The cinema that Brazil deserves

Carlos Diegues

Brazil is currently experiencing a boom in film production thanks to the Audio-visual Law which, since 1994, has prompted the rebirth of feature film production. But Brazilian Cinema has never been a permanent activity and has always gone through cycles such as this. These cycles begin with much euphoria, only to end some time later and almost always suddenly, in the midst of a crisis that is never due to the quality of the films themselves.

In my lifetime alone, I have witnessed or participated in many of these cycles or periods of renaissance. These have included the rise of the Rio de Janeiro-based chanchada (musical comedies), the Vera Cruz studios, the Cinema Novo movement, pornochanchada (porn comedies), Embrafilme (the Brazilian Film Company), the new Sao Paulo-based cinema of the 1980s and so on. All these cycles have signalled, each in its own way, the definitive establishment of a film industry in Brazil.

The Vera Cruz studios closed their doors just as O cangaceiro (The Cangaceiro, Lima Barreto, 1953) was receiving its prize at the Cannes Film Festival and winning over audiences throughout the world. Cinema Novo was knocked for six by the military dictatorship just as films like Macunaíma (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, 1969) were confirming its aesthetic achievements, which were by then combined with popular appeal. Embrafilme was dismantled in 1990, just when Brazilian films were beating all records in terms of market share, not to mention the international awards won for Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Bruno Barreto, 1976) and Memorias do carcere (Memories of Prison, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1984).

A complex industry

The difficulty in establishing film production as a permanent activity in Brazil has been constantly attributed to the fact that cinema is a new, therefore unknown industry, characterized by unexpected factors that are beyond our control. But cinema has existed for over 100 years in Brazil, and since the first decade of the twentieth century Brazil has produced films, some of which have even been of international significance.

The truth is that cinema is not a new industry, but rather one of the most sophisticated and complex of recent times, that demands constant flexibility, imagination and diversity, even in countries where it has firmly taken root. The difficulties are more extreme in countries where the industry, in spite of its sophistication and complexity, is still impoverished and precarious. This is the case in Brazil.

With the exception of the United States of America (where only a few very low-budget, independent films are made), no other country in the world has an internal market of cinema theatres capable of maintaining a lucrative film industry and recouping production costs. In theory, given the size of its population, Brazil should be one of the few countries able to rely on its internal market alone in order to cover the costs of the industry.

However, in spite of its population of 160 million, only about 70 million cinema tickets are sold in Brazil each year, to about 10 million consumers. This means that only 6 per cent of the Brazilian population goes to the cinema. There are some 1400 cinema theatres in Brazil, which makes it the country with the second highest ratio of inhabitants to theatres.

To gain a better idea of how paltry these figures are you only need to remember that in France, whose population is only about 50 million, 155 million cinema tickets are sold every year, in some 4000 theatres. As far as the USA is concerned, with its population of near 300 million, on average 1.3 billion tickets are sold each year, in approximately 24,000 theatres.

Declining audiences

It was not, as is often claimed, the advent of television as a hegemonic popular leisure activity that was responsible for the decline in cinema audiences in Brazil. Generally speaking, virtually every country in the world has experienced a rise in the number of people going to the cinema compared with thirty years ago, and the figures have remained very stable for the last ten years. This is even the case in the United States, which is streets ahead in terms of the ratio between the number of inhabitants and the number of television sets, and where, as we all know, the most socially influential television in the world is made.

In Brazil the dramatic fall in the size of cinema audiences began in the mid-1980s, and became progressively more severe from then on until it reached today's levels. The decline is particularly evident among the country's lower classes - the cinema theatres that are closing due to falling ticket sales are those situated in small towns in rural Brazil, and in the poor neighbourhoods and outskirts of big cities. The public is no longer going to the cinema as a consequence of the worsening economic recession and its resulting, growing and perverse concentration of income, which excludes the vast majority of Brazilians from today's consumer society. When you have scarcely any money to live on, the first thing to be cut from the household budget is any kind of leisure activity, especially one that can be replaced by something cheaper.

So the people who have stopped going to the cinema are precisely those who traditionally have always ensured the box-office success of Brazilian films, during all the previous cycles of the country's film production. Popular audiences who want to see themselves represented on screen have always been, historically and statistically, the key consumers of Brazilian films.

