects, including shorts, docus and narrative features, some of them co-productions. That’s more than double what it spent in 2013 on 61 projects. “Production costs have gone up significantly since last year,” says CNAC prexy Juan Carlos Lossada.

Director Haik Gazarian (“Venezzia”), who is prepping a fantasy pic rooted in Latin American mythology, is among those getting funding. “They financed 100% of my film,” he says, adding that such backing is unique in Latin America in that it supports a film in all phases, from financing and script development to providing equipment and crew, as well as distribution and exhibition.

Nevertheless, making movies in the region is fraught with peril. Helmer Jose Ramon Novoa — best known for much-laureled 1995 hired-assassin thriller “Sicario” — opted to postpone the premiere of his picture “Solo” from April to August, in hopes that the social and political climate in the country mellows.

Cine Equipo, the equipment rental company Novoa used for “Solo” last year, when things were still relatively calm, was robbed three times, and now uses armed guards when productions make pickups or dropoffs. “After my experience with ‘Solo,’ I didn’t want to shoot in Caracas anymore,” Novoa says.

Despite all the challenges, Venezuelan filmmakers are producing a growing variety of work, from crowd-pleasing comedies to docs, thrillers and arthouse dramas — thanks in large part to CNAC. For the past eight years, the independent financier also has been running a nationwide film training program, in collaboration with universities, which pays mentors, provides equipment and covers production costs. Approximately 12,000 people have been impacted by the program, which has produced some 600 projects, mainly short films, docus and news reports, along with some features, Lossada says.

The increased output and instruction has meant a rise in the quality of movies, with pics earning awards on the international festival circuit, and the support of foreign sales agents growing.

Another home-field advantage for Venezuelan pics: Nationwide screen quotas allow them to run as long as 40 weeks, a boon to movies like the country’s first fantasy-horror pic, “La casa del fin de los tiempos,” the directorial debut of Alejandro Hidalgo. U.K.-based international sales agent Jinga Films has added the pic to its genre slate.

Producer Miguel Govea of 4th & 7th Entertainment, who’s co-producing Venezuelan director Henry Rivero’s heist pic “Jeque Mate” with Rodolfo Cova of Factor RH, sees a marked increase in global interest in the country’s movies.

Political thriller “God’s Slave,” the directorial debut of AFI alum Joel Novoa (son of the “Solo” filmmaker), sold to North American distrib Film Movement, which will release the pic in early 2015. Los Angeles-based FiGa Films has found buyers for Mariana Rondon’s San Sebastian winner “Pelo Malo” in 29 territories, and plans a limited release in the U.S. next month.

“So many more Venezuelan films have international agents,” Govea says. “That hasn’t happened in 10 years.”

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