TV Killed the Movies in Brazil

    
TV Killed the Movies in Brazil

    Cinema revenues have been vastly reduced over the last half-century as
    Brazil’s cinemas have
    been suffocated by TV.  As the television industry
    has grown ever more powerful, many people have
    opted to stay at home
    in front of ‘the box’ rather than going out to a film. The failure of television

    to
    purchase movies has also proved disastrous for the film industry.

    by:
    Tom
    Phillips

     

    At the start of the twenty first century the Brazilian film industry is undergoing a very definite renaissance.
    Domestically films such as Eu Tu Eles and
    Abril Despedaçado have proved enormous hits, whilst Fernando Mereilles’
    Cidade de Deus has exceeded all expectations, watched by some three million Brazilians, and an estimated 14 million others in
    overseas auditoriums.

    City of God, wrote The Guardian’s Andrew Pulver last year, "can be considered as part of a resurgent Latin
    American film movement termed la buena onda—"the good wave"—that takes in everything from Alfonso Cuaron’s
    record-breaking Y Tu Mamá Tambien through the upcoming Argentinean thriller
    Nine Queens, Salles’ Central Station
    and Behind the Sun, to Amores
    Perros."

    Events such as the international documentary festival
    É Tudo Verdade further underline Brazil’s increasing strength
    in this section of the arts. But it hasn’t always been like this. A string of crises (notably in the 1930s, 70s and 80s) have
    hindered film production since the first movie was shot in Brazil back in 1898. And the blame for this falls, in part, to the
    world-famous telenovela.

    The negative impact of television on Brazil’s film industry has been twofold. Firstly, cinema revenues have been
    vastly reduced over the last half-century as Brazil’s cinemas have been suffocated by the world of TV—a huge, multi-billion
    pound industry fronted by a handful of bulging-pocketed media moguls, who have the power to dictate even the kick-off times
    of football matches across the country.

    As the television industry has grown ever larger and more powerful, many people have opted to stay at home in front
    of ‘the box’ rather than going out to a film. In this respect the Brazilian
    telenovela, has undoubtedly proved a sizeable
    thorn in the side of the nation’s film industry. Secondly, the failure of television to compensate filmmakers by purchasing
    their productions has proved disastrous for the latter.

    The Novela Factor

    The national phenomenon of the
    telenovela has in itself played a key part in helping to slash cinema audiences.
    Since the format was first pioneered in 1950s São Paulo,
    telenovelas have gone from strength to strength, becoming,
    according to Jospeh A. Page, "the pre-eminent form of Brazilian culture" and at times commanding audience ratings of an
    astonishing 100 per cent. Courtesy of overseas advertising revenues from multinational companies such as Unilever in the United
    States and Lintas in Britain, the soaps rapidly became a phenomenally lucrative commodity.

    With such financial backing, the programs were able to evolve into what the popular magazine
    Veja referred to as "an almost cinematic genre of Hollywood dimensions, and yet one most typically Brazilian in its language, plots and rhythm
    of production." These traits, technical sophistication and familiar settings, were the principal factors behind the style’s
    success. With the evening television schedules bursting with shows such as
    O Direito de Nascer or, more recently,
    Laços de Família, a bite-sized version of Hollywood has become available in front rooms across the country, from the northern state of
    Pará to Paraná in the south.

    The effect of such audience grabbing was worsened by television’s failure to compensate the film industry by
    purchasing its own country’s movies, what Johnson refers to as the "non-reciprocity" of television bosses towards their cinema
    counterparts. "For the hundreds of American films shown on Brazilian television only a handful of Brazilian films are
    shown," he explains in his study of the cinema business.

    With more than one eye on their profit margins, TV executives have in the past consistently preferred to saturate
    Brazilian screens with cheap American productions, rather than break the bank supporting homegrown films. According to the
    research of Randal Johnson, only two per cent of all feature films shown on Brazilian television in 1980 were actually Brazilian.