Having been transformed into a typical middle-class leisure activity, the cinematic spectacle has been subsumed into 'shopping centre' culture in Brazil. It is targeted precisely at the section of the population who, fuelled by dreams and fantasies of a hypothetical 'first world', refuse to recognize or take part in the realities of the country. They equally have difficulty in accepting their Brazilian cultural identity, a pre-requisite for understanding any audio-visual material produced in Brazil.

Ancillary markets

Throughout the world, as a general rule, only about 25 per cent of the total income from a given film comes from box-office receipts. The other 75 per cent comes from the so-called ancillary markets, the numerous alternative forms of dissemination that we know today, particularly terrestrial and cable television, but also videos, laser discs, DVDs, the increasingly important Internet and the nascent digital age.

However, in Brazil films are restricted to only 25 per cent of their potential income, given that the ancillary markets are all but nullified by the lack of popular consumption, and Brazilian producers do not have access to terrestrial or cable television, both lucrative sectors of the audio-visual and advertizing industries. On the rare occasions that Brazilian producers are given access to these media, they are obliged to accept humiliatingly low prices that are offered on the pretext that this is the amount that American films receive. Furthermore, we should remember that on the even rarer occasions that Brazilian films are shown on national networks, they almost always obtain impressive audience figures, as has been proved by opinion polls made by ibope (Instituto Brasileiro de Opiniao Pública e Estatística/Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics), that anyone can consult. This is precisely because these networks attract popular audiences.

Consequently, the market for Brazilian films is limited to only 6 per cent of the country's population and, furthermore, films can expect only 25 per cent of their potential revenue. in neither case are filmmakers themselves responsible for the situation.

The Audio-visual Law has permitted the resurgence of the production of full-length feature films in Brazil, but it has not guaranteed their impact on the public since it does not address the issue of dissemination. Today everyone is aware that the crux of the issue at the heart of the film industry is distribution and not production.

In order to understand this maxim, you only have to consider the fact that production does not necessarily lead to distribution, but that distribution always stimulates production. There is no point in producing films unless there is a market intervention strategy in place. At best, the Audio-visual Law can only create the biggest industry in the world of unreleased films.

Market share

Political or economic power is essential in order to intervene in the market in a significant way. Embrafilme, for example, had both, in addition to coercive State backing. it produced a wealth of films, with the result that, for several years, it was the second largest film distributor in Brazil in terms of turnover. it was this distribution policy which meant that Embrafilme became a decisive factor in securing market share. During its existence, Brazilian films obtained on average 35 per cent of the market, with peaks of 40 per cent and 45 per cent in certain years in the 1970s. To gain a better idea of the scale of these figures, you only have to remember that French cinema, which has more success than any other national cinema vis-à-vis Hollywood's hegemony, today enjoys only about 25 per cent of its own domestic market.

Now, let us imagine that you are the owner of a supermarket that has two soap suppliers. The first delivers a box of soap every week, whilst the second delivers a box twice a year. Which of the two brands of soap will your customers find more regularly in your supermarket? Consequently, which of the two brands will you display on the best shelf, in the best possible position?

The same applies to Brazilian cinema. The most determined, competent Brazilian producer, with regular output, is not capable of releasing more than one film every 18 months or every two years. Therefore he will never be an important or main supplier for the exhibitor, who needs around 35 to forty films per year in order to keep each of his screens in operation.

Even if Brazilian films break all records at the box-office, with unprecedented ticket sales, the exhibitor will always give preference, priority and better treatment to the films distributed by companies that can supply the product regularly and in sufficient number to keep the theatres open. These are the companies that distribute American films, the so-called 'majors', each of which can offer cinema theatre owners between 15 and 45 films per year.

Distribution policy

Whilst they continue to be distributed on an individual basis, one project at a time, by producers who do not guarantee a regular supply for exhibitors, Brazilian films will always face an uphill battle in their home territory.

I would like us to consider now an example other than that of the United States, where the 'majors' (Disney, Warner, Universal, Fox, Paramount, MGM and so on) have always practised this policy of concentrated, 'packaged' distribution. The success of French cinema, in its efforts to guarantee its survival, owes much to the existence of four big local companies that operate like national 'majors'. Gaumont, UGC, Pathé and Bac (the latter a branch of the Canal Plus complex) ensure, with their diversified film packages, the distribution of all French productions.

