Panama Fest Panel Analyzes Pan-Regional Latin American Film Distribution

Possible solution for the film industry: Co-production, government-backed distrib incentives, TV

PANAMA CITY — On Saturday, April 9, IFF Panama held a panel on “How to break distribution barriers in the Latin American market,” moderated by fest director Pituka Ortega Heilbron and with panelists Ilda Santiago, programming director of the Rio International Film Festival; Edgar Ramirez, producer and actor; Luis Rafael Gonzalez, vice president of distribution company Palmera International, based in the Dominican Republic; and Variety contributor Martin Dale.

During a wide-ranging discussion, the panelists discussed the obstacles to ensuring that Latin American films circulate within the region. Ramirez summed up the problem by stating that it’s often easier to see Latin American films in New York, London or Paris than in Buenos Aires, Mexico City or São Paulo.

Latin American cinema has been in vogue over recent years, with a notably higher demand from international sales agents and a string of strong local box office hits. But very few titles succeed in clocking significant box office admissions in Latin American territories beyond their home market.

The panelists considered that some of the key obstacles include a lack of faith and unwillingness to invest by local distributors and also the fact that many of the strongest titles are purchased by sales agents based in Europe, for whom main revenues derive from Europe, North America and Asia rather than Latin America.

Rights also tend to be sold for Latin America as a whole, rather than on a country-by-country basis, which means that the buyers often focus on distributing the purchased films in their territory and often leave other territories in the region unexplored.

Santiago complained that when she wants films from other Latin American countries to screen at Rio, she sometimes has problems contacting the respective sales agents based in Europe, and is frustrated by not being able to deal directly with the producers.

The opportunity to strengthen the circulation of Latin American films within the region are leveraged by several factors including the fact that all of the region’s countries share the same language – Spanish – except for Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

Notwithstanding major economic problems, Latin American theatrical and pay TV markets are growing fast, with significant multiplex construction; pan-Latin American VOD networks such as Netflix, are also consolidating their presence.

The panelists emphasized the need to consolidate the involvement of the region’s main media giants, such as Televisa and Globo, in production of films and high-quality TV series, and to reinforce state support for circulation of films.

Ilda Santiago referred to the cross-border distribution agreement inked between Brazil and Argentina which has helped promote the circulation of films between the two countries. She also emphasized that given that Brazil  speaks Portuguese rather than Spanish and is a huge market in its own right — its population of 200 million is almost double that of Mexico (122 million) and five times that of Argentina, Colombia or Venezuela – there has been a tendency to focus on the domestic market, but an increasing number of Brazilian producers would like to see their works circulate throughout the region.

However, Latin America has no equivalent in size to the distribution support mechanisms that exist in Europe, via the Creative Europe Media Program, and there was also consensus on the need for local film industries to lobby their governments in order to create pan-regional incentives to reinforce the existence of a Latin American market.

Santiago said that the creation of Mercosur – whose full members are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela and associate members are Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Suriname – had been a step in the right direction, for example intensifying the links between Brazil and its neighbors, but that there is still a great deal to be achieved in terms of circulation of films.

Ramirez suggested that one of the main problems facing Latin America is the mental blocks caused by the colonial legacy, in which Spain divided up the region into smaller countries in order to maintain its hegemony over the region. This fragmented mentality persists today.

He also emphasized how countries such as France have used public support systems to create strong local industries that also export their films. Santiago concurred, stating that after U.S. films, French films are the next biggest-selling foreign films in Brazil.

The panelists emphasized that countries have to provide support to fly in stars, or match distributors’ P&A money, to make sure that foreign distributors are more willing to buy films and spend more on P&A to distribute them.

Gonzalez praised the incentive system that has been created in the Dominican Republic that means that investments in films are almost 100% covered by state incentives which has provided a tremendous boost to local production.

Television was expected to be a key driver of growth in the market given that the push into SVOD services by some of the region’s leading operators – Televisa’s BLIM, Globo’s Globo Play, and the need to compete with Netflix – is likely to create a demand for higher-end TV dramas, which will be met in part by film companies.

High-end TV dramas are likely to travel more around Latin America than movies, and offer a chance for film companies to build stronger companies making film and TV. Producers who are already pursuing this strategy include Andres Wood, Daniel Burman and Lucia Puenzo.

Examples of series produced for Netflix and aimed at the Latin American market as a whole, include Spanish-language series “Narcos” produced by France’s Gaumont TV Intl., “Ingobernable,” from Mexico’s Argos Comunicacion,  and Portuguese-language “3%.”

The development of international co-productions was also viewed as an important factor, in particular because it can increase budgets and production values. Recent examples include “Relatos Salvajes” and “El Clan,” which have not only seen higher box office results at home, but have also exported healthily within the region and beyond. For example, “Relatos Salvajes” was the highest-grossing foreign-language movie in the U.K. in 2015, apart from Indian titles.

The panel concluded with all participants agreeing that there is still major growth potential for this market: A mixture of private initiative and public support could leverage significant growth of cross-border distribution.

John Hopewell contributed to this report.

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