    In the intervening twenty years American superiority has declined somewhat in terms of airtime partly as a result of
    the government’s protectionist measures. Yet these films have largely been replaced by cheaply produced series,
    commissioned and made within the television companies themselves, as a way of negotiating screen quotas put in place by the
    government without breaking the bank.

    Such isolation has impacted massively on Brazilian cinematographers. As Johnson would have it: "Unable to depend
    even on home markets for a return on investment, and lacking access to significant ancillary markets (television, cable,
    video), unprotected Latin American film industries have lacked the capital necessary to sustain continuous production on a
    large scale. Inevitably the result has been the underdevelopment of most national film industries."

    Yankee Clout


    The dominance of American films on Brazilian channels is exacerbated by a similar imbalance on the big screen.
    The "economic realities" of which Johnson has written mean that Hollywood has in the past effectively colonized Brazilian
    cinema, off-loading cheaply made blockbusters on the South America box-offices.

    The figures highlight the situation well: in 1960, 70 percent of screen time in Brazil was taken up by American films
    whilst in 1982, its most successful year, Brazilian films occupied just 36 per cent of their own market. By means of
    ‘block
    booking’, a process by which American companies have effectively forced an inflated number of films into foreign markets, Latin
    America has become one of Hollywood’s biggest earners.

    According to Octavio Getino, this amounted to some $40 million annually in 1988—the figure is certainly much
    greater fifteen years later. The Lion King, for example, a typically American production clocked up viewing figures of 5.2
    million in Brazil back in 1995; between 1994 and 1996 American profits from Brazilian exhibitors rose by 40-50 percent,
    audiences having risen by some 80 million over the same period.

    This US cinematic hegemony, visible in relation to both television and the cinema, underlines most clearly the extent
    to which the Hollywood ‘masters’ have damaged their fellow filmmakers in Latin America. Yet to blame the ills of
    Brazilian cinema entirely on television and the United States would, of course, be to oversimplify the issue. Unrelated financial
    issues have also impacted on the viability of Brazil’s film industry.

    The Brazilian economy was severely damaged by the creation of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries
    (OPEC) in the early 1970s. The creation of such a cartel led to a doubling of oil prices around the globe, which in turn caused
    simultaneous inflation and recession. The problems experienced by the film industry in the 1980s coincided most clearly with
    the ensuing "economic nightmare", which saw the country’s foreign debt approach one hundred billion dollars, and the
    annual inflation rates rising to over 200 percent.

    The financial crisis led to protectionist measures being imposed by the government; imports were restricted and as a
    result production costs rose sharply, explains Johnson. To make things worse, cinema audiences were simultaneously in
    freefall: Brazilians with little spare money and even less desire to go out on to what were becoming increasingly dangerous city
    streets, were opting to stay at home. Annual cinema audiences of 275,380,000 in 1975 had, by 1984, fallen to 89,939,000. In
    short, as films became more and more expensive to produce, fewer and fewer people were paying to see them.

    The Enemy Within

    At times, Brazilian cinema has been its own worst enemy, its very nature proving an obstacle to success on a
    national level. Whilst undeniably influential, the
    cinema novo movement of the 1960s and 70s was of limited interest to large
    sections of Brazilian society, alienated by the excessive intellectualism that became the style’s trademark. "In Brazil," writes
    Johnson, "many of the cinema novo movement films were acclaimed at international film festivals and consecrated by specialized
    critics. Exhibitors, however, found them excessively ‘intellectual’ for a broad public and were reluctant to book them into their theatres."

    There is perhaps no better example of this inaccessibility than Ruy Guerra’s 1964 film
    Os Fuzis. The film, set in the arid northeastern
    sertão, documents the journey of a group of young soldiers, interspersed with documentary footage of a
    group of refugees. Fitting perfectly into what Glauber Rocha later termed "the aesthetic of hunger", the film’s plot is of
    secondary importance to the atmosphere which it aims to create. Instead, writes Johnson, we are confronted with "merely the
    weight of their [the "miserable" refugees’] presence".

    Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Vidas Secas is another example of such "sad, ugly, desperate" cinema. As Johnson notes:
    "The word hunger characterises not only the film’s subject and aesthetic, but also its production methods." The 1963 film,
    which again fixes on issues of poverty and drought and cost a mere $25,000 to produce, was an intellectual masterpiece, but
    certainly not a box office hit.

    Both films demonstrate how, whilst the cinema
    novo movement was popular in as far as it tried to empathize with
    "the people", it was not popular in the sense of being able to fill Brazilian auditoriums. "If the masses were often on the
    screen, they were rarely in the audience," Johnson points out. Indeed, it was not until the movement’s so-called
    ‘third-phase’
    that cinema novo actually spawned a film that filled the nation’s cinemas, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s 1969 film
    Macunaíma.

    Increasingly Brazilian films are tapping into a more mainstream market;
    Cidade de Deus, with its high-tech filming techniques and thrilling storyboard, has been widely heralded as a South American
    Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas; Eu Tu
    Eles almost certainly benefited from the soundtrack of national hero (and recently appointed Culture Minister) Gilberto Gil.
    In contrast to this, many films of the cinema
    novo were dense, inaccessible and, at times, virtually impossible to watch.
    Whilst such stylistic depth was unquestionably a key part of the movement’s "aesthetic", it did very little in terms of getting
    Brazilian bums on Brazilian cinema seats, and therefore itself impeded the growth of national cinema.

    In examining the reasons for the considerable problems of Brazilian cinema it is also interesting to look at why, at
    the start of the twenty first century, the industry is experiencing something of a halcyon period. Brazil’s disgraced former
    president Collor had led national cinema through one of its worst periods during the early part of last decade abolishing
    first Embrafilme (the government’s film regulator) and
    Concine (the legal regulator) and then revoking the "Sarney Law", a
    tax which had until then helped fund cultural projects. Stam, Vieira and Xavier
    note how such "cultural ‘Thatcherization’"
    removed, amongst other things, quotas protecting Brazilian films. The changes, which coincided with a period of economic
    downturn, thrust the industry into crisis. However, four years on the picture was very different.

    Recovery Time


    The revival of Brazil’s economy that followed Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s installation as President in 1995
    proved key to the upturn in the fortunes of the national film industry. The economic Real Plan of FHC, as Brazilians refer to
    their former leader, though not without its flaws, was instrumental in controlling rates of inflation and stabilizing the
    economy. "The real [the currency introduced by FHC] was a departure point," explains recent presidential candidate José Serra,
    "the launch pad for a great social and economic change in Brazil."

    The temporary confidence which FHC’s fiscal policy inspired in the nation’s economy, impacted also on
    filmmakers. "Thanks to the success of the Plano Real," said industry expert Christopher Pickard, "Brazil is now a major player on
    the international market, with box-office booming and video sales on the rise."

    Filmmaker Ruy Guerra echoed these sentiments, returning from a self-imposed exile to Brazil in the light of this
    cinematic upturn. "After the scorched earth policy of the Collor administration we have now a modern Audiovisual law, capable of
    helping rejuvenate Brazilian cinema," he said. The most recent positive manifestation of this law is undoubtedly
    Cidade de Deus, 15 percent of which was paid for by the government
    Lei do Audiovisual.

    According to Steve Solot, the head of the Motion Picture Association’s Latin American Office, Brazilian cinema
    audiences rose by some 80 million in the year up to 1995. "While in economic terms it is still early days," Pickard wrote in
    1996, "the picture remains, after 24 months, pretty bright." Indeed, some seven years on, whilst the Brazilian economy has not
    sustained its early peak, the picture as far as cinema is concerned does remain pretty bright.

    We can see from this that, assisted by government protectionism and a rejuvenated economy, Brazilian cinema was
    able to start to overcome many of the hurdles that the television industry, amongst other things, had set out before it. The
    current peak demonstrates how stable finances and successful production are, in the case of Brazilian cinema, inextricably
    linked. Financially neutered by TV executives during the previous two decades, Brazilian cinema production had fallen into
    crisis. Buoyed up by a stronger currency and tighter quotas imposed on film exhibitors, it has since been able to flourish.

