It was nine years ago — the second or third attempt to quit being a lawyer — that I took a film director’s assistant course in Caracas. I have this image of my first day, arriving late, suited up with jacket and tie, surrounded by a small battalion of long-haired, Converse-wearing communications and film school students.
“Who are you and what do you expect from this?” asked the course director. He didn’t wait for an answer. “I want all of you to know that not one person from this group will make films. The lucky ones will end up directing commercials.” Then he looked at me with perplexity, as if I was some sort of apparition. “I’m a tax lawyer, and I want to make movies,” I blurted.
The course director was wrong. Most of those kids did end up in the film industry. In just a couple of years since that day, things would change dramatically: public funding for independent filmmakers exploded, and new technologies and techniques allowed for producing decent content for less. Who would’ve thought that, a decade later, the real problem facing Venezuelan filmmakers was less about getting movies made, and all about getting them to the theater.
Two weeks ago, Variety ran a piece on the current state of the Venezuelan film industry, and how the simple act of going to the movies that has become dire:
“Since early February, the government has imposed an energy-saving initiative that mandates the early closings of shopping malls on weekdays. Multiplexes located inside the malls have had to limit screenings to no more than two per day. Not surprisingly, admissions plunged nearly 30% in February compared with the year prior, says José Pisano of distributor Cinematográfica Blancica, which releases pictures from Warner Bros., Sony and a number of independents. This year, admissions fell from 711,530 during the first week of January to 311,430 the week of March 4-10, according to official figures.”
It gets worse. Since the article was published, an even harsher “energy-saving initiative” has been imposed over most Venezuelan states — or all Venezuelan states except for the capital and those which haven’t “rebelled” yet. These people will have to deal with daily (scheduled) 4 hour electricity cuts, plus some unscheduled cuts the government already announced will happen.
Now imagine movie theaters having to deal with these hurdles to squeeze two screenings, plus the fact that audiences just don’t want to be on the street once the sun sets, for fear of becoming crime statistics.
“Cines Unidos and its rival Cinex have negotiated with the malls to start their screenings earlier in order to shoehorn in more showings. The good news is that 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' opened strongly over the March 25-27 weekend, with more than 125,000 admissions. And popcorn remains available — although concession prices are rising, too. So far, two Venezuelan pictures have debuted, but admissions have been paltry: Action drama 'Devuélveme la vida' ('Give Me Back My Life') took in 11,728 admissions, while documentary 'Juntera,' still playing in theaters, has lured 631 admissions as of March 29. At least 33 local films are expected to be released this year.”
There will probably be a lot of stinkers in that list of 33 local films, most of which were produced with some form of public funding, and sprinkles of nepotism here and there, at little-to-no risk: what’s the worst that could happen if your film sucks and you have no investors to answer to? Sadly, the truly great ones, like Lorenzo Vigas’ Golden Lion-winning "Desde Allá," must compete for a slot with President Nicolás Maduro's nephew's cousin's girlfriend's film. And it probably won’t earn the box-office returns worth the paper its admission tickets are printed on.
The Venezuelan government's Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinemaografía has provided most of the funding for recent Venezuelan cinema in the form of state-sponsored grants. But even those have been floundering as well due to, well, the country crumbling to pieces:
“Six years ago, for Ovalles’ feature debut, Memorias de un soldado (A Soldier’s Memories), funding from CNAC amounted to nearly $300,000. Muerte has received only $40,000. “I’ve been able to scrape together $90,000 for an epic period film that should cost $1.2 million to make,” the filmmaker says. Worse, the shortfall has added costs to the budget that are not directly tied to filming. “We have to withdraw great sums of money on a regular basis, which means hiring security,” Ovalles adds.
Of course, in the greater scheme of things Venezuelan, there are other priorities besides being able to go out for dinner and a movie. Like getting dinner, period. But this is just another example of how the revolution has crushed daily life. It’s the small things, you know?
Raul Stolk wrote about this recently for the Caracas Chronicles. Stolk is a Venezuelan writer based in Miami.