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Lights. Camera. Where’s the action?

The many difficulties faced by national movie making to become a film industry

reproduction“If it makes money, filmmaking is an industry.  If it loses money, it is an art”. This short sentence, uttered by humorist Millôr, is a good preview of the feature film encompassing many mismatched discourses made about the life of the movie industry in Brazil. “Ever since the beginning, between the 1920s and 1940s, when people were still debating  the existence or non-existence of a national movie making industry that could live up to its name, the industrialist discourse has allowed this sector to accept the – mediocrity of the present – in the name of the brilliant future that would come with the industrial status. Thus, industrialization transformed itself into the core objective to be achieved because, the industry insisted, without it there would be no continuity in terms of film production”, explains historian Arthur Autran, from the Federal University of São Carlos, who is working on the paper O pensamento industrial e a política cinematográfica brasileira (1990-2005) with the support of FAPESP, through the Programa Jovens Pesquisadores program. This work is a continuation of his studies for his doctorate degree, which he obtained in 2004 from the State University of Campinas/Unicamp; his thesis covered the period from 1924 to 1990. This issue, after all these years, is still in the spotlight. “How is it that a country, whose industrialization was successful in many more complex fields than film, such as the oil, automobile or aviation industries, has been unable to adequately develop, from the economic point of view, an activity in which Mexico, a country whose structural problems are similar to ours, has achieved success even with some obstacles along the way?”

According to Autran, even if the filmmaking community insists on a discourse that the objective of government aid is to allow the activity to achieve the desired economic autonomy via industrialization, the sector has never depended as heavily on government support to survive as it does now. The same old problems still persist: the low market share held by Brazilian films in the domestic market; the commercial weakening of this product on network and cable TV, with which the film sector is unable to make peace; the romanticized and ideological view of how the film audience should be. “Industrialization used to be the ideological tie of the movie industry; nowadays, it is coming close to ending up as something decorative, among the reasons constantly listed of why the State should support the Brazilian film industry”. After all, ever since the 1950’s, in the view of the filmmaking community, the State has played the main role of the principal vector that would make the industrialization of the movie sector possible, as the imported product (from the USA) allegedly prevented national production from competing on an equal level and from becoming economically feasible. “But the national film sector has never effectively industrialized itself, in spite of major attempts, as was intended when the US production model was imitated (the best example of which was the Vera Cruz studio) or when the State took on the task of financing the industrialization process, as was the case of Embrafilme, in the 1970s and 1980s”, says the researcher.

Autran does not deny the social and economic obligations that the State has to maintain and help develop the film industry, yet he notes something perverse in this attitude:  the total dependency of film making as it exists today. Hence, he analyzes, although the fostering policy that existed in the period from 1990-2005, the so-called – revival of the national film industry, – had led to an increase in the number of feature-length films, the possibility of the product providing financial returns in movie theaters, on TV, or on DVD has remained insignificant. “Industrialism nowadays no longer has the ideological strength it had in the past and its resistance is due mainly to a tradition that has been around for nearly eight decades. In fact, industrialization never existed – capitulation has been the dominant attitude, as the industrialist plan based on nationalism no longer makes any sense in view of the configuration of the rest of the Brazilian audiovisual industry, totally involved in the complex game of globalization. Movies have a small share of this market and most of the films are not feasible economically , which leads to total dependence on the state”, he points out. “The refusal to reflect seriously on how the film industry could insert itself with a minimum of economic feasibility in the audiovisual constellation, which means going way beyond industry incentive laws, has also been translated into the refusal to search for a more complex artistic relationship between film making and society”, he warns.  According to the historian, the only way in which film making can release itself from the interference of the State is to have some economic autonomy by means of industrializing itself. “The problem is that, since the 1990’s, there has been a feeling of disbelief by the industry itself in relation to the State as the vector of industrialization; however, no advances have been made in the direction of a new platform”. This is pure history.

reproductionFrom 1924 to 1954, the Brazilian film industry flirted with Hollywood as an industrialization model to be followed, directly or adapted to the national reality: these were times in which the outstanding events were the creation of Atlântida film studio and the rise and fall of the Vera Cruz film company. From 1955 onwards, there were no more illusions to be believed and other industrialization proposals emerged: the independent, director’s films, and the “patriotic” need of State intervention and, for the less radical leftists,  partnerships with foreign capital. “The Cinema Novo movement initially emerges as a movement radically opposed to industrialization, in a tone that even included a religious bias, as attested to by the need to “purify” commercial films. The Cinema Novo and independent film making in the 1950’s were crucial to the definition of the role of the State as the engine of industrialization, because both movements joined the fight against foreign cultural invasion and the economic battle for the market, generating a merger of two visions based on a leftist political ideology”. This attitude, says Autran, was short-lived, because the commercial launching of the first Cinema Novo films gave rise to the need to face real problems, ranging from the difficulty of launching films abroad, the resistance shown by national film distributors and the growing indebtedness of the producers.

