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Why Hollywood is Discovering Colombia: from Medellín and Bogotá to Cartagena

Why Hollywood is Discovering Colombia: from Medellín and Bogotá to Cartagena

Now and again a country decides that it’s time to spend some money to improve the climate for film and TV production. In the past few years the Colombia government has been flying in Hollywood studio execs and producers in order to change its outdated image as an unsafe destination, promote hefty tax incentives and cash rebates, and show them attractive sites to shoot, especially three primary locales:

1. Bogotá, the nation’s sophisticated capital and traffic-congested largest city (pop. 8 million), perched high in the Andes at over 8660 feet.

2. Cartagena, the venerable Caribbean vacation paradise, discovered 482 years ago by Christopher Columbus and other Spanish settlers, site of a March world-class international film festival. 

3. Medellín, the once-notoriously violent center of cocaine production and export for such drug traffickers as Pablo Escobar, is the sprawling tech-friendly capital of the departamento Antioquia, boasting over 3 million residents, nestled in a temperate Andes valley at just under 5000 feet.

This spring, the women who run the Bogotá, Colombia Ministry of Culture’s 16-year-old film commission and promotion arm Proimágenes Colombia (consulting with LA’s Principal Communications Group) assembled their first press junket. Also able to escape their desks for six days were Peter Caranicas (managing editor of features at Variety in L.A.), New Yorker Edward Douglas (aka Weekend Warrior at Crave’s ComingSoon.net), L.A.-based Haleigh Foutch (Associate Editor at Complex Media’s Collider), and Phil Rhodes, a London camera expert (Below the Line and American Cinematographer). 

Rebranding Medellín as “Green City” of the Future

I arrived at the Medellín airport via Panama City late at night, switching to Central time. After the driver slowly climbed winding two-lane mountain roads, I was wowed by the scale of the vista below of the wide Medellín valley, with twinkling lights spreading up over the surrounding mountain folds, with only a few scattered patches of high-rise buildings.

The next morning, after feasting on the Park 10 Hotel’s fresh papaya, guava, mango and pineapple and aromatic brewed coffee, we piled our bags into a van for a tour of a modern eco-green building celebrating innovation, where the goal is to encourage entrepreneurs and outside investors to turn Medellín into the Silicon Valley of Colombia. (Ironically, the elevator jammed and we had to jump down mid-floors.) We passed a gaggle of students ready to enter a Vive Digital Lab to learn animation techniques. We learned that the city is mounting an ambitiously expensive 10-15 year plan to transform a decaying river bed into a lavish park, bike paths and an underground highway. 

And controversially, Medellín has already spent some $5 million to erect a stack of escalators in the poorest steep neighborhood of the city, named after the July 20, 1810 revolution, which has been turned into a tourist attraction complete with frozen pineapple vendor, vivid graffiti murals and stunning view (see video below).

This is the symbol of Colombia’s reclamation. While Mexico is still struggling with its out-of-control gangster population and corrupt government agencies, over the past 20 years, Colombia has made substantial strides. The country is working overtime to make its citizens feel taken care of and safe, using some of its considerable resources in minerals, gold, oil, coffee and other benefits of its rich biodiversity (on an acre for acre basis, Colombia beats Brazil on the diversity of its plant and animal life) to replace the drug infrastructure with education and hope for the future. The Colombian army has aggressively squashed armed resistance fighters and counter-insurgent militias, and President Juan Manuel Santos’s ongoing peace talks with left wing rebel group Farc in Cuba have yielded a ceasefire.
We visited the San Antonio square in Medellín where guerrillas set off a 1995 10K dynamite bomb in a market—partly blocked and absorbed by a heavy metal sculpture from Colombia’s star sculptor and export, Fernando Botero. He agreed to build another $800,000 statue to replace the one that was blown up, as long as the two sit side by side as a reminder of the 20 people who died.

