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Going Global: Brazil's Indie Producers Seek Out International Co-Productions to Expand Their Audiences

By Shari Kizirian

Tilt your ear out any window in Rio de Janeiro between the hours of 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. and you will hear a chorus of televisions emitting Globo's nightly litany of novelas --what Americans call soap operas. Brazil's Rede Globo is the single most important cultural force in this country--home to Xuxa, daytime TV's Pied Piper; a news organization that includes two of Rio's daily newspapers; a stable of popular actors; and a feature film division, whose Lula, O Filho do Brasil is currently ranked second at the box office after Avatar.

Water-cooler conversations are the plots of the latest novelas, or the most shocking tidbits from Friday night's Globo Reporter or Sunday night's newsmagazine program, Fantastico. That programs on other channels gain a foothold with the viewing public is a small miracle, as Globo's strategy also includes beginning and ending shows at odd times, stringing viewers along throughout the day.

Trying to be heard over the din of Globo is challenging not only for competing commercial broadcasters Banderaintes, Record and SBT, but also for public television channels like TV Brasil and TV Cultura and pay channels-mostly US imports-whose popular shows are programmed opposite Globo's mighty prime-time monolith. If Universal, Sony and Warner Bros. with their cross-promotional powers, have a hard time competing, what hope is there for Brazilian independent producers untangling knotty issues like deforestation, global warming and landless movements?

Not much--that is, until now, according to Brazilian TV Producers, an organization of independents, which announced in early December that a three-year-old bill regulating the telecommunications industry had finally made it out of committee in Brazil's Lower House and was awaiting review by the Constitution and Justice Commission before it heads to the Senate. Fernando Dias, an independent producer and president of the Brazilian Independent TV Producers Association, says the bill establishes quotas for national content on pay TV, with a small percentage reserved for independently produced programs. A boon to the independent production sector, the bill can still be altered when it goes before the Upper House. "We all know that anything can happen in this country," cautions Dias. While the quotas won't affect programming on Globo's flagship channel, it will compel the network to buy more independent productions for its cable outlets.

I first learned of the bill at PIC DOC, a conference held November 29-December 4 in Rio de Janeiro. An intensive weeklong laboratory for Brazilian independents, the conference invited the producers of 40 documentary features, one-offs and series to learn about the international co-production market. Ari Ylä-Anttila of Finland's YLE TV1, Greg Sanderson of BBC Storyville, Heather Croall of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Elisabeth Hulten of ARTE/France's documentary unit, Geoff Daniels of National Geographic Channels International and Michela Giorelli of Discovery Networks Latin America/US Hispanic were among the pool of international instructors populating panels, sharing their expertise and their channels' particular predilections as well as offering feedback in private pitch sessions. Using the quality of the pitches and the projects' readiness for the international market as bases for selection, an international jury culled ten of the 40 projects for the RealScreen Summit this February in Washington, DC. Representatives of Globo Filmes, TV Brasil, TV Cultura, RioFilme (the state's agency for promoting film production and distribution), TAL (a Latin American television cooperative) and other stakeholders on the Brazilian scene rounded out panels by offering the local perspective.

Despite all the enthusiasm in the room, the conference began on a somber note, with the commissioning editors predicting deep cuts to their budgets. Ari Ylä-Anttila of Finland's TVI, which normally co-produces 30 to 40 programs each year, projected a ten percent reduction in his channel's budget for 2011. Greg Sanderson of the BBC's prestigious Storyville, with its 25 annual feature documentaries, echoed the trend provoked by the international economic crisis: "Everyone is looking for co-production partnerships. We have to find money elsewhere by buying into other country's films." Michela Giorelli anticipated that more programs on Discovery's web of channels will be "branded" entertainment, saying that 35 percent of the current shows originated in ad sales. "It's the future of television documentary," she said, adding, "I'm not happy about it."

With Brazil declared the first country to exit the worldwide recession, many channels are looking south, where generous state-funding programs and nationwide tax incentives have created a boom in film production. At the same time, according to RioFilme's Sérgio Sá Leitão, Brazil's open-TV channels produce all of their programs in-house. Brazilian indies looking to expand their audiences and international channels looking to contribute smaller portions of co-production budgets seem well matched.

The conference then turned its attention to making the proffered Brazilian programs enticing for the international market. All sessions, including the private pitch sessions, were held in English, with translators on hand to ease communication between Portuguese-speakers and the international cast of instructors. (Discovery Channel's Latin American division, with offices in São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, only accepts proposals in English, as doing so facilitates pitching to the US-based home channel.)

