Letter from Buenos Aires: Subsidies Create More Films, But Not an Eager Audience

It’s not surprising that a country known for its artistic and cultural liveliness is garnering critical acclaim and attention for its films.

Argentina has been experiencing a cinematic push — one that is well overdue after years of inadequate funding and other logistical roadblocks. Thanks to a growing creative community and $30 million a year in government film subsidies, the number of motion pictures produced in Argentina has climbed to nearly 70 per year. Enrollment at film schools, both private and public, has risen to unprecedented levels. Film festivals such as the Buenos Aires Festival International Cine Independiente (BAFICI) and the Mar del Plata Film Festival are garnering larger crowds, offering some first-time Argentine directors and filmmakers an outstanding venue. And Argentine filmmakers continue to earn international acclaim.

Locally however, all is not well. Argentine films are having a hard time recuperating their production costs at the domestic box office and, perhaps more disturbing, they are struggling to draw interest from local audiences when compared with imported offerings.

In a recent letter to the press, Sergio Wolf, the director of BAFICI, describes the Buenos Aires festival’s mission as supporting local film in at a time when theaters in Buenos Aires commonly show only big-budget commercial fare. Wolf hopes festivals will increase the popularity of independent film in Buenos Aires and that interest will remain even after the festivals’ closing nights. But would that be enough?

Tamara L. Falicov, associate professor of film at the University of Kansas, and author of Cinematic Tango, a book that explores the cultural politics of film in Argentina, reflects this same sentiment in an interview. She states that in festivals such as BAFICI, Argentine films gain audiences but that, “during the rest of the year there is a big disparity between the more expensive commercial films and independent films — those with low, to no-budget directors.”

She follows by saying, “It is fantastic that Argentine films are being produced, created, and in most cases, exhibited, but it is a problem that many people are not going to see these films.”

Argentina passed a law in 1994 that forces television and video studios to pay a tax; those funds are used to support the production of local films. Even though funding was largely distributed to higher-budget commercial films, young filmmakers continued to produce, even through the economic crash in late 2001.

Falicov believes that the economic crisis fostered artistic expression. Her book quotes Manuel Antin: “This progress in the film world is proof that Argentina is experiencing a material crisis, not a spiritual crisis.”

Funding is now provided in many areas for filmmakers — through subsidies, competitions, and even in the form of scholarships for school, so finding a way to get the film created is less of a problem. However, the films are not in theaters long enough, nor marketed well enough to generate a following or recuperate large production costs. So in 2004 the INCAA instilled a quota to be followed by Argentine theatres, insuring that national films were shown at least once per quarter. This has helped to put national films on screen, but has still failed to develop an audience excited about national films — especially the independent films made in Argentina.

Part of the struggle is that the films receive absolutely no marketing. They are pitted against blitz campaigns for films coming out of the United States as Argentina continues to show Hollywood blockbusters at local theaters. Thus, Argentine films consistently do poorly at the domestic box office.

However, these same films perform amazingly well in foreign markets. Lucia Puenzo’s XXY in 2007 is an excellent example of Argentine film’s success abroad. Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 hit La Cienaga also gained critical acclaim in festivals throughout the world, earning several awards and critical accolades.

The state of film in Argentina is in many ways at a stalemate. It recognizes its inability to draw large crowds year round, but also knows it is putting forth films that are successful in independent film circles. In an article by Charles Newberry he talks about Argentine film goals that include producing commercial successes while still maintaining the artful edge for which Argentine film is known. Argentina is hoping to do both.

Newberry describes how members of the film community suggest paring down the number of films that are being produced in order to transfer funds toward marketing. Detractors worry this might stifle the emergence of new talent. Regardless of what will be done in terms of funding, a creative shift is happening.

Producers are making films with the audience in mind, focusing on topics and themes that will resonate with local audiences and garner box office attention abroad as well. Horror films and animated films are somewhat of a recent focus in an attempt to achieve this, with Sergio Esquenazi’s new horror film Visitante de Invierno coming out later in 2008.

The ‘arthouse’ image of Argentine film is perhaps a product of Argentina itself. Its tumultuous history and recent economic hardships have been creatively expressed through film. The edgy auteur is sure to remain, but only if it can accrue a bigger and more consistent local audience which in turn assures box office revenue.

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