Producer Alejo Arango believes strongly in various outreach programs such as hip hop/graffiti school Casa Kolacho to encourage young people to express themselves in the arts and find a way out of violence. “That will change future generations forever,” he said. “Hip hop became a weapon of peace here. My fear is not to go back ever to where we were.”

Over a yummy Pacific shrimp, sweet corn and green mango ceviche appetizer and frijoles with a platter of choricillos, chicharron, and hogao and fresh-squeezed lemonade at In Situ Restaurante at the Botanical Gardens (this was not a slimming trip), Arango told me that he kicked off his early career at age 24 with “Al Final del Espectro” (his parents were in the business in Hollywood), which producer Roy Lee wanted to remake for Universal with Nicole Kidman. In 2009, Arango cofounded TV/commercial/film production company Contento Films in Medellín, which helps to raise funding to shoot English-language genre films for export, including Kirk Sullivan’s “City of Dead Men,” starring Diego Boneta. “It’s a helpful city,” Arango said. “Doors are open. They are pro-film in a way you can believe.”

Also lunching at In Situ was self-taught first generation auteur Victor Gaviria, the only Colombian filmmaker to get into the Cannes Official Competition, once with his first film (“Rodrigo D – No Future”) in 1990, followed eight years later by his second (“The Seller of Roses”). Both were cinema verite portraits of the narcos culture in Medellín, shot with street locals in the toughest neighborhoods, without professional actors.

“When you see the army of people behind the system you start to understand the profound impact the violent environment has on people,” he said. Gaviria has made his living teaching and making documentaries and has only shot four personal feature films. Other Colombian films have played on the global festival circuit as well as Cannes sidebars, including Ciro Guerra’s elegantly shot 2009 sophomore film “The Wind Journeys” (his third, upcoming “The Embrace of the Serpent,” tracks the relationship of a surviving Amazon shaman and two scientific explorers) and Spike Lee executive-produced “Manos Sucias,” a coke-smuggling tale which was shot in the port city of Buenaventura (New York: April 3, LA: April 10). 

A large iguana at the Gardens was as close as we got to Colombia’s famed Amazon jungle, described in horrific terms in New Yorker writer David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Amazon Obsession,” which James Grey is turning into a movie starring Charlie Hunnam and Rob Pattinson for Brad Pitt’s Plan B at Paramount. Locations are yet to be announced, but Proimágenes has been in contact with the studio. (CNN’s Anthony Bourdain got closer to the jungle in his excellent Colombia episode of “Parts Unknown.”)

Promoting Colombian Production

Back in 2003, the government passed a tax incentive to boost local production. By 2014 Colombian production was up from next to nothing  to 28 films including 5 documentaries and 12 co-productions, boosted by an Ibero-American pact with Brazil, Spain, Mexico, and Portugal among other Latin American countries. For the last eight years, Proimágenes has been increasingly promoting their films at festivals and markets, starting at Cannes, where they have a Colombian Pavilion, as well as the AFM, Berlin, Locarno, San Sebastian, HotDocs, Power to the Pixel and Toronto.

Colombia boasts a healthy television industry with two networks that produce in-house and two major production companies; while there’s some TV infrastructure in Medellín, the area lacks a film studio (one is being planned) and while they have equipment rental companies, at this point they can’t supply everything a big production would need; that would require bringing in equipment from Bogotá which is better supported as a production hub at this stage.

Two years ago Colombia added Law 1556 to make it easier to make films there. Since 2013, some 10 projects from different countries including the U.S., Argentina, Spain and France have taken advantage of Colombia’s rebate, which offers up to 40% in a cash for production services and 20% for lodging, catering and transportation to shoot films spending a minimum of $600,000 in Colombia, while a second rebate offers an additional 15% to use FilmMed services to shoot in Medellín (with a $250,000 minimum spend) and train local crews.

Proimágenes’ annual rebate budget from the government is $12.5 million. “We have paid the rebate for four projects,” said Proimágenes founder and chief executive Claudia Triana de Vargas, whose old friend President Santos has always supported the entertainment industry from his various government posts. “We do it really fast after they do their accounts and auditing, within two months.” Two more will be paid quite soon. So far they’re getting smaller indie projects, but are prepared to support bigger ones.