This was also how Embrafilme used to guarantee the supply of productions that ranged from the last film in the 'Trapalhôes'2 comedy series to films by first-time directors, and including box-

office smashes like Dona Flor, Xica da Silva (Carlos Diegues, 1976), A dama do lotagao (Lady on the Bus, Neville d'Almeida, 1978), Gaijin, os caminhos da liberdade (Gaijin, Tizuka Yamasaki, 1980), Eu te amo (I Love You, Arnaldo Jabor, 1981), Pixote, a lei do mais fraco (Pixote, Hector Babenco, 1980), Bete Balango (Lael Rodrigues, 1984), Memórias do cárcere, Eles nao usam black-tie (They Don't Wear Black Tie, Leon Hirszman, 1981) and so on. Such hits paved the way for the launch of more 'difficult' films onto the market. Without combining quantity and diversity, without economic power, it is impossible to make your presence felt in the film distribution market.

The lack of ancillary markets for Brazilian films at home means that Brazil is rowing against the tide of what is happening today in the rest of the world. The huge variety of new means of dissemination and the constant increase in their number lead to ever greater demand for audio-visual products, at an increasingly breathtaking rate.

This growth is even more striking in relation to feature films, because they take up more television screen time throughout the world than any other cinematic form. As a consequence of this demand, world production of feature films is constantly on the increase, even though some of these productions never reach cinema theatres, instead providing fodder for television or, in many cases, going straight to video, laser disc or DVD.

The irony is that the ancillary markets need an ever-greater quantity of films, which in turn exceeds the demand of cinema theatres. This means that while there is a shortfall of films for terrestrial and cable television, for video and so on, there is a surplus of films for screening in cinemas, which do not have the capacity to deal with so many.

This is the reason why, nowadays, films show for such short periods of time at the cinema, generating about 40 per cent of their revenue during their first week.

Since there is a bottleneck of films in each cinema theatre, each awaiting its opening night, films are not shown for long enough to attain their expected box-office receipts or to realize their income potential. But because, with this system, the general box-office income increases, this commercial distortion is perpetuated in a vicious circle.

State participation

As we have seen, Brazilian films cannot depend on ancillary markets (which, outside Brazil, make up for the rapid passage of films through cinema theatres), and thus we can understand how, once again, Brazil has to be content with inadequate commercial exploitation that falls far short of realizing its potential. Cinema theatres all over the world have become shop windows that determine the value of each film in the ancillary markets.

Canal Plus, for example, the largest cable channel in Europe, purchases films in accordance with a pricing chart that takes into consideration the performance of each film in the cinema theatre market, and establishes a price three and a half times lower than the average price for films that have not gone on general release. The Brazilian film market follows this global trend, whereby films spend very little time in theatres, but in Brazil they do not have ancillary markets to fall back on.

In the 1950s, when the Kubitschek government decided that Brazil needed an automobile industry, it not only created incentives for national production and raised taxation on foreign goods, but it also started building roads that the vehicles produced in Brazil could use.

In the 1970s, when the military decreed that a telecommunications system was essential for territorial integration and national security, they not only gave telecom companies fiscal advantages, but more importantly they invested in a state-of-the-art satellite system which meant that Brazilian television was one of the first to broadcast on a national network.

Of course Brazil no longer lives in times of import substitution via State investment, nor are Brazilians any longer ruled by an authoritarian regime that demands social control at any price. However, if cinema is something that should be fostered, the Brazilian State has to commit itself to making that existence viable.

Despite the fact that market forces are respected throughout the civilized world, in any country with at least a reasonable film industry the State always intervenes to some extent to keep it going, despite the complex distortions referred to above. It very rarely assumes the role of entrepreneur or investor but almost always acts as mediator or regulator.

Where market forces are absent, corruption ensues, but a complete lack of involvement on the part of the State, on the other hand, inevitably means a return to the dark ages.

The relationship with television

Even in the United States, the home of the free market economy, the regulatory presence of the State is felt through the application of the antitrust laws, which prohibit national television networks, for example, from producing more than 30-40 per cent of the material that they broadcast, obliging them as a result to acquire the rest from independent producers or studios.

Every country, according to its specific conditions, has legislated for the relationship between television and cinema in its own way, for example fostering co-productions via investment of part of their takings, or by requiring the purchase of films via market reserves, or even by requiring that part of the takings made during commercial breaks be ploughed into film production, and so on.

Brazil is the only country in the world where the government has never considered mediating the relationship between the two industries. In other words, it is the only country in the world where the State has never been involved in establishing what the responsibility of television should be with regard to the cinema.