Preparing a succinct, five-minute pitch in English was challenging for even the most veteran of producers. A native Spanish-speaking producer of the proposed series Health Riders, who is also fluent in Portuguese, expressed his frustration to me over keeping his pitch within the time limit while having to speak slowly enough in his heavy accent to be understood by the panelists, some of whom also spoke English as a second language. During panel discussions, even Brit Greg Sanderson was asked to slow his rapid-fire delivery. "I speak the Queen's English, by the way," he joked.

I was not privy to the pitching sessions; later panel discussions, however, shared constructive feedback with the whole group. Positivas, by producer Luciana Freitas and director Susanna Lira, got a shout-out from the podium for its pitch's attention-grabbing first line: Sixty-four percent of HIV-positive women in Brazil have been infected by their husbands. The 90-minute documentary, which follows seven infected women across the country, had the advantage of already being at the rough-cut stage. A private screening for crew, supporters and the film's subjects occurred at a Rio cinema on the eve of World AIDS Day, two days into the conference. Freitas later acknowledged by e-mail that having a near-completed film made it easier to craft their well-received pitch, but added that Positivas was hardly final. "One of the [PIC DOC] consultants observed that the film followed too many subjects for international [tastes]," she wrote. "We will take this into account when we make our final cut."


Rosária, one of the subjects in Positivas (Dir.: Susanna Lira; Prod.: Luciana Freitas).



Character-driven projects were almost unanimously preferred over subject-centered films, which everyone acknowledged are a tough sell on the international market. "Character-driven, human-condition films with universal themes that transcend international differences," is how Sanderson described Storyville's priority. "Brazilian," he said, "is not a selling point." He cited Fábio Almeida's proposed project Landell: Talking to the Stars as a good possibility for an international co-production. São Paulo priest Roberto Landell de Moura was the first person to transmit the human voice via radio waves--a full 14 years before Italian Guglielmo Marconi--a little known fact both inside and outside Brazil. Landell was one of the ten projects chosen for RealScreen's February summit, where Almeida told me he plans to approach PBS' NOVA.


Father Roberto Landell de Moura, subject of Fábio Almeida's Landell: Talking to the Stars.



Storyville has co-produced five Brazilian documentaries in the past ten years, according to Sanderson, although two of them were made by French directors, including 2002's Gods of Brazil, about soccer legends Pelé and Garrincha. Bus 174, Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha's exploration of the roots of violence in Rio de Janeiro, did so well for the channel that Storyville is now co-producing his Secrets of the Tribe, a project made through his own Zazen Produções and Mike Chamberlain's British outfit Stampede. The documentary is centered on the controversies surrounding the anthropological studies done among Yanomami natives in the Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazon, controversies that include accusations of pederasty, the willful misrepresentation of data, unethical and probably illegal extraction of blood samples, gold and exotic animals, as well as the unexplained deaths of hundreds of Yanomami exposed to outsiders. France's ARTE, which also co-produced Bus 174 and Justiça, Maria Augusto Ramos' grim portrait of the treatment of young offenders by Brazilian courts, has joined with the BBC and HBO to co-produce Secrets, sure to generate a lot of interest when it premieres at Sundance this January. Elisabeth Hulten assessed the appeal of Brazilian films to ARTE's audience: "The violence and the violence."


From José Padilha's Secrets of the Tribe.



In the end, a perfect pitch, compelling characters, stunning visuals, a realistic budget and impeccable credentials are not sufficient to entice commissioning editors to risk their channel's resources, time, money and reputations on international co-productions. Getting to yes is primarily a question of trust. Lawrence Wahba, from Bossa Nova Filmes, has produced wildlife documentaries for Globo's GNT, TV Cultura, TV Record and Discovery Latin America. He began attending MIPCOM in 1995 and didn't get his first co-production deal until four years later. "How can they trust a ‘Third World' producer?" he asked. Many co-productions later, the trust was still not reciprocated fully--his 2006 Shark Rebellion, co-produced by Discovery Latin America, was initially rejected by Discovery US. "It wasn't until NHNZ [Natural History New Zealand] came on board and pitched it directly to them that the US agreed," said Discovery's Michela Giorelli.

Discovery Latin America has so far co-produced 23 hours of Brazilian documentary, including Doutores of Alegria, Mamo Filmes' profile of the eponymous clown troupe that performs in hospitals, and Mixer's Bikini Revolution, co-produced with Germany's ZDF and ARTE. Discovery plans to double its Brazilian programming in 2010, which already has 10 hours committed for the upcoming year. Part of its strategy is to fill the current affairs void on Brazilian television. Giorelli cited the recent São Paulo Under Attack, made by the multipurpose production house Mixer. Its producer, Krishna Mahon, has developed a fruitful relationship with Discovery, having worked for the channel in Miami and already delivering the São Paulo segment of Discovery's Solutions to Traffic.

