Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eugene Hernandez
August 23, 2009 3:30 AM
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Eugene Hernandez: Nadie Sabe Nada

Federico Veiroj, left, talks about his new film, "La vida útil," in Montevideo, Uruguay on Friday. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 23, 2009 -- The scene: A middle-aged man steps into a row of a fading, empty movie theater. He sits down, pauses for a moment then gets up and moves one seat to his right. He does the same thing again before settling on a spot. As it turns out, he's not about to watch a movie, but rather testing and repairing the chairs. He runs a fading cinematheque.

Still in production on "La vida útil," filmmaker Federico Veiroj presented just a few minutes of footage from the new film and talked about it a bit on Friday afternoon in Montevideo, Uruguay. The black-and-white project is Veiroj's second feature, a follow-up to last year's "Acné," which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and later won a number of fest prizes. It remains without U.S. distribution of any kind, so after I chatted with the filmmaker at the Teatro Solis in downtown Montevideo last week, he handed me a DVD.

A local Uruguayan film critic stars as Jorge, the cinematheque owner in "La vida útil" whose life has been defined by his cinephilia. With his film archive in crisis, it's an understatement to say that he's facing a dramatic transition as the structures of his existence crumble.

Making the movie with Fuji film stock he won at AFI Fest, Veiroj underscored some of the timely parallels between his new movie and the state of film today. He's making a sixty seven minute project that he hopes will first find it's way to movie lovers via festivals next year, but has realistic expectations about its prospects for distribution in this current climate. Unwilling to compromise core elements of his movie to satisfy distributors, though, Veiroj calmly reiterated that he'll finish the movie his way and then take on distribution himself if necessary to get it in front of its intended audience.

Matt Dentler chats with students in Montevideo, Uruguay." Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

I joined a small group of U.S. film folks for a few days in Uruguay last week for MIFF Abroad, the Miami International Film Festival's annual touring program of seminars and meetings that this year connected industry, filmmakers, students and others in Montevideo. IFC's Ryan Werner, Efe Cakarel from The Auteurs, Cinetic's Matt Dentler, Gigantic Releasing's Mark Lipsky, and programmer Monika Wagenberg from Cinema Tropical were among those in Uruguay for the three days of meetings and mixers.

There's a small but apprently quite tight film community in the coastal city, situated a short trip across the Rio de La Plata from Buenos Aires. We chatted with them over meals and at bars like La Ronda, a popular local watering hole for film folks downtown. Fans of international film have embraced a number of Uruguayan films (most are co-productions) in recent years, including Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's "Whisky" (2003) and "25 Watts" (2001), Veiroj's "Acné", Adrián Biniez' "Gigante," an award winner in Berlin. Upcoming are Pablo Stoll's "Hiroshima" in Toronto and Enrique Buchichio's "El Cuarto de Leo" in San Sebastian.

Relating news of uncertainty and fear in the U.S. film business, the group exported reports that were quite bleak for the locals. "In just a few years, the previous structures will not be the same," Wagenberg said of the industry, in Spanish, at the start of a two-day conference. In short, the Americans spoke of dwindling opportunities for either art or commerce in the U.S. Yet, also debated digital models that might offer some relief, if not large revenues.

"Nadie sabe nada,"" I offered at one point during a panel discussion, evoking William Goldman's infamous statement that "Nobody knows anything," as a way of trying to say that as smart and seasoned as the U.S. guests are, so much seems to be in flux back home that it's too soon to know how it will all shake out. Now is a time of tremendous experimentation and opportunity.

Uruguayan producer Fernando Epstein, programmer Monika Wagenberg and Efe Cakarel from The Auteurs.

"We are losing cinephilia," underscored Efe Cakarel, the MIT and Goldman Sachs insider who is developing quite a passion for cinema as the founder and head of online cinematheque The Auteurs. His comment about the state of cinema was quite evident during an engaging Friday morning breakfast session with dozens of local film school students. The cost of living is too high to allow many visits to a multiplex, one student told me frankly.

At the local Casablanca Cinema in Montevideo I noticed that the comfortable multiplex was offering Laurent Cantet's "The Class" and Claude Chabrol's "Bellamy" (with Pedro Almodovar's "Abrazos Rotos" on the way). But, the smart student -- a violinist and writer with a filmmaker brother who is eyeing further study in New York City -- said that most people would rather spend hours downloading a crappy bootleg copy of a new film than wastefully pay to watch it. Not surprisingly, then, the idea of an iTunes movie store where folks would pay for online access to a movie in Uruguay seemed an extremely foreign (and even stupid) concept to her. Idealistically, I challenged her to come up with an online model that might marry local attitudes about free access to films with a structure that could bring some revenue to the filmmakers and produers.