The paradox of Brazilian television is that it is one of the best in the world and one of the most advanced in terms of technology and production values, but from an institutional point of view, it works along the lines of the old sugar mills of Brazil's NorthEast, where a handful of feudal overlords decide the destiny of people's minds in private conversations on the veranda of their plantation houses.

While in the rest of the world television networks have to meet different economic, educational and cultural objectives set by the State, in Brazil television chiefs do not have to answer in any way to government or society, as if they really were masters of the airwaves which they rent by concession. And tragically we have seen over the last five decades that Brazil's public representatives have not always had the courage to, or simply have not been interested in confronting this anomaly, this institutional anachronism.

In Brazil, television stations do not have any kind of responsibility or duty to the local film industry. Moreover, Brazilians have to sit back and accept that national television is a dumping ground for cheap foreign films, which in turn affects the price of Brazilian films. Filmmakers have to accept 'bargain basement' prices in order to sell their wares in what is for them a primary and often the only market.

The foreign films that are sold to Brazilian television stations have already covered their production costs in full: the Brazilian market for them is of no real financial significance. In the television market of their country of origin they are worth 50, 60 or even 70 per cent of their original cost, while in Brazil these films are sold for a value of around 3 per cent of the average cost of producing a Brazilian film. The same rules are applied to the purchase of Brazilian films by these stations.

As a simple example of how absurd this all is, take the Liza Minnelli Show, with a large orchestra, dance troupe, and so on, which can be bought by a Brazilian cable television channel for around US$ 1000. If a Brazilian producer wants to film an original show by Gal Costa, for example, for US$ 1000 he cannot even hire the most modest of lighting sets.

A flawed project

In my opinion, Brazil's main newspapers dealt with the issue of cinema's relationship with television in their recent proposal for a reform to the Audio-visual Law in an erroneous manner. According to the proposed reform, with the pretext of 'improving the management' of the film industry, the law would enable television stations to raise funds for cinema production. This proposal, which, if approved, would result in the immediate end to independent production in the country, is based on a number of serious miscalculations. The first is to consider production to be the core of the current crisis in Brazilian cinema. We have already seen that this is not the case. The second is to believe that the country's television companies are better prepared than film production companies to make what the latter have been making for decades, namely films. The nature of television production, which is to churn out material like a kind of Audio-visual fast-food store, is completely different from that of the cinema, which more than ever demands personalized products, capable of being transformed into unique and exclusive events.

The third misconception of the proposal is that television companies in Brazil would be more competent than the film industry. Despite all the difficulties and adverse circumstances, the likes of Barreto, Massaini, Pereira dos Santos and Khouri,3 to mention but a few of Brazil's longer-serving film-people, are still there, more than forty years later, producing films which always make an impact. Whatever happened to the Tupi, Rio, Excelsior, Continental and Manchete television companies? Most of them closed down amid scandal and outcry.

Every day the newspapers say that SBT TV network is desperately looking for a foreign partner to survive and that its chief Silvio Santos is publicly declaring that without his Tele-Sena lottery game he would have to close down this station. These same papers write that Rede TV is being taken to court and threatened with closure for failing to meet the obligations that it inherited from Manchete. Some stations survive on the back of the religious naivete of the Brazilian people; others thanks to sports broadcasting, and so on. Finally, perhaps the only truly solid, competent and successful station in the country is TV Globo, despite its current ratings crisis, of which the press constantly reminds its readers. But why hand over to Globo and its characteristic production style the hegemony or even the monopoly on film and audio-visual production, which is what would happen if this law were approved? If this project becomes law, it will be the first time in audio-visual history that cinema finances television and not the other way round, as happens throughout the rest of the world.

Brazilian Cinema has no future if a way of forging an alliance with television cannot be found, if these two industries cannot interrelate in some way. But this alliance must originate from new resources, created by an agreement that is mediated by the State, and not by taking over the meagre resources that already exist, which scarcely support fragile and indispensable independent production in Brazil.

Television companies have to yield some ground: as they say in Brazil, it is not up to the patient to donate blood.

National cinema

Given all the factors outlined above, the disheartening statistics, the challenging circumstances and the history of the industry, it would be easy to conclude that it is not possible to make films in Brazil. But I do not believe that that is the question that should be asked here. The essential question is not whether we can but whether we should make films in Brazil. Or rather, is Brazilian Cinema something that should be fostered?