“The filmmakers linked to the Cinema Novo realized that it was impossible to battle for a society-changing film industry financed by the State if the government authorities involved in this venture were dominated by a conservative ideology. Therefore, they decided to change their cultural policy through delicate ideological démarches, while at the same time conducting a dialogue with the State, and justifying to themselves why they were doing this”. This was the spirit under which the group began to dominate Embrafilme in the 1970’s.  Their major challenge was dealing with the attempt to legitimize a concept that no longer made any sense, namely, anti-imperialism, in view of the fact that the dictatorial State had appropriated this discourse, which transformed the debate of the film industry into “mere ideological justification”. Embrafilme’s weakening influence, coupled with the on-going economic problems constantly faced by the Brazilian film industry, made it easier for the Collor Government to extinguish Embrafilme in 1990.

“The shaky survival of Brazilian film production during the Collor Government led the film industry to, once again, ask the State for help. This time, the help came through laws (such as the Lei do Audiovisual enacted in 1993 during the Itamar Franco government) that provided tax incentives for the industry, rather than from a government agency”, he states. “Public money still financed film production, but the administration was conducted in the manner of the private sector.  This still holds true today, in spite of the industry’s discourse that denies this, as the Brazilian production of feature films has never been funded by so much public funding as now, and most of these productions depend on the tax incentives”. The then film maker Arnaldo Jabor praised the enactment of the Lei do Audiovisual as the – Magna Carta of modern film making, eliminating the need to depend on the State”. Any mention of independence from the State is incoherent, to say the least, when film makers have to wait for all the signatures of the people linked to the government so that our national film production can find its way out of the ‘maze’. Moreover, tax incentives mean that the funding comes from public money.”

So where is the film spectator in this discussion on the various aspects of the Brazilian film industry? “In the 1920’s, movie audiences were viewed as ‘a patriotic battalion’ whose obligation was to support the Brazilian film industry as an act of patriotism; in the 1950’s, film spectators were viewed as consumers and  symbols of ordinary people, the focus of such film makers as Nelson Pereira dos Santos; from the 1970’s onwards, during the heyday of the Cinema Novo, spectators were viewed as ‘popular audience’, the target of a political awareness guided by the intellectual filmmaker and then viewed as a mass whose culture would be redeemed and transformed for audience consumption by the film maker attuned to  oppression and the problems of the oppressed.” This abstract ‘construction’ of the target audience, Autran goes on, merely helped strengthen the positions of filmmakers and critics within the realm of culture. More recently, this construction was transformed into a new justification for the maintenance of government aid, because, according to some filmmakers and producers, the lower classes, allegedly the main target audience of the Brazilian film industry, were no longer going to movie theaters because of the economic crisis that had led to increased ticket prices. The solution, they said, would be the construction, by the government, of a huge chain of movie theaters selling entrance tickets for a low price.

reproduction“These measures are inviable for the government and not at all attractive for the private sector.  In my opinion, the first step in terms of reflecting on the issue of movie audiences is to accept the globalization of culture.  Denying this or attempting to go back to a time when the State played the main role in a social way is a way of preventing deeper reflections and discussions on this issue”, says Autran. “It’s been a very long time since movie goers have felt any empathy with the friendly hillbilly who wants to see a film with popular actor Mazzaropi, and refers to such a film as ‘my film’. as represented in director Luiz Alberto Pereira’s film, Tapete vermelho. This is a way of insinuating a direct identification between the moviegoers and the Brazilian people. This character represents a nostalgic desire for part of the film industry”. It is a useful desire: confusing the moviegoer and the nation, and implies, in this sense, that defending (by providing financial support) the Brazilian film industry is like defending the interests of the people themselves.  However, television has reached out to audiences much more efficiently.

“The Brazilian film industry chose to dissociate itself from empirical research, as the notion of moviegoers was an intellectual creation of filmmakers.  Television, in contrast, chose to view audiences as being in line with the conservative modernization of Brazilian capitalism, seeking to link its programs to trends captured by the tastes and desires of the viewers. Television, in the majority of the cases, was seen as “the film industry’s biggest enemy”, a tendency that is still maintained by some of the film industry groups, for whom TV has no intellectual meaning, and “qualified fruition” is reserved for film making. When this attitude changed and the film industry tried to come closer to television, any denial would generate complaints against the alleged unwillingness of the TV stations to partner with the Brazilian film industry. “The fact is that the film industry tried to penetrate a market that had no more space and, unlike movie theaters, where the nationalist discourse as a form of fighting could be invoked, TV has no space or reason to do so”. Therefore, it seems that the future is not filled with “star dust”.

“The Lula government did not move forward in this respect.  Expectations were that the Ancine, the film industry’s regulating agency, would be linked to the Ministry of the Development, Industry and Trade, which would reinforce the industrial aspect; however, Ancine was once again subordinated to the Ministry of Culture”. Thus, historically, and in a noteworthy paradox, the strongest defenders of the Brazilian film industry have characterized it with the worst possible features:  an expensive activity eternally pegged to government handouts; tendency towards exaggerated production costs; no concern in relation to movie goers, etc. “In view of this scenario, it is necessary to verify whether it is still pertinent to think about a Brazilian film industry, because, at the moment, this industry is totally incapable of organizing its activity to become self-sustainable”.

The project
Pensamento industrial e a política cinematográfica brasileira (1990-2005) (nº 08/50935-8); Modality Programa Jovens Pesquisadores program; Coordinator Arthur Autran; Investment R$ 217.229,25 (FAPESP)