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With Even Popcorn Scarce, Venezuela Works to Keep Entertainment Business Running

Venezuela is reeling from economic turmoil, more than three months of anti-government street protests, and years of political instability. But its beleaguered residents need distraction and entertainment more than ever, so the country’s entertainment industry is trying to weather the chaos under difficult conditions.

Take popcorn, for example. Movie theaters count on concession sales, but popcorn kernels and even the bread buns for hot dogs are not always available. Bread is among the scarcest commodities these days.

Cinemas have been hard hit, with admissions down 35% between 2015 and 2016, a loss of some 10 million admissions. “It’s plunged 41% if we compare the first five months of this year to 2015,” said Abdel Guerere, head of Venezuela’s Association of Exhibitors, who also cites rampant unemployment among the factors impacting the biz.

With food and medicine supplies low, people are not surprisingly prioritizing basic needs, even though movie tickets average just 50 cents, and only 25 cents for children, seniors and on Mondays. Some 60 screens have closed down, leaving the total national count at 412. Some films like “Logan” and “Trainspotting 2” have not been able to screen here given the prohibitive marketing costs caused by hyperinflation.

DVD piracy has spiked as more people opt to stay home. Venezuela’s street crime is among the worst in the world where violent crimes claim some 25,000 lives a year. “Our evening shows are empty as people are afraid to go out at night,” said Guerere.

On July 6, government forces chasing protesters hurled tear gas into four Caracas malls, all of which house cinemas, affecting dozens of customers, including children.

Production companies are also struggling. “Our catering company bought supplies two months before the start of principal photography to avoid rising food costs; imported items such as makeup, camera equipment and hard discs are expensive and hard to get,” said film producer Claudia LePage who is in post on Miguel Ferrari’s “The Night of Two Moons” and is producing the Tribeca Film Institute-backed docu “The Last Year of Congo Mirador” by Anabel Rodriguez.

Television stations, many of them state-owned, continue to produce a range of shows including talk shows, news and telenovelas. But their journalists are vulnerable to robberies and assaults while networks critical of the government have been shuttered or taken over by government cronies as in the case of RCTV and Globovision, respectively.

Still, the shows must go on as demand for escapist fare rises. Producing these shows means that essentials such as wardrobe for talent and even nails to build sets are brought in from abroad by whatever means possible. International guests require beefed up security and armored cars. Sometimes getting to work can be a challenge with barricades to hurdle and a general sense of fear as the death toll rises from the street unrest.

“We deserve hope, peace and freedom,” said actress Patricia Velazquez who laments the loss of innocent bystanders.

The government provides some help for the entertainment business, from the national film institute CNAC, and thanks to a 2005 film law that requires contributions from all sectors of the film and TV business. “We backed 15 projects in 2016, including five full-length feature films, one documentary, several shorts and others in post,” said CNAC VP Alizar Dahdah, who points out that this year alone, 24 Venezuelan films have won international film festival prizes.

She said that despite the economic difficulties, the film institute has managed to promptly provide support in order to counteract rising costs.

The 13th edition of Venezuela’s most prominent film festival, the Merida Festival of Venezuelan Cinema, organized by the Karina Gomez-led arts and culture foundation Fundearc, kept its annual appointment despite some logistical challenges. Running June 11-14 this year, the festival showcased 17 new Venezuelan films in competition, six of which were world premieres, with Italy as its country guest of honor.

Entries included Jorge Thielen Armand’s “La Soledad” which premiered in Venice 2016 and biopic “El Inca,” which won its appeal after an injunction from the family of two-time world boxing champ Edwin “El Inca” Valero forced it out of theaters. Munich-based Italian producer Manlio Roseano plans to shoot adventure pic “Angels Four” at the Canaima National Park and its stunning Angel Falls, an area relatively unaffected by the turmoil. “Angels Four” is based on the true story of three Americans and one Briton who in 1971 were the first climbers to scale the Angel Falls.

“We’re making films despite the brain drain and talent drain and all the challenges we’re facing; we still have many stories to tell,” said LePage.

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