Directed by Rodrigo Astiz, São Paulo Under Attack is the only documentary so far about the massive 2006 prison rebellion in Brazil that spilled onto the streets, paralyzing South America's largest city and resulting in at least 46 deaths. "It was on the news," Paula Knudsen, the writer of the documentary, told me, "and then the press stopped talking about it." Barred from filming inside Brazil's prisons to get the prisoners' side of the story, the production team relied on re-creations, archived television news reports, and the expertise of journalist Fâtima Souza, who has been investigating the criminal organization PCC (First Capital Command), which orchestrated the attacks. Said Knudsen, "We wanted to raise the issues, like why the police weren't warned by prison officials, so people can then talk about what's underlying the incident."


Re-enactment scene from Rodrigo Astiz's São Paulo Under Attack, produced by Brazil's Mixer studio and Discovery Latin America. Photo: Marcello Bozzini



Made under the tax incentive laws of Ancine, Brazil's federal agency for film production, the documentary had to meet federal conditions as well as those of the Discovery Channel, which Giorelli said is easier now that the channel is "no longer looking for ownership in perpetuity." Unfortunately, São Paulo Under Attack will not reach very many Brazilians, the majority of whom cannot afford cable's monthly subscription fees. "Open television channels are difficult," said Giorelli. "We haven't been able to get the networks involved."

Paula Cosenza, an executive producer at Bossa Nova Filmes, headed up a panel about Tropicália, a documentary to be directed by Marcelo Machado on the Brazilian musical phenomenon of the '60s that launched the international careers of Gil Gilberto, Caetano Veloso and Tom Zé. The 90-minute project began as a script by Vaughn Glover of Los Angeles-based Mojo Pictures, which came to the attention of City of God director Fernando Meirelles, who in turn brought it to Bossa Nova, because the company has more documentary experience than his own O2 Filmes. Michael Winterbottom of the London-based Revolution Studios also signed on, ensuring the film will have a high profile internationally. The finished Tropicália will aim for a festival run and a theatrical release and, because of its musical focus and international scope--many of the musicians were exiled in London during Brazil's military dictatorship--will surely attract a television partner abroad. The documentary seems to have all its bases covered; it even has a guaranteed broadcast on Brazilian open television. "[TV] Record has all the archival footage," Cosenza said. "It had to be brought on as a partner."

The tension between funding works with Brazilian monies and then selling these films abroad was a topic of discussion among the producers all week. One concern is that as projects are sold outside the country, they will lose their Brazilian flavor. Producers will seek out subjects with broad appeal--soccer, internationally known Brazilian musicians, the "violence"--neglecting the traditionally invisible issues that indies are known for uncovering. Luis Antônio Silveira of Conspiração Filmes, whose four-part series on urban ecology, Zootropolis, was chosen for RealScreen, warned that documentary filmmaking was in danger of becoming the manufacture of "products for TV." Another producer warned the attendees not to risk a personal project by entering into international co-production: "It will become a different project." If you do, he said, be prepared to defend your point of view as an equal. "Because he's a gringo, he doesn't [necessarily] know best."

Panelist Emmanuelle Priou, on the other hand, encouraged "passion projects," as they are worth fighting for. "A nice movie absolutely acceptable to all will be lukewarm," said the French producer. "Keep the differences." How then to deal with meddling co-production partners, who have a creative stake in the projects they fund? Priou, who produced the widely successful March of the Penguins, offered one solution. He recounted how he inserted an eyesore segment into one of his projects so the commissioning editor could offer some input without marring Priou's vision for the film. "He so desperately wanted to contribute," Priou said.

If all else fails, of course, Brazilians can always stay home. PL 29, if passed, will offer companies like Bossa Nova Filmes, Mixer and Conspiracão-all of which have diversified their output to include animation, commercials, talk shows, and infotainment programs--more opportunities on cable television, which, in turn, can generate resources to fuel the passion projects.

Where will they air? Canal Brasil is a premium cable channel that programs nightly blocks of short films and has regular slots for challenging documentaries like João Moreira Salles' masterful Santiago (2008) and Renato Tapajós's direct-cinema union film Linha de Montagem (1982). André Saddy, one of the channel's project development managers, announced to the room, "If the international channels don't want it, bring it to us."


Shari Kizirian has written extensively on Brazilian cinema. You can read her report about the 2009 It's All True Documentary Festival on