- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

RIO DE JANEIRO

The 2005 film “The Constant Gardener” won acclaim at film festivals and an Oscar for best supporting actress Rachel Weisz. Now the film’s Brazilian director is harnessing his fame to jump-start his country’s struggling movie industry.

Fernando Meirelles has signed a three-year deal with Universal Studios and its Focus Features unit to bring Brazilian-made films, in English as well as Portuguese, to the studio.

The contract gives them a first look at new Brazilian movies — and could bring new life to Brazilian cinema, for years relegated to art-house cinemas abroad. As the industry looks for a new niche in the international market, Mr. Meirelles’ recent success — and the prospect of new foreign backing — is a major asset.

“Fernando Meirelles today may be the Brazilian director with the greatest international prestige,” said Alberto Flaksman, superintendent of foreign trade for government film regulator Ancine. “This is a recognition of his talent and importance … and could mean a new source of revenue.”

The first-look deal doesn’t guarantee Universal will produce any Brazilian films, but it does make it likely. It doesn’t cover personal projects by Mr. Meirelles or his O2 Filmes — Brazil’s biggest independent studio.

“This agreement should work well to launch new directors,” Mr. Meirelles said. “Having Universal as another ‘player’ in the production of Brazilian films is good news.”

Brazil’s market today is dominated by foreign moviemakers. Local films had a 10 percent market share, and just one Brazilian movie, the romantic comedy “If I Were You,” was among the year’s top 10 box-office hits.

Brazilian cinema got its start in 1930 and reached its apex during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, when the government created the state-run giant Embrafilme to promote Brazilian culture as part of a national development project called “Big Brazil.” After the films were produced they were turned over to the government for censorship.

Box-office hits like Bruno Barreto’s 1976 film “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” — which drew nearly 11 million moviegoers, a Brazilian record — and Caca Diegues’ 1979 “Bye Bye Brazil” were the industry’s high-water marks.

The dictatorship collapsed in 1985, and so did Brazilian movies. President Fernando Collor de Mello shuttered Embrafilme in 1990 and left Brazilian moviemakers unsupported in a market dominated by Hollywood.

Ticket sales plummeted; movie theaters closed across the country; and Brazilians stayed home to watch television.

Today, the country has fewer than half as many movie theaters as 30 years ago and only 7 percent of Brazilian cities have a movie theater. Mexico, the Latin American country with the most movie theaters, has one for every 30,000 residents, while Brazil has one screen for each 95,000 residents.

The industry’s recovery has been fueled by a 1993 law that created a tax write-off for investments in Brazilian movies. And now, a new generation of moviemakers is drawing international attention.

Walter Salles’ “Central Station” received 1999 Oscar nominations for best foreign film and best actress (Fernanda Montenegro). Mr. Meirelles also was nominated in 2004 for “City of God,” about life in a crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro slum.

“There’s no doubt that Brazilian cinema today is incomparably better at the box office than it was 10 years ago,” Mr. Meirelles said. “Even so, we never matched the ticket sales of the 1970s.”

The rap on Brazilian movies was that they didn’t attract foreign viewers. Many dealt with uniquely Brazilian themes — like slum violence — and were aimed exclusively at the domestic market. Soundtracks in Brazil’s Portuguese language were another drawback — the only other market was Portugal.

Today, Brazilian movies are trying for a more international look.

“There’s a nascent movement to ‘internationalize’ our cinema,” Mr. Meirelles said. “I’m always alert to these chances and believe Brazilian cinema is original and interesting to foreign audiences.”

Brazilian actors also are looking abroad. Miss Montenegro, the grande dame of Brazilian cinema, recently got raves in New York for her role in “House of Sand,” a film about three generations of women and their difficult lives in the desert of northern Brazil. She was invited by England’s Mike Newell to star in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” based on the novel by Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Still, the Brazilian film industry was alarmed at this summer’s generally poor box-office performance — even U.S. blockbusters have suffered.

Ancine’s Mr. Flaksman said movies have been hurt by competition from high-quality television, online distribution of films, pirated copies of new releases and the shrinking time span between when a movie is released in the theaters and when it appears on DVD or cable TV.

Theaters also are gearing up for an impending changeover to digital cinema, he said. “It’s expensive, but you’ll have to do it. It’s like the change from silent movies to talkies.”

With costs rising and box-office sales uncertain, Mr. Meirelles’ new deal could point the way for Brazilian moviemakers — forging partnerships with major studios.

“Both Fernando and Walter work like that — closing a package deal with a producer — not just for one movie, but adding cheap projects,” said Pedro Butcher, editor of the respected weekly Filme B. “It’s a great chance for a young moviemaker.”


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