Shakira, Sofia Vergara, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ugly Betty and even the well-mined exploits of Pablo Escobar are among the most famous cultural exports Colombia has given the world in the past few decades. Now, 101 years since it first produced a feature, the Latin American country is poised to add greatly to that list. Already making new history with its first Foreign Language Oscar nomination in Ciro Guerra’s Embrace Of The Serpent, Colombia is striving to plant a bigger flag on the global map. A lucrative incentive program has increasingly attracted foreign productions to the country, while new talent continues to spring and box office growth has been significant in the past several years.
One exec likens Colombia to Brazil which “wasn’t on the map at an international level until Walter Salles. You need the kind of movie that will have a big international breakout that will galvanize the industry.” Along with the success of Embrace Of The Serpent, a movement is “definitely coming in the next five years,” this person says.
From the early days, Colombia’s film industry growth came in fits and starts until the government established the Law of Cinema in 2003 to back local movies. National org Proimágenes Colombia was earlier founded in 1998 and administers the Colombian Film Development Fund, which supplies resources to the national film sector, and markets Colombian cinema internationally. Since early 2013, the Colombian Film Commission, a division of Proimágenes, has offered cash rebates of up to as much as 40% to international productions shooting within the country. The money back covers production (including pre and post) and logistical services like hotels, catering and transportation.
The incentive was created to help build up the local infrastructure, bring new jobs to Colombia, and hone crew skills. Among films to recently take advantage of shooting in Colombia are Chilean miners tale The 33, Doug Liman’s Mena with Tom Cruise for Universal, and The Lost City Of Z helmed by James Gray. Netflix and Gaumont’s Escobar series Narcos also shot its first season there and has returned for a second.
Given the subject matter, Colombia was a natural fit for Narcos, but going to Brazil was also a possibility. The cost savings in Colombia was a factor in the ultimate move to set it there. However, the rebate does not apply to TV series. Instead, the first two episodes were shot as a TV movie and so benefitted from the incentive. In a testament to the experience of shooting locally, all of Season 2 will be shot in Colombia despite the lack of a rebate.
Silvia Echeverri Botero, head of the Colombian Film Commission, says she invited producers to Colombia to visit locations and meet co-producers. The deal was then cinched. Still, she says, it was “challenging for our industry because this was the first time we had such a big production in the country. But we did it well and on time.” Other TV series to shoot in Colombia have included USA’s Covert Affairs and Fox’s Mental.
Andres Baiz, who helmed four episodes of the first season of Narcos, is cited by many as a talent to watch on the international scene. He is best known for 2011 feature The Hidden Face which sold a huge 600K tickets locally. The film’s exec producer, Rodrigo Guerrero, is also a powerhouse who produced Javier Fuentes Leon’s Sundance Audience Award winner Undertow, and was a DP on Joshua Marston’s Academy Award nominee Maria Full Of Grace which starred Sandino Moreno. He is now head of Alex Garcia’s Itaca Films Colombia which handled local production on The Belko Experiment written and produced by James Gunn.
Diana Bustamante, who is artistic director of the Cartagena Film Festival, is well-known on the international circuit, having produced several films which have screened in various sections in Cannes including 2015’s Camera d’Or winner Land And Shade; Guerra’s Los Viajes Del Viento; and Juan Andres Arango’s La Playa D.C.. Bustamante’s production company, Burning Blue, also recently made the directorial debut of Jorge Forero, Violencia. An interesting point about Colombia, notes Echeverri Botero, is that most of the filmmakers are now under 40 “because they didn’t have the support of the government before.”
Guerra, 35, is arguably the biggest name to come out of film in Colombia in recent years. He has repped the country three times as the Oscar submission, but this is the first time he’s hit the nominations jackpot. If any film has a chance to muscle in on Son Of Saul’s presumed lock on the win tonight, it’s Embrace Of The Serpent which opened Stateside to bigger box office than any of its category competitors’ launches and now has a $195K cume from 21 screens after two frames. Guerra last week was set for his English-language directing debut with dystopian adventure The Detainee for Thunder Road Pictures and Film House Germany.
Private television network Caracol backed Embrace Of The Serpent in its first big foray into the film business and has ambitions for an increased dive into features. It also made 2012’s popular miniseries Pablo Escobar: El Patron Del Mal which aired on Telemundo in the U.S. The TV business in general has been robust for about 50 years — the original format for Ugly Betty was a local telenovela — and is dominated by Caracol and RCN. Locally-produced series and primetime soaps garner high ratings while foreign series are beginning to gain ground. Access, however, is limited because cable and satellite can be costly for subscribers. VOD is seeing more uptake. It’s currently estimated that Colombians spend seven hours a week watching platforms like Netflix.
Box office in Colombia has also been on the rise. About a decade ago, the country had 250 screens and now has 935. In 2005 there were 15M people going to the cinema per year. Now it’s 58M. In local currency, there was a 71% increase at the turnstiles from 2011 to 2015. About 80% of the box office is studio films and 20% from Latin America and other foreign markets. A recap of the past five years shows Hollywood action movies and animation among the most popular with only one local film, documentary Colombia: Wild Magic, landing in the Top 10 last year.
Guerra, who received a call from the President of Colombia on Oscar nominations day, has said to me previously that the country has embraced the attention given Serpent because it doesn’t often get “so much good news.” While there is ongoing conflict within Colombia, most people now say it’s hospitable to foreigners. Echeverri Botero allows that “When working in a huge city like Bogota, there are neighborhoods that aren’t safe and we tell people to have a private security team in place to avoid robberies.” But, they don’t have to have a guard all the time, “The country is safe, tourism is booming.”
Claudia Triana de Vargas, Director of Proimágenes, chimes in, “When Ian Smith came to make another Escobar project, which never got done, the bodyguards were me and Silvia.” Echeverri Botero adds, “It’s important to have execs to come and feel safe. Once they have the experience, they feel totally secure in the country. Big stars like Antonio Banderas and Tom Cruise went to the mall and were totally happy here.”
Echeverri Botero has high hopes for the future. “In the next five years, the dream is to be the first country in the region, not only in market share, but also in production. We want to be competing with other cinema industries that have much more history.”