The Auteurs' Cakarel said the other day in Uruguay that he doesn't want his burgeoning site to replace theatrical distribution, but instead offer wider access to cinephiles (and potential cinephiles) around the world. In Uruguay, he may have to flip that approach if film students won't go to the theater to see a movie. To that extent, after the meeting with the students on Friday he immediately decided to lower the cost of watching a film on The Auteurs in Uruguay to USD $1 and he agreed to give them credit to start streaming films from his site.

I'm visiting friends in Brazil now as I write this on a Sunday morning, thinking about my experiences last week in Uruguay. I'm looking forward to popping in the DVD of Federico Veiroj's "Acné" and then catching "Gigante" and "Hiroshima" at U.S. fests next month. I'm also wondering, again a bit idealistically, if there might be a way to find a way to bring more Latin American movies to the U.S., which has some 45 million Latinos.

"There are tens of millions of Spanish speaking people in the U.S.," Gigantic's Mark Lipsky, a veteran of Stateside film distribution, told the filmmakers and students in Uruguay the other day. "The problem is they don't go to the movies," Lipsky added, echoing conventional wisdom but then offering a challenge.

"We need to work very hard on your behalf and our own behalves, to try to fix that," he added.

Indeed.

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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7 Comments

  • DiazFilm | August 27, 2009 4:05 AMReply

    Dear Eugene,

    A few weeks ago I started my own blog on Latin American cinema: http://diazfilm.blogspot.com. I decided to do so because I couldn't find an online destination in English that focused specifically on the rich bounty of films currently produced in places like Uruguay, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, among others. Indeed, production (and the quality) of films in many Latin American countries has increased exponentially in the last decade. So it is terribly unfortunate that worthy new works cannot enjoy the exposure they deserve as a result of our fragile economy and current distribution woes. I definitely share the concerns expressed in your article, and I believe that there is something we can do.

    First, I think it's important to dispel some common misconceptions about Latino audiences. Latinos in this country are not a homogeneous group. Just because someone speaks Spanish doesn't necessarily mean that they will be attracted to a Spanish-language film. In fact, U.S. Latino filmgoers generally have a greater allegiance to films from their country of origin (or descent). In other words, you're most likely to see a Chilean supporting a Chilean film than a film in Spanish from another country. Crossover non-Latinos and cinephiles of every ilk are also important but to the extent that U.S. distribution companies don't observe these distinctions they are destined to miss the mark. Now that the old distribution models are going the way of the dinosaurs it is even more important to take these issues into consideration.

    To me, theatrical distribution has ceased to be the be-all and end-all. The younger generations don't seem to have the same passion for watching films in cinemas as some of us, so why beat the theatrical dead horse - especially when it continues to fail foreign films and their audiences? We have to accept our new reality and find new solutions. I commend The Auteurs' Efe Cakarel for creating an exciting new model of distribution and, in that same spirit, I feel that we need to continue to support other non-traditional distribution ideas and grass roots initiatives. A good friend of mine, Ana Joanes - director of the documentary "Fresh," devised an innovative distribution plan where she targeted her audience directly (in her case, people interested or involved in the alternative foods movement) and through her website began to sell DVD's of her films and licenses for "home" and "community" screenings. She's been extremely successful, filling non-traditional venues such as libraries to capacity, and now distributors are knocking on HER door.

    Ana's system is perfect for galvanizing specific Latino groups to support a given film. Puerto Rico, my country of origin, produces very few films a year but whenever one is released the groundswell of support can be astounding. This is so because everyone wants to rally around a film deemed as a "local production." The film becomes symbolic of our people and our art, so people flock to theaters, buy DVD's, etc. I believe that Latinos in the U.S. can be inspired in the same way to either go to theaters (if the choice is available) or, using Ana's DIY model, to attend a screening at, say, the local YMCA. And by the way, nationality is not the only common theme that can be of interest to Latino audiences. Films dealing with immigration, politics, gays, and environmental issues can easily find receptive Latinos. The key is to be smart about identifying your audience, and to reach out to them in a way that makes them feel that their participation is important.