But the studios start to demand rebates for above the line for such films as Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which Colombia does not do. “We have different and diverse locations to offer,” said film commissioner Silvia Echeverri, from mountains, deserts, cities and jungles to the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Dynamo and Gaumont TV’s original 10-episode TV series “Narcos” (Netflix, summer 2015), directed by Brazilian Jose Padilha and starring Wagner Maura as Escobar, took advantage of the cash rebate for two episodes, which is all that TV productions can get. “It’s a sensitive topic that’s important for us,” said former investment banker Andres Calderon, CEO of TV, film and web series producer Dynamo. “Everybody wants to know what really happened. It’s a mix based on true stories. Some are real names, some are invented characters.”

Dynamo also provided production services for the five-week shoot on Phoenix Pictures’ “The 33,” directed by Patricia Riggen and starring Antonio Banderas as the savior of 33 miners trapped for 69 days in a mine in Chile. The film shot its subterranean scenes in two mines outside of Bogotá before finishing in Chile. Dynamo also co-produced Elijah Wood‘s Spectrevision low-budget SXSW horror flick “The Boy,” which was shot in Santa Fe de Antiocqia outside of Medellín, doubling for Colorado, using the cash rebate. 

Bogotá TV Studios

We took a short hop to the El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá (which flies direct to New York, Sao Paolo and London, but not Los Angeles), settled into the minimally modern Mila Suites, and were driven to a nearby mountain to ascend via steep cable tram to check the stunning views and consume an artery-clogging lunch at French Cerro de Monserrate with Proimágenes execs Triana de Vargas and Echeverri. They admitted that they balance questions of the country’s image– drug lords and cocaine trafficking are popular subjects–with the advantages to Colombia. They vote on a committee comprised of entertainment industry insiders and government ministers to approve projects for rebates.

We braved intense traffic to tour two TV studios with heavy security and dozens of small sound stages, giant Caracol Television (which owns and programs one of the country’s two TV Channels, owns media such as newspaper El Spectador and the country’s largest theater chain) and Fox Telecolombia, majority owned by the Fox studio, where we visited the sets of the long-form bio-series on Cuban “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz as well as the TV period drama “Azucar,” set on a sugar plantation. “We love incentives!” said Director of Production Francisco Forero. 

Caracol’s upcoming production of English-language “The Abduction of Jocelyn Shaker” will be shot in Colombia with rebates. “We hope to sell it to Lifetime or Hallmark,” said Alejandro Toro, Director of Coproductions, who is producing more movies to market in Latin America, best achieved via coproductions. Caracol’s upcoming guerrilla thriller “Before the Fire” will debut in an upcoming New York showcase of Colombian films.

Producing for the burgeoning Spanish-speaking U.S. market has not yielded much in the way of results so far. Caracol Play, their new VOD platform, is growing, as Colombia’s local market share, like many countries, dwindles in the face of Hollywood’s dominating exports. “We need to give more marketing and promotion to our projects,” said Toro. 

“It’s easier for a Hollywood movie to travel to South America than a local movie,” said Dynamo’s Calderon. “Studios command about 80-90% of the box office. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ made more than 95% of the films in South America this summer.”
Festival International de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI)

Another plane whips us to the Cartagena Airport and Bastion Hotel to dress up for the FICCI 55 Ceremonia de Inauguracion at the Teatro Adolfo Mejia Platea (a renovated nunnery with stacked balconies), in the walled Caribbean town of Old Cartagena, ones of the Indies discovered by Christopher Columbus 482 years ago which held off raiding pirates with cannons facing the sea and a submerged wall to block the Boca Grande harbor entrance. Pirates were chasing all the gold, emeralds and silver being shipped to back to Spain. (Oscar submission “The Liberator” is about how revolutionary Simon Bolivar, played by rising Venezuelan star Edgar Ramirez, fought to free Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia from the Spaniards.)

