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Learning from Latin America’s Media Pirates

From Tropa de Elite

Today’s illicit “DVD factory” in a corner of Paraguay might tomorrow become a node in a democratic, grassroots distribution network for Latin American media.

Some Brazilian film critics have labeled the movie "fascist". It’s called Tropa de Elite and focuses on the ultra-violent tactics deployed by an elite squad of the Rio de Janeiro police force devoted to combating drug trafficking. According to critics who gave it the thumbs down, the movie dehumanizes drug addicts and seems to blame them for the reign of gangs in Rio's slums. Whatever the moral fallacies, it's a box office hit.

Tropa de Elite, (Elite Squad), at least in terms of popularity, seems well on its way to becoming the most widely seen new Brazilian feature film in history -- if it hasn’t achieved that feat already, thanks to piracy. The phenomenon that has marked this movie's release is the almost dominant influence media piracy has had in distributing it and creating word-of-mouth energy.

Tropa de Elite has become the most-viewed local movie of the year in Brazil, with over two million tickets sold since its release on 05 October 2007, according to the Brazilian website, G1. But producers say the sales figure would be multiplied several times had it not been for a pirate version of the film that circulated widely in Latin America before the official release. The pirated version, available on the Internet and black market DVDs, has drawn something like 10 million viewers, according to their estimates. The Weinstein Company has fast-tracked the film for a US release date of 25 January 2008.

Even with the piracy, or perhaps because of it, the film is doing well commercially. Currently, in Brazilian box offices, Tropa de Elite ranks ahead of Hollywood productions such as The Silver Surfer and The Fantastic Four. The capability of Tropa de Elite to draw fans, in whatever form, has drawn attention to two intertwined issues in Latin America: one is the widespread use of film and music piracy, the other is the rather feeble exchange of cultural products, including movies, across borders within the region itself.

Piracy and Distribution

In a recent article headlined “Latin American film fans ask, Where are our movies?", Reuters correspondent Fernanda Ezabella points to some lingering obstacles in regional film distribution. Namely, it's nearly to impossible to distribute Latin American-produced films throughout Latin America, unless the films are picked up by major houses in the United States who have well-oiled distribution networks the world over. So, the Colombian film fan is deprived of Chilean movies, and vice-versa, save for the occasional film festival or a runaway commercial success like Brazil's Cidade de Deus (written by the same screenwriter responsible for Tropa de Elite, Braulio Mantovani) or Mexico's Amores Perros.

The article points to one interesting phenomenon: piracy is helping to solve this problem, and cites Tropa de Elite as an example. Cheap, pirated copies of popular films like Tropa de Elite do make it across borders, even into relatively small markets like Bolivia and Ecuador.

Another solution to the distribution problem might be government involvement. Most Latin American governments subsidize local films in one form or another. The article points out that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is funding new Venezuelan films. Chávez is known for being instrumental in the creation of Petrosur (Latin American energy company), Telesur (Latin America's CNN) and his spearheading of a regional World Bank-style institution. Why doesn't he create a regional distributor specializing in the mass-production of DVD versions of recent Latin American films? It could be called Distribuidora del Sur.

The truth, though, is that no muscular distribution scheme will make Latin American film fans want to see films from the region unless there are good films in the pipeline.

The big lesson of the mass "viral" success, in its pirated version, of Brazil's Tropa de Elite (there are also hundreds of clips from the movie circulating on YouTube) is that the creation of a product that attracts fans and generates interest leads to the creation of regional distribution channels through any means necessary, despite Latin America's poorly integrated film markets. In other words: if you build it they will come, often thanks to piracy. So, producers miss out on millions of admission tickets, but if the movie is in demand, it will be seen from Tierra del Fuego to Yucatán.

A more elemental problem than distribution then, is content: quality content. For all the success of some Latin American films, there are too many average movies being made, too many artsy movies with a limited capacity to connect with audiences, especially across borders. In fact, Argentine filmmakers just released a movie (UPA! Una película Argentina) lampooning Argentine film-making for its tendency to be tendentious.

Creating distribution pipelines for mediocre or boring Latin American art films is putting the cart in front of the donkey. Latin American film would not be well-served by a glut of over-earnest or over-artsy, middling productions.

Brazil's Tropa de Elite: A Paraguayan Preview

DVDs and Cell Phones

If quality is assured by a robust film industry, catering to diverse tastes, in every country, then piracy can begin to be addressed from a position of strength. Piracy itself is a problem but not an insurmountable one, even in Latin America, if movies can be put in the right hands at the right prices.

How about a digital download center, a website where (in the spirit of Radiohead's pioneering technique for album sales) Latin American viewers name their price? In the meantime, piracy will fill any vacuum created by the still-clumsy media and entertainment distribution networks, which especially in Latin America have not adapted to local realities.

People in Latin America are poor, but they are often connected: they have access to Internet cafes where for coins they surf the Internet, chat, play video games and view videos. They have DVD players and cell phones.

The big consumer story of the decade in Latin America is shaping up to be the ubiquity, in the blink of an eye, of the DVD player and cell phone. These artifacts of our century have been adopted so quickly across class lines everywhere that consumer researchers in Brazil, for example, have had to rejigger their socioeconomic index to account for its availability even in the humblest homes. How can one expect a Brazilian to avoid downloading a pirated music track or buying a knockoff DVD if they have a hungry DVD/CD player at home, and a monthly income of $200 or $300?

Film and music products need to become as easily available, and at the same attractive price, as DVD players and cell phones (the world’s preferred “media players”) -- if the film and music industries expect to make any headway against piracy in Latin America. It’s a classic problem of content needing to follow form. We are past the age of the mega movie theater and the clunky process of video rental. Movie and music content needs to be readily available everywhere, and cheaply -- online, in street markets alongside fruits and vegetables, in bus stations and corner stores.

In the future, if real solutions are tried, rather than the current effort to stigmatize piracy, today’s illicit “DVD factory” in a corner of Paraguay might tomorrow become something else. It could become a node in a democratic, grassroots distribution network for Latin American media.

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