    Finally, people in the media can be instrumental in increasing the visibility of Latin American cinema and promoting audience engagement. Whether in a small forum like my blog or an influential website like yours, our commitment needs to be reflected in the continued coverage of Latin American films, festivals, news, etc. Otherwise, these films we all love run the risk of languishing in relative obscurity in the U.S. Recently, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced its lineup for the 12th edition of Latinbeat, its annual showcase of Latin American cinema. However, I didn't see any articles about it in any of my trusted film websites (including Indiewire). I actually found the listing by chance when perusing the Film Society's website. Latinbeat was where, in 2003, one of my documentaries ("Viva Cepeda!") was bought by HBO after executives attended a screening. At a time when Latino film festivals are shutting down or close to it, the media's support is more important than ever. Or else, I fear future filmmakers might be deprived of the same opportunity I had.

    As you can see from the responses you received, there are many people who share your concerns but who are, in equal measure, working to find solutions. I sincerely hope that you will use your influence to keep the dialogue going.

    Mario Diaz
    Producer/Director/Editor

  • DiazFilm | August 27, 2009 3:57 AMReply

    Type your comment here

  • cristina garza | August 24, 2009 9:41 AMReply

    Dear Eugene,

    As a great lover of Latin cinema, it's very hopeful to know there are many like you here in the U.S. who are working to bring Latin cinema to the states. I certainly share your perplexity about the failure of Latino film in the U.S, as Latino culture here is so ever present.

    Although I'm young and fairly new to the world of distribution, the answer to me seems to be cultivating a new audience and allowing a larger group of movie-goers to believe they are capable of liking arthouse and foreign films.

    The art house has become a members only club, excluding large groups of Latinos in the U.S. (not to mention students, non-affluent folks, and many others) who would appreciate these films. As I have been screening films for female inmates on Rikers Island for 2 years, I know this first hand (John Cameron Mitchell's SHORT BUS and Catherine Breillat's FAT GIRL were total hits!). It's about access. Distributors might be taking out ads in El Diario, but the films certainly aren't "Playing in a theater near you".

    And as much as failing distribution models, a crappy economy, and safe programming are to blame, I feel that safe distributing is a culprit as well.
    As long as we keep distributing films that paint the singular portrait of Latin America that we have been lead to believe, such as drug-trafficking Colombians, gang wars in Mexico and favela violence in Brazil, we can guarantee that audiences aren't going to pay dollars for anything less graphic. Of course a subtle, nuanced film like ACNÉ doesn't stand a chance!

    But obviously distributors aren't the only ones to blame, we lazy-Americans are too.

    Reading now about Criterion's release of Jeanne Dielman, Chantal Akerman’s 1975 masterpiece, (http://www.indiewire.com/article/cinemadaily_jeanne_dielman/) I'm reminded about the beauty and rarity of subtle cinema, and yet the difficulty of it. I can only imagine that most American audiences would find themselves bored by following our heroine though her daily routines in real time. I'm sure they would cringe at the long takes of her making her morning coffee, setting her dinner table or shining her son's shoes. But here is a film where in the nothing that happens, we see everything. The beauty of life. The beauty of living.

    As I continue to hope that Mr. Obama will pull us out of this financial mess, I’ll keep faith that distributors will start taking more chances, taking films into neighborhoods, and taking art seriously. And I'll hope too that movie-lovers will begin to slow down in order to appreciate them.

    Cristina Garza
    FiGa Films

  • cinematropical | August 24, 2009 6:45 AMReply

    Dear Eugene,
    Glad your trip to Uruguay proved to be insightful and stimulating. I can totally relate to some of your comments, for over eight years now Cinema Tropical has been actively and constantly working on finding better contexts for the distribution of Latin American cinema in this country.

    By working in different capacities (as programmers, distributors, publicists, etc.) and in collaboration with different organizations and institutions we have launched and supported many Latin American films in the US.

    Cinema Tropical has been able to build a strong constituency for Latin American cinema composed of Latino and non-Latino audiences (why should only Latino audience appreciate the great work being produced in the region?), so even though the road has been rocky and uphill, we’re actually optimistic that we can definitely fight for and achieve better conditions for the screening of Latin American films in this country and this takes thinking outside the box of traditional distribution models.

    By the way, there’s a great chance for you and your New York readers to catch up on the amazing work being produced in Uruguay as Cinema Tropical is presenting in partnership with BAMcinématek a series on recent films from this South American country. The series runs October 16 –18 at BAM Rose Cinemas and includes the films GIGANTE (Adrián Biniez); THE POPE’S TOILET (Cesar Charlone, Enrique Fernández); WHISKY and 25 WATTS (Juan Pablo Rebella & Pablo Stoll); THE DOG POUND (Manuel Nieto Zas); STRANDED: I’VE COME FROM A PLANE THAT CRASHED ON THE MOUNTAINS (Gonzalo Arijón); and KILL THEM ALL (Esteban Schroeder).