Cartagena was also the biggest African slave market in the Spanish territories. Today, Colombia’s deep heritage of European, Indian and African influences is rich indeed. Their biggest star export? Sofia Vergara.

Proimágenes has been trying to lure Disney to shoot “Pirates of the Caribbean” here to no avail. “What about Woody Allen?” I asked. “You pay for the movie,” Echeverri said. Films shot in photogenic Cartagena over the years include BBC’s “Nostromo” (1995), Werner Herzog’s “Cobra Verde” (1987), Roland Joffe’s “The Mission” (1985) and Mike Newell’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” (2007). 

Colombia President Santos attended the FICCI55 opening night of Jose Luis Rugeles’ “Alias Maria,” a bleak jungle war story about 13-year-old guerrilla soldier Maria, who has a secret. She is pregnant by her 28-year-old officer boyfriend, which is forbidden. Abortions are routine. But the comandante’s wife gives birth to a baby who she hands over to Maria to take out of the armed combat zone to safety. Rugeles effectively deploys hand-held digital cameras to shoot this rare soldier’s tale from a woman’s point-of-view. While many international festival programmers attend Cartagena to trawl for strong Latin American content, from Cannes, Rotterdam and Tribeca to San Sebastian and Sarajevo, the likelihood of “Alias Maria” being sold to many other countries is slim.

At the outdoor after party (held at a Spanish Inquisition site displaying instruments of torture), Darren Aronofsky told me that all he had to do was mention that he was interested in visiting Colombia (his Spanish conquistadores in “The Fountain” tromped through Guatemala) and a Cartagena invitation to tribute him magically materialized (this is what agents do). He was eager to check out the country–he has a project that might shoot there–and wound up the night on the dance floor. Also checking out the Cartagena terrain was “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn.

And also accepting a Cartagena tribute was Italy-based producer Michael Fitzgerald, who has produced for directors John Huston (“Wise Blood,” “Under the Volcano”), Tommy Lee Jones (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” and “The Homesman”) and Sean Penn (“The Pledge”) and is now working with Errol Morris on his second fiction feature, a psychological thriller about a serial killer, “Holland Michigan,” written by Andrew Sodroski, set to start in September with Naomi Watts and Edgar Ramirez, as well as a documentary about Ebola.

“The infectious disease ticking time bomb is so dire that no one wants to think about it,” Fitzgerald told me me over breakfast coffee and sausages at the Hotel St. Augustine (where fellow juror, TOH’s own Meredith Brody, was also staying). “I went straight to Errol. Only he has this way of approaching the thing that is so incisive that it will be widely seen.” He is also developing an ambitious narrative fairy tale with Godfrey Reggio about climate change, with help from both Al Gore and Participant Media.

Fitzgerald joined Cine Colombia‘s sunny annual waterside lunch for several hundred festival attendees including Javier Fuentes-Leon, whose Dynamo thriller “The Vanished Elephant,” starring Andres Parra and Salvador del Solar, debuted at TIFF and opens April 15 in Colombia and Peru (his “Undertow,” a co-production shot in Peru, won the world cinema dramatic audience award at Sundance 2010 and is available on Amazon Instant Video).

Sitting at our table was veteran Ian Jessel, who once ran Miramax International and now consults for Legendary 3D. He’s producing a biopic of Colombian bullfighter Pepe Caceres, who died in the ring at age 52, with his actor son. “Caceres met Hemingway and Picasso,” said Jessel, who’s hoping to lure Anthony Hopkins, whose wife is Colombian, for a cameo. Jessel sees potential for co-productions with countries like Mexico, Spain and Argentina, but he worries that Colombian filmmakers still lack the right connections to break through in Europe, Asia and the U.S.

Finally, as moviemakers around the world search for fresh exotic stories and settings, it makes sense for emerging countries to reach out and encourage not only the economic boost that movie shoots bring, but the training and infrastructure as well. We’ll soon be seeing more of Colombia on the big screen. 

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