As I mentioned a couple of times, I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Bogota, Colombia, where I was invited to speak at the Semana del Cine Colombiano (Colombian Film Week), which gathered together a wide range of speakers who addressed some of the challenges facing filmmakers in Latin America who are seeking to gain wider distribution for their films. The symposium ended up being an incredibly thought-provoking experience, one that challenged me to rethink some of my assumptions about the role of digital distribution in reshaping the film market. At the same time, I found myself drawing connections between the challenges that Latin American filmmakers face and the very similar challenges confronting independent filmmakers in the United States. As a result, I am in the process of trying to think through some of these questions in what will hopefully be a more systematic fashion (perhaps in a journal article or something similar), but for now, here are some notes and other quick impressions that I was able to glean from my trip, which included attendance at the Premios Macundo, the Colombian Film Awards, designed to honor the best in Colombian filmmaking (for a basic overview of the Colombian film industry, Wikipedia offers at least a cursory discussion).
Perhaps the “meat” of the conference for me was getting a better sense of how film production and distribution works in Latin America. Other speakers focused on the use of legal, economic, and ideological practices to sustain and encourage indigenous film production and consumption, and (as I’ll discuss in detail), it was impossible not to be impressed by some of the innovative practices that were being used to expand Latin American film culture. The dominance of the Hollywood system around the globe is pretty well documented (see, for example, the book, Global Hollywood). But some numbers are worth mentioning here. According to research presented by Paolo Goncalves, 8 of the top 10 highest-grossing films in Brazil came from the U.S. Similarly, 9 of the top 10 films in Argentina were U.S. films, while all of the top ten films in Mexico were made in the U.S. In terms of shares of box office, Argentinian films constituted 16% of their country’s box office take, while Colombian films accounted for only about 4.8%, a problem that seems to have been exacerbated by attractions such as 3-D film.
One of the other challenges that speakers addressed was the small number of theaters available, especially outside of urban centers. According to Goncalves, there is only one movie screen for every 91,000 residents of Brazil and one for every 81,000 Colombian, compared to a 1:8,000 ratio in the U.S. and a 1:10,000 in Ireland (a number that was relatively consistent across Europe). Similarly, according to the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, there are “only 19 movie theatres in Uruguay, of which 16 in Montevideo,” making access outside of urban centers extremely difficult, a point echoed in discussions of the Brazilian film industry (dozens of cities with over 100,000 residents in Brazil lack a single movie theater). At the same time (or perhaps, in part, because of these limitations), piracy is rampant, with films circulating through unofficial channels, despite the somewhat incongruous presence of several Blockbuster Video stores throughout Bogota.
Although these numbers might be disheartening, especially for those of us seeking to foster a diverse audiovisual culture, I was impressed by the attempts to create alternative production, distribution, and exhibition practices that could provide greater access to Latin American films. One compelling program was the Espacios INCAA, a program sponsored by the Argentinian government to encourage the construction of movie screens devoted exclusively to showing Argentinian films. These screens are generally built near universities and in other city centers, offer lower ticket prices than theaters screening U.S. films, and seem designed to appeal to younger audiences who could, in theory, develop the habit of attending these films. The program was successfully promoted on Twitter and Facebook and used social media to help build an audience for local films. Although less focused on promoting local film, Brazil offers a similar incentive program to encourage building more movie theaters and expanding access to movie screenings.
One of the more commonly discussed practices was co-productions. The most visible form of this activity was the Ibermedia Fund (English version), which is a joint project of 12 countries, including Spain, who all gave money to create a fund for which filmmakers could apply. These projects would, if I understood correctly, have to be co-productions between two different countries. One of the benefits, of course, is that filmmakers can draw from tax incentives from two different countries, while also allowing them to pool resources. However, as a number of people observed, these co-productions are not always well-received for a number of reasons, in part because of the problems of incorporating creative personnel and/or settings from both countries into a single film.
Perhaps the most compelling attempt to rework film distribution was a Uruguayan initiative called Efecto Cine (official website) a traveling film exhibition series, which brought a series of ten Uruguayan films to the “outskirts of Montevideo and [to] 30 towns all over the country” using an inflatable screen (you can see some pictures of screenings and the set-up involved here). These were free public screenings that anyone could attend–normally a ticket to a theater in Uruguay costs about $6.00 U.S.–and in just over four months, over 90,000 Uruguayans were able to attend a movie screening.
As an outsider, I was struck by the strong emphasis on theatrical distribution. Given the increasing focus here on digital distribution, whether video-on-demand, Netflix, or iTunes, it would seem that digital technologies might provide an untapped resource, and to be fair, some panelists did address this potential, in particular, Steve Solot of Latin American Training Center, who pointed to the ongoing sense, in the United States at least, that the days of a “typical pipeline,” from theaters to cable and DVD, no longer exists. Solot also noted that many distribution tools available in the U.S., such as iTunes, are not available in other countries, perhaps complicating the use of on-demand systems. Still, Solot was especially attentive to the ways in which the challenges indie filmmakers face mirror those facing Latin American filmmakers (in fact, his organization works with the Independent Features Project).
Finally, the Colombian film awards, the Premois Macundo, served as yet another ideological approach for fostering Colombian film, in particular. Because my Spanish is relatively weak, I was only able to get a partial understanding of what was happening at the Premios Macundo. The awards, I learned later, were being run, for the first time, by the Colombian Academy of Motion Pictures, but it was interesting to see how the awards both corresponded to and diverged from ceremonies such as the Oscars. The awards highlighted most of the familiar categories–best actor and actress, cinematographer, editing–but there were, if I understood correctly, three major film awards, one a kind of people’s choice award, another selected by the Academy, and a third selected by an international jury, with the latter award considered the most significant. Although some might be tempted to lament the fact that the Colombian Awards seem to imitate the American awards, thus cementing them as a (good) model, I was struck by the ways in which the awards could function positively as means for promoting Colombian film, both within the country and abroad. Both my fiancee and I were intrigued by a number of films, including Contracorriente (Undertow), and Los Viajes del viento (The Wind Journeys).
These comments risk scratching the surface of what is, in fact, a much more complicated set of industrial, governmental, and creative challenges and opportunities. As usual, I was impressed not only by the vitality and creativity of the filmmakers but also of the people working to foster a vibrant Latin American film culture.