Cheap and stylish, Argentina becoming Eden for TV commercials, movie makers

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2003

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- In sync with cranking 1970s funk, a black Cockney cab blows past a cafe full of well-heeled Londoners, leaving them choking on billows of smoke.

While the blazing red telephone booth and signs reading ''Thurp-ton and Book Streets'' may look like England, London is far away.

Argentina's pink presidential palace is only around the corner.

And the scene is from a television commercial.

Buenos Aires is fast becoming a South American Hollywood -- thanks to a devalued currency, European flair and low-cost talent.

''This corner really feels like London,'' said Enrique Bertoglio, an Argentine office worker who gawked at the impromptu English street signs plastering the corner of Roca and Alsina streets. ''It looks like another country.''

From Britain, Russia and the United States -- and a lot of other places -- filmmakers are coming to Argentina.

Robert Redford's production company recently shot scenes in Buenos Aires for its movie ''The Motorcycle Diaries,'' about Che Guevara. Spanish and Italian movie productions also have been spotted on the city's European-inspired boulevards.

Then there are the crews out filming television commercials.

The London street scene staged for Clarks, a British shoemaker, is one of hundreds of TV commercials that have been shot in Buenos Aires in recent months for big-name brands such as Bud-weiser, Coca-Cola, L'Oreal and Proctor & Gamble.

Mariano Fernandez Bussy, director of Buenos Aires fledgling film commission, said the appeal of the Argentine capital of 13 million is its varied architecture: Buenos Aires can mask itself as Rome, Madrid or any world city.

''If it is a French crew, they can easily recreate the feeling of Paris. If they are from the U.S., they can choose parts like New York,'' Bussy said, describing partly why filming around Buenos Aires has doubled since January 2002.

But until last year, Argentina's cinematographic beauty came at a price more than threefold today's costs. For more than a decade, Argentina's peso was artificially tied to the dollar, making Buenos Aires as expensive as shooting in Europe or the United States.

Then came December 2001: chaotic protests springing from a failing economy erupted across Argentina and brought a steep devaluation that ended the dollar's reign.

Riots and looting kept away skittish foreign film crews.

''But when they finally came, they saw that the country was not up in flames,'' said local producer Raul Outeda, who worked with Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas in Buenos Aires on parts of their upcoming movie ''Imagining Argentina,'' about the country's past military dictatorship.

While the unrest has been quelled, the peso's plight has turned Argentina and the city of Buenos Aires into seemingly one sprawling studio brimming with international clients.

''In my neighborhood alone, I have seen four foreign shoots in the last five months close off entire streets,'' said Natasha Der Winter, a Dutch television reporter living in San Telmo, the cobblestoned colonial heart of Buenos Aires.

Government figures show a 20 percent increase in foreign commercials being filmed in Argentina since July. Today, at least half of the two commercials shot daily are for foreign clients enticed by rock bottom costs.

Expenses for filming in Argentina can run at least 20 percent lower than those in Canada, South Africa and New Zealand -- the preferred destinations for Europeans and Americans when shooting abroad.

But there is more than just the economic draw. Argentina has a strong film tradition and the latest equipment.

Benefiting from years of state support, the film industry can supply well-trained talent behind and in front of the camera.

Add Argentina's Southern Hemisphere climate that sweeps deserts, jungles and glaciers into a one-country stop for filmmakers and the boom is even more understandable.

Ruben Andon, owner and creative head of Buenos Aires-based Andon Films, said his company is filming half of its award-winning commercials for international clients -- from Nissan autos to Knorr's soups. Before the devaluation, this foreign commercials amounted to just 10 percent of Andon's work.

''We just got a call from a Polish company that thought about filming their commercial in South Africa,'' Andon recounted. ''But once we sent them our prices, they were sold.''

The unending stream of requests to shoot is rescuing an industry nearly decimated by Argentina's five years of economic recession.

According to the Argentine actors' guild, salaries on foreign-backed commercials, documentaries or feature films are up to eight times more than those earned on local work -- and they are paid in dollars.

Since one commercial can provide work for 100 people a day, that also means that everyone from art directors to lighting technicians are in demand in a country where the jobless rate tops 18 percent.

''I have been working 15 days straight and now I am on this French project making three times more than what I would get for an Argentine shoot,'' said Marcelo Chavez, an art assistant who went without work for months after the riots.

Argentine film producers say the key to keeping Buenos Aires and Argentina the buzz among international players will be up to the local industry.

Alejandro Suaya of Atomic Films said he envisions Buenos Aires becoming a ''factory town'' for international film productions. His studio is in an area called ''Palermo Hollywood'' -- nicknamed for its U.S. counterpart because of the growing film industry there.

Suaya, dressed in jeans and an Armani shirt, said he is now in talks with film executives in Los Angeles about shooting more movies in Buenos Aires.

''Right now, Argentina is hot,'' he said. ''We have to make it stay that way.''

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