Venezuela’s Filmmakers Feel the Pinch of Country’s Economic Woes

Despite the economic and political turmoil in Venezuela, the country’s filmmakers continue to make movies. But getting people to see those films on the big screen has become a growing challenge.

Since early February, the government has imposed an energy-saving initiative that mandates the early closings of shopping malls on weekdays. Multiplexes located inside the malls have had to limit screenings to no more than two per day. Not surprisingly, admissions plunged nearly 30% in February compared with the year prior, says Jose Pisano of distributor Cinematografica Blancica, which releases pictures from Warner Bros., Sony and a number of independents. This year, admissions fell from 711,530 during the first week of January to 311,430 the week of March 4-10, according to official figures.

Adding to the problem, out of the country’s 400-plus screens, 130 are still not digitized. Leading exhibitor Cines Unidos, which owns 60% of the digitized screens in Venezuela, has seen a dip in earnings from an already stagnant market.

“Incipient shortages and rising inflation were forcing us to adjust our budget every week.”
Rodolfo Cova

For Rodolfo Cova, who produced Lorenzo Vigas’ 2015 Venice Golden Lion winner “Desde Alla” (From Afar), the challenges of an economy hammered by falling oil prices and other factors were already beginning to mount in late 2014. “Incipient shortages and rising inflation were forcing us to adjust our budget every week,” he says. Still, he continues to produce at least two films a year, including Gustavo Rondon’s “La Familia,” a co-production with La Pandilla, and “El Vampiro del lago” (The Vampire of the Lake), the feature debut of Carl Zitelmann.

Filmmaker Caupolican Ovalles was caught between political factions battling in the street while trying to shoot his period thriller “Muerte en Berruecos” (Death in Berruecos). He bought a bull to feed his crew and was forced to stop shooting for more than a week when President Nicolas Maduro extended the Easter holiday in a bid to save water and electricity, and minimize the impact of a drought currently besetting the region.

Funding from autonomous national film institute CNAC continues, buttressed by a 2005 film law that extracts contributions from all sectors of the film and TV business. But plummeting ticket sales will likely affect future support.

Saving Energy Costs Film Biz
The Venezuelan film industry has faced reduced admissions due to mandated early closures of shopping malls, which contain multiplexes.
712k Admissions during the first week of January, before mall curfews
311k Admissions during the week of March 4-10, after mall curfews

“The fund doubled its earnings in 2015, so we’ve been able to counteract the impact of the current hyperinflation,” says CNAC president Juan Carlos Lossada. “However, the fund can’t keep up with the rising inflation of this year.”

Six years ago, for Ovalles’ feature debut, “Memorias de un soldado” (A Soldier’s Memories), funding from CNAC amounted to nearly $300,000. “Muerte” has received only $40,000.
“I’ve been able to scrape together $90,000 for an epic period film that should cost $1.2 million to make,” the filmmaker says. Worse, the shortfall has added costs to the budget that are not directly tied to filming. “We have to withdraw great sums of money on a regular basis, which means hiring security,” Ovalles adds.

Staffing a shoot under such conditions is difficult. “We are seeing shortages in everything essential to making a film, from equipment to crew, many of whom are leaving the country,” says Los Angeles-based producer-director Jose Ramon Novoa (“Solo”), who recently produced “Tamara,” based on the life of transgender politico Tamara Adrian, who was elected to the National Assembly last year. The film is directed by Novoa’s wife, Elia Schneider.

The local industry is rallying to find solutions. Guilds have teamed up to support projects in production. Changes to the current film law are due to be discussed with the new National Assembly, according to Ovalles, who is president of local producers guild Caveprol.

Director Caupolican Ovalles got $300,000 in funding for his 2010 film “Memories of a Soldier.” His current pic got $40,000.

Cines Unidos and its rival Cinex have negotiated with the malls to start their screenings earlier in order to shoehorn in more showings. The good news is that “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” opened strongly over the March 25-27 weekend, with more than 125,000 admissions. And popcorn remains available — although concession prices are rising, too. So far, two Venezuelan pictures have debuted, but admissions have been paltry: Action drama “Devuelveme la vida” (Give Me Back My Life) took in 11,728 admissions, while docu “Juntera,” still playing in theaters, has lured 631 admissions as of March 29. At least 33 local films are expected to be released this year.

“To film in Venezuela is a risky and dangerous adventure at the moment, and certainly not advisable,” Novoa says. “But we hope this changes in the future, and when it does, the great themes we will have from everything that has happened in recent times will make Venezuela a great place to shoot again.”

For an industry pushed to the brink, that can’t happen soon enough.

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