    Television Contribution

    Ironically, the film industry owes its star of the moment to the world of television—the very medium that has for so
    long starved it of so much revenue. Fernando Mereilles, director of
    Cidade de Deus, learned his trade producing
    commercials for the small screen and now owns Brazil’s largest advertising agency and film production company, 02 Filmes, which
    claims on its website to have shot 16212 cans of film, edited 1936 kilometres of negative and created some 1345 jobs. Having
    for years scripted publicidades, Mereilles is now fast becoming Hollywood’s South American darling. In this respect it
    could be said that although television has hindered Brazilian filmmakers for so many years, it has now, perhaps for the first
    time, proved a positive influence.

    Equally, Brazilian cinema is indebted to America for much of its newfound success. The director of
    Central do Brasil, Walter Salles, for example was partly schooled in Washington and his first film was even scripted in English. His
    company, Videofilmes, which played a key role in the making
    of Cidade de Deus, is now one of the biggest producers of films in
    Brazil. Perhaps more significantly, collaborations between Brazilian and American financers such as Miramax and Lumière
    have most recently brought about Karin Aïnouz’s
    Madame Satã, Walter Salles’ Abril
    Despedaçado and Mereilles’ Cidade de
    Deus.

    "In 2001, Lumière occupied 6 per cent of the market share of the Brazilian film market," beams the website of the
    South American company, "leading the participation of independent national distributors." Since its foundation in 1990, the
    Rio-based branch of Lumière has indeed gone on to play a crucial role in the Brazilian film world, helping to fund amongst
    other films Central do Brasil, Madame
    Satã and Cidade de Deus. Its website, though inevitably self-congratulatory, makes a
    valid point in declaring that Lumière "is essential for the oxygenation of the Brazilian film market."

    With his experience of both North and South American film industries, the PUC (Pontifícia Universidade
    Católica)-educated Walter Salles has witnessed first-hand the adversities of his native country’s cinema. He would be only too aware of the
    fact that whilst television has not been exclusively responsible for inhibiting the film industry, it has played a massive part.
    He would also no doubt be acutely conscious of the fact that there is now an opportunity for the two media to work together
    in a mutually rewarding partnership.

    Johnson hit upon this in his seminal work, Brazilian
    Cinema. "The two media must cross fertilize and collaborate
    both artistically and economically (as is already the case in Europe and elsewhere) if Brazilian cinema is now to survive," he
    wrote. TV Globo’s recent sponsorship of Cidade de
    Deus and the crossover work of the Conspiração group, who produce for
    both television and cinema, are signs that such ‘cross fertilization’ is starting to happen; that where television has in the past
    proved to be the nemesis of the film industry, it is slowly becoming a more equal partner.

    In a recent interview, Salles spoke of his hopes that the Brazilian film industry was on the verge of such change.
    "We’re still a long way from this in Brazil," he described, "but, knowing something of the extraordinarily rich and creative
    productions which are coming out this year, I think that much will change here, in a very positive way.

    "Speaking of Latin American cinema," continued the 46-year-old director, "I have the strong impression that this
    will be the year in which the Latin wave coming from Brazil, Argentina and Mexico will be more significant that the Asian
    wave or Iranian films."

    Indeed, his optimism does not seem misplaced. As we move further into the new century, the increased interaction
    between film and television, coupled with an improved financial base and a worldwide upsurge in interest in the genre, certainly
    seems to stand the industry in good stead; something that a lack of all the aforementioned circumstances had denied Brazilian
    cinema for so many years.

     

    Tom Phillips is a British student journalist who lived in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, between 2000 and 2001. He is
    Features Editor of the Leeds Student newspaper and writes for a variety of publications on politics and current affairs, as
    well as various aspects of the cultura
    brasileira. Tom will be based in Rio de Janeiro starting August 2003. He can be
    reached on: tominrio@yahoo.co.uk  and his articles can also be found at:
    www.leedsstudent.org.uk

     

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