Latin America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been as varied as the cultural and political landscapes of its patchwork of countries. But whether or not theaters remain open or film and TV production continues across the region — which spans Mexico and the majority of Central and South America — has come to depend on industry members themselves. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the private sector has stepped up in many countries where leaders have remained cavalier about the spread of the pandemic.
In Mexico, where 66-year-old president Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to encourage people to “keep living life as usual,” the government’s hands-off approach has seen businesses emerge to gain some control of the disease, with cinemas and production shuttering of their own accord in the absence of government guidance.
“We projected 365 million admissions worldwide for this year, but we don’t see that happening; we’ll see a big hit,” says Alejandro Ramírez, CEO of Mexican exhibition giant Cinépolis, which owns and operates 6,668 screens and employs more than 43,000 people worldwide, including in Spain, India, Latin America and the Middle East.
In the absence of a federal mandate, Cinépolis kept a handful of cinemas open, albeit with limited seating capacity and strict hygiene procedures, until announcing March 24 that it would close its entire Mexican circuit of nearly 900 screens.
“Spain offers unemployment insurance, but Mexico and the rest of Latin America likely does not,” Ramírez points out, adding he does not expect the Mexican government to provide any relief, given its austerity mandate. Per a 2018 study by the International Labor Organization, more than half of Latin American workers aren’t covered by a social security system that would protect them against risks related to illness, unemployment and old age.
Ramírez hopes lessons learned from the 2009 swine flu crisis in Mexico, where all cinemas shut down for nine days, will be considered. “The studios delayed sending us new films, so even when we opened our doors, there was nothing new to entice our audience,” he says, recalling that once new films were screened, people flocked to the cinemas. Local sources project an 11% dip in Mexico’s total box office earnings this year if all cinemas close through April.
In Brazil, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro continues to downplay the gravity of the coronavirus outbreak — even as reports circulated that he has tested positive for the illness — and his ultra-conservative policies erode the country’s once robust film biz.
Brazilian cities and states have applied their own containment measures given the federal government’s indifference. “We had to order all productions to stop immediately,” says Laís Bodanzky, president of São Paulo film and TV agency Spcine.
Meanwhile, Brazilian broadcast giant Globo suspended all productions, including its beloved telenovelas.
But trust the Brazilians to find spirited new ways to show their solidarity with the world. Inspired by news of homebound Italians singing from their balconies, the city of São Paulo launched Windows of São Paulo, an initiative that has set aside $2 million to pay qualifying artists in theater, music, dance and poetry to perform from their windows or balconies.
Elsewhere, Colombian president and film buff Iván Duque, who is more sympathetic to the country’s entertainment industry, enacted a three-week quarantine, but only after local businesses began shutting down productions and cinemas. Exhibition giant Cine Colombia was the first to shutter its screens across the country, on March 14.
Duque has pushed to exploit Colombia’s creative industries, labeled the Orange Economy, to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, but questions were being asked about the government’s initiative to help these industries in their hour of need.
Colombia’s Assn. of Independent Producers, known as Asocinde, has sent a set of relief proposals to the government, says the organization’s head, Ana Piñeres, creative producer and VP of CMO Prods., which was a week into shooting cycling drama “El Rey de la Montaña” when it was forced to pack up.
Asocinde’s proposals include creating a national emergency fund for interest-free loans, encouraging local TV networks to acquire more Colombian cinema at fair prices and introducing a fast track for tax refunds. “We hope to convene with the government shortly,” says Piñeres, who plans to present to the government new statistics on the crisis’s impact on the entertainment industry — compiled jointly with other trade associations.
Signs of positive change in Colombia finally came March 25, when the government reaffirmed its commitment to safeguard the country’s economy, and reassured the entertainment industry that its current tax incentives will continue, despite the crisis.