When comparing charts of data on film production in Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina—the three leading cinematographic producing countries in Latin America—sociologist Anita Simis found that the lines declined dizzyingly in the same period, in the early 1990s. She observed that most of the research about this phenomenon dealt with the production by each individual country, its period of crisis, and its recovery. She decided instead to conduct her research on a road not yet traveled: she would compare the cinema output of those three countries from the standpoint of exhibition, examining the period prior to the crisis (first half of the 1980s) until the era when it was overcome (the mid-1990s). Her main conclusion is that there has been a change in the movie theater model; today, theaters are part of a chain that provides products that are enjoyed by a limited number of moviegoers.
Despite the historical specificities of the movie studios in Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina, says Simis, they have always faced a single competitor: U.S. cinema. This competition resulted in each of the countries experiencing similar difficulties in developing their markets. However, although the three had gone through previous crises at different points in time, it was not until the 1990s that the decadence, the paralysis, of their production converged almost simultaneously.
In aspects like distribution, movies have always been a globalized product, created in Hollywood and distributed all over the world by the so-called majors, the big American movie studios. But in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, the exhibition function has, historically, been dominated by local companies. In the 1990s, however, globalization began to reach the theaters, concomitantly with the bankruptcy of several domestic corporate groups and the gradual concentration of the market in a limited number of chains funded by international capital. According to Simis, three exhibitor groups now control 35.9% of the cinemas in Brazil: in 2014, they owned 1,017 of the 2,833 Brazilian screens, serving 45.9% of the moviegoing public. These are the American Cinemark, Mexican Cinépolis, and Kinoplex, a Brazilian chain owned by the Severiano Ribeiro Group that in some of its theaters operates in a joint venture with the U.S. group UCI.
Change in policy
Anita Simis writes that the backdrop of the situation described above was the same in all three countries. That was when neoliberal views began to influence local politics. Politicians came to power, advocating the reduction of the role of the State in the economy as a whole, especially its role in promoting culture. In Brazil, the abolition of Embrafilme (Empresa Brasileira de Filmes) in 1990, ordered by then-President Fernando Color, dealt the final blow to film production—two years later, only one Brazilian product would be introduced, an English-language thriller entitled A grande arte (U.S. title: Exposure). In Mexico, the entry into force of NAFTA, the free trade agreement with the United States and Canada celebrated during the Carlos Salinas administration, lowered the trade barriers that had hampered the expansion of the U.S. presence in Mexico’s exhibitor market. In Argentina, the National Cinema Institute survived the privatizations carried out by Carlos Menem, but had its budget cut. At the same time, as the 1980s became the 1990s, U.S. studios gradually began to depend more heavily on the foreign market. In 1986, Hollywood studios had depended on domestic theaters for 75% of their revenue but relied on foreign audiences for 25% of what they needed to make ends meet. By 1998, those figures had risen to 45% and 55%.
Advances by transnational film exhibitors were key to ensuring a flow of Hollywood films onto the world market. With that came tremendous changes in the way theaters are patronized. First, as Simis explains, the concept of the multiplex took root. This was a group of screens, usually installed in shopping centers, where the exhibition of films becomes a link in a chain of consumption that includes parking and food (a growing component within the enterprise). An added boost is the feeling of security and the opportunity to make the rounds of attractive shops. At the same time, the older theaters on Main Street were facing problems such as insufficient investment, lagging technology, and the decay of urban centers; their audience dwindled gradually and inexorably. There was also an increase in ticket prices, which rose to equal heights in peripheral markets like Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina without regard to the peculiarities of local purchasing power. Third, advances in digital exhibition made it possible to show a single film worldwide, sometimes occupying hundreds of screens in a single country.
The researcher recounts some of the consequences of those changes: the number of screens and moviegoers began to grow again, following the decline of the 1990s, but movies ceased to be entertainment for the average person and became a product that served a narrower economic stratum. “Now only one kind of moviegoer, one with higher purchasing power, can feed the entire consumption chain of a shopping mall,” she says. “The idea of going to the movies simply to enjoy the work of a director or actor has practically disappeared from the minds of the majority of people who go out to be entertained by watching films.”
André Gatti, a professor of cinema at the Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation (FAAP) and author of the thesis “Distribution and exhibition in the Brazilian cinematographic industry (1993-2003)” endorses Simis’ analysis. “When it was released in 1964, Glauber Rocha’s film Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (Black God, White Devil), reached 300,000 moviegoers,” he says. “O bandido da luz vermelha (The Red Light Bandit), directed by Rogério Sganzerla, sold more than three million tickets in 1968. Achieving those numbers is absolutely out of the question in today’s Brazilian cinema for bold format films like those.”
To Marcelo Ikeda, a professor at the Federal University of Ceará (UFCE) and author of the book Cinema brasileiro a partir da retomada – Aspectos econômicos e políticos (Brazilian cinema after the restart – Economic and political aspects) (Summus, 2015), the concept of multiplex theaters with dozens of screens could have helped enhance the possibility of showing more pluralistic films. But what happened was the opposite. “The big international releases, the ones that arrive in Brazil in batches of more than a thousand copies, have crushed the average films,” Ikeda says. “Today, our choice is between the blockbusters, both foreign and Brazilian, or the art films that appeal to a very small audience. About two-thirds of the films released in Brazil attract fewer than a thousand moviegoers.”
The main conclusions reached by Anita Simis in her study have been reported in the article Political economy of the cinema: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, published in May 2015 in the journal Versión – Estudios de Comunicación y Política by the Metropolitan Autonomous University, of México. Simis works in communications sociology and is a professor in the graduate studies program in social sciences at São Paulo State University (Unesp), Araraquara campus. She is the author of the book Estado e cinema no Brasil (The State and cinema in Brazil) (Unesp, 1996), the result of her doctoral dissertation in which she investigated legislation promulgated between 1932 and 1966 in order to examine the factors that prevented a stable and permanent Brazilian film industry from flourishing. The research study “Policies for audiovisual: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico” took two years and was conducted in archives, libraries and Internet sites in all three countries. “Contrary to what I expected, it was extremely difficult to obtain data from primary sources,” she recalls. “Most of the time I had to resort to research published by other authors.” This explains some of the gaps in the charts depicting film production and number of theaters that we reproduced on this page. “Only recently did more continuous data appear, possibly because the cinema and cultural policies are being given more respect. The access to more accurate data was facilitated by digitization.”
Policies for audiovisual: Argentina, Brazil and México (nº 2012/50951-9); Grant Mechanism Regular research grant; Principal Investigator Anita Simis; Investment R$39,658.30.
SIMIS, A. Political economy of the cinema: Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. Versión – Estudios de Comunicación y Política, V. 36, pp. 54-75. 2015.