500 years ago in Europe a civilization flourished which represented the best that Western man had achieved to date. The Renaissance placed the individual at the centre of ideas, whereby worldly knowledge replaced superstition and a humanist religion was victorious over darkness. Never before had so many accomplished artists shared the same space and time, producing art with out equal. And it was in the name of all this artistic achievement that the conquistadors of the Americas massacred people, destroyed civilizations and carried out the largest genocide in the history of humanity. The devastation was so great that today civilizations such as those of the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas are archaeological mysteries to us. We know more about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, who lived more than 5000 years ago, than we do about these peoples who disappeared only 500 years ago.

It is no exaggeration to say that the role of American film in today's global culture is the same as that of the conquistadors of the Renaissance. Everyone likes to watch American films; in certain aspects they mirror another apogee in the history of humanity, a great civilization that we all recognize. Hollywood is a magical word for everyone and some time from now, when today's human and political passions have disappeared, I am sure that that word will be to the twentieth century what Greek theatre was to Antiquity, Italian painters were to the Renaissance and French novelists were to the nineteenth century. However, the fact that Hollywood films occupy 90-95 per cent of the world's screens is not good for humanity, just as it is not good for Brazil. If Brazil cannot produce its own image and occupy a few screens with that image, Brazilians will become living archaeological mysteries, unknown both to others and to themselves.

Structural measures

In order to avoid this tragedy Brazilian Cinema must above all become a permanent activity, a result of the inspiration and competence of its creators, acclaimed by society, inspired by market trends and wholeheartedly supported by the State. To this end I suggest a few opportune structural measures, which should be adapted to future needs at each stage of development.

1) Since cineastes cannot interfere in the country's income distribution, it is essential to encourage the setting up of popular film circuits and the opening of film theatres in rural areas, in poor neighbourhoods, in the favelas (shanty towns) and in deprived suburbs of big cities, in order to reach a greater public and increase the income potential of national films. The Federation of Brazilian Exhibitors (FENEEC) already has an excellent project that operates along these lines, based on financial mechanisms already in place.

2) In order to create capitalized businesses with the economic strength to intervene in the market and to carry out a concentrated and diversified distribution policy, the State must foster, via investment funds generated by the market's financial agents, the establishment of large distributors or national 'majors', by means of mergers, consortia, associations and so on, with financing for these companies and their regular programmes. This initiative does not exclude the encouragement of associations with already existing large distributors, above all those that have already shown an interest in Brazilian cinema (for example, Columbia, Warner, Lumière, Buena Vista and so on), or even with Riofilme and similar companies.

3) Still on the subject of the marketing of films, I suggest that the proportional system of additional income rewards be adopted once again, just as it was in Brazil in the 1960s and 70s and as it is in present-day Argentina, France and in other countries. These rewards consist of giving back to the producer part of the taxes levied on cinema tickets, in direct proportion to the box-office success of a film.

4) We must maintain and extend the resources available from Article 1 of the Audio-visual Law, to guarantee the existence of independent and auteur productions, which in the past have been the basis for Brazilian Cinema's critical acclaim and which to this day have been responsible for its most outstanding achievements.

5) The State has to assume its responsibility towards film art and culture, thus creating a permanent system of direct finance for documentaries, experimental films and shorts and feature films by first-time directors. These are films that must be produced, even though they may not be absorbed by the conventional market, nor have the means to compete for a place in that market.

6) One of the roles of the State should be the conservation of the country's cinematic history.

7) It is essential, as has already been seen, to integrate the film and television industries, through new resources, in order to stimulate the growth of both and their international expansion. Price policies that discourage the dumping of cheap films on the Brazilian market must also be established, along with screen quotas and coproductions. Television stations should not have a given system imposed on them, as that would never work. The State should mediate an agreement capable of benefiting both parties, according to their specific interests.

Translation by Stephanie Dennison and Lisa Shaw


1. Summary of the address given to the Cinema Sub-committee of the Brazilian Senate, 8 June 2000.

2. Group of comedians led by Renato Aragao, who are extremely popular in Brazilian TV and Cinema.

3. Cinematographer and producer Luiz Carlos Barreto and his sons, Bruno and Fábio Barreto; producer and director Aníbal Massaini Neto; director Nelson Pereira dos Santos; director Walter Hugo Khouri.

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