    Carlos A. Gutiérrez
    Co-founder & co-director, Cinema Tropical

  • maya7 | August 24, 2009 5:34 AMReply

    Eugene, what a thoroughly fascinating write-up. Thank you. Equally for the above comments. As a journalist captivated by Latin American fare, I appreciate this coverage, however sobering. I was struck by the comment that Latinos in the U.S. do not want to see themselves on the screen. Do I believe that? I'm not sure. Here in San Francisco both of our Latino film festivals--Cine Accion and the Latino International--have gone belly-up in recent years. It's ending up that I turn to the Toronto International to be exposed to new films from the Global South.

  • Doublel | August 23, 2009 9:44 AMReply

    Eugene,

    I have presented workshops on writing business plans and forecasting for different NALIP groups over the past six years. Generally, the filmmakers have agreed with my analysis that the problem isn't that Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. don't go to movies, it is that they aren't the biggest audience for Spanish-language cinema. The Census Bureau says that the average age of those 45 million Latinos is 25.8. Many are still only one generation removed from being "foreigners," and they tend to want to identify with being American. Interestingly the Latino-themed movies that have done well have been in Spanish rather than American-made English language films. However, they also have had a large crossover audience of non-Latinos. Hopefully, a distributor will devise a new marketing strategy through all those social networks that will appeal to that large Latino population. I think that audiences are interested in quality movies. Getting the word to them is one task. Having the distributor keep a film with positive buzz on screens long enough for the audience to respond is a different problem.

  • figa | August 23, 2009 8:40 AMReply

    Eugene, as you may or may not know, our company, FiGa Films, has been trying to do just that for the past 3 years ("I’m also wondering, again a bit idealistically, if there might be a way to find a way to bring more Latin American movies to the U.S., which has some 45 million Latinos.").

    It has been an enormous challenge for us to get any support from the North American Latino community. It's a cliche, but Latinos in the US really don't care to see themselves on the screen. So we decided to go after the atsy crowd, and hoped others would follow (since our films are not artsy, they're just in Portuguese or Spanish). We're attracted to everyday stories, that show how Latin America really is, moving and entertaining, nothing exploitive.

    Initially everyone really loved our idea. Our first release, ALICE'S HOUSE, did a lot better than we ever expected, and because of if, the whole theatrical release cost us 3 times more than we expected. But we're not complaining, we're thrilled we got so much attention right from the start. We had such high hopes for our next films...

    But everything has shifted drastically since, and we're having the hardest time booking our films anywhere. No one in America seems to be interested in challenging films, not even the non-theatrical high brow circuit, to be quite honest. If the film was not in Sundance, Berlin, Cannes or TIFF, it doesn't exist in their radar. The problem really is a lot wider than you think. It starts with festival programmers, who copy each other, then it trickles down to everyone else who decides what should be playing on the screens. It's all very safe and boring, a continuing repetition of similar films, by familiar filmmakers.

    Another issue is that we tried to get ACNE. We saw it almost a year before Cannes, at San Sebastian's Cine en Constuccion, and had we acted right there, we'd probably be showing it now (before it went to a French sales agent, got in the Directors' Fortnight, won AFI, and became a lot more than we could pay for it). We tried last November, it just did not work for us. Federico is incredibly talent, his film is a total joy, but would we be actually able to show it properly in the US and make our investment back? I unfortunately do not think so.

    In the same Cine en Cosntruccion we decided to go with an Argentine film instead. It won a bunch of awards in Europe and South America, it's brilliant, unlike any other film from Argentina we've ever seen. It played in Miami for 4 days and no one else wants to book it. Variety did not get it all (not political enough!) and we're counting our losses.

    Another favorite film of ours, from the same year in Cannes, is TONY MANERO. God bless Richard Lorber for taking it, but have you seen how much it has earned? It's soo sad when a film like that, which got positive reviews from everyone that matters, lots of awards, anything a foreign art-house film could ask for, and still does not find an audience.

    So what gives? What really is the problem with indie and foreign films? Is it the crumbling distribution system? The vicious circle of lazy programming? Or audiences who are simply not interested in quality filmmaking anymore? Just hope is not all of the above.