Costa Rican director Hilda Hidalgo remembers the first time she identified with a film. It was about 13 years ago when she watched “El Silencio de Neto.”
“It was the first time in my life that I saw people that could be my family,”Hidalgo said.
At the time, “El Silencio de Neto” earned international praise, and was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the premier festivals in the movie industry.
But the movie was not Costa Rican. It was Guatemalan. Though the movie helped raise awareness about Latin American film, Costa Rica’s film industry has stayed small.
Until now, the government and private sector hope.
A multi-front effort by the government and private organizations called Costa Rica Audio Visual (CRAV) hopes to attract more foreign film productions here, expand Costa Rica’s national cinema, and bring post-production companies that produce video games, special effects, and edit audio and film.
The ambitious project includes creating tax incentives and streamlining permits for foreign production, funding local independent directors, and trying to catch up with other Latin American countries in producing movies.
The government is pitching Costa Rica to major studios in Hollywood using the same selling points that helped create the country’s tourism industry: stability, beautiful locales and an educated population.
Aurelia Garrido, Vice-Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports unveiled CRAV’s debut to the public at an event this past week, along with announcement of a decree signed by President Oscar Arias supporting the efforts.
A similar decree, Garrido said, was signed in 1986 when Costa Rica began its efforts to expand the tourism industry. CRAV’s logo is a tree frog coming out of a popcorn bucket.
All in the efforts to get a piece of the $4.2 billion studios spend in overseas productions, according to a study by the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE), commissioned by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. This is all great news for Hidalgo, who is working on a film – a Costa Rican and Colombian co-production based on the Gabriel García Márquez novel, “Del Amor y Otros Demonios.”
For Hidalgo, the road to becoming a director in Costa Rica was long, and sometimes spotty, but she hopes these efforts mark a new beginning for Costa Rica’s film industry, which has existed for 100 years, but has never grown significantly.
In all its history, Costa Rica has produced only 15 feature films, said María Lourdes, a cinema professor at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), and author of “The Impossible Mirror: A Century of Costa Rican Cinema” and “Broken Screen: 100 years of Central American Cinema.”
A disjointed effort by the government and private sector, Lourdes said, caused Costa Rican cinema to remain stagnant, even though the country’s first feature film was shot in 1913 and the first foreign production to shoot here was in 1907.
“If there isn’t support from the state,” Hidalgo agreed. “You can’t make cinema.”
Lack of Opportunities
When Hidalgo, 36, decided to pursue a career in film in the early 1990s, she went to the best school closest to her.
That was in Cuba.
When she decided to switch from journalism to movie making, there weren’t any good film schools in Costa Rica. Moreover, finding a job after graduation was difficult.
“When I first went back, I saw (the country’s fledgling industry) as a disadvantage,” she said.
But Hidalgo was never short of work, and here she found a small, but talented and dedicated, workforce. She worked doing short films, documentaries and commercials.
Commercial making is the most developed sector of the audiovisual industry in Costa Rica, said Mercedes Ramírez, director of the CostaRicanCenter for Film Production.
Television commercials produced in Costa Rica are exported throughout the region and are known to be among the best, said Laura Pacheco of Alicia Films, a Costa Rican production house.
From that talent pool working on commercials, the film industry stayed alive. The talent hired by the handful of Hollywood productions that have come here came from commercial makers.
But about five years ago, things started to change, Ramírez said.
Veritas University opened a film school, the first in Central America. And other institutions started or revamped their audiovisual programs, sowing the seedlings of new talent.
An organization – Cine Alianza – made up of producers and workers in the industry was created to, among many duties, lobby the government.
Renewed interest in short films and festivals also helped along with private groups that fund independent filmmaking, Hidalgo said.
And in 2004, the Costa Rican film “Caribe” premiered (TT, Nov. 5, 12, 26, 2004).
The movie gained critical and public support from Costa Ricans, and gained international notoriety, Lourdes said.
The film won numerous awards at international film festivals including a best director award for Costa Rican Esteban Ramírez at the Latin American Film Festival in Trieste, Italy.
“It returned to us hope that Costa Rica could make quality movies,” she added. “It returned our self-esteem, and showed us that making movies is still worth it.”
The government seems to finally be getting on board.
Government Steps In
This past April, Garrido went to Hollywood and met with studio officials. Everywhere she went, Garrido said, she heard the same thing: movie studios want to make movies in Costa Rica.
“Even without incentives, there are already productions here,” Garrido said. Renowned actor, producer and director Mel Gibson shot scenery takes for “Apocalypto” in Costa Rica, but went to Mexico for the main shoot, as did the production of the 1994 movie “Congo”.
Ninety-eight titles are listed on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) as filmed in Costa Rica, including documentaries, movies, short film and television shows. Garrido’s goal is to attract movies with medium- to high-ranging budgets, which can be as much as $150 million.
According to the INCAE report, a movie with a $100 million budget will leave about $6 million at the location where it was filmed.
Garrido is taking the lead in introducing legislation that will create a Film Commission that coordinates the entrance of foreign productions, making it easier for them to enter the country. She said 22 different agencies, from Customs to national parks, have to give their OK for a movie to be filmed here.
The legislation will also call for tax incentives.
Another goal for the government is to attract foreign post-production companies that edit film and audio, or produce video games or special effects.
Pacheco said the hope is that local talent will be hired, and then they would start their own companies.
Drew Irwin, 40, who runs Producciones AMI, a post-production company out of San José, said costs are lower in Costa Rica, allowing for independent directors to work. His assistant editor is a Costa Rican student.
The talent in Costa Rica is equal to any other country’s, said Irwin, who is originally from the United States and immigrated here more than 20 years ago.
But Costa Rica is entering a market already crowded with dozens of countries vying for the attention of Hollywood, led by Canada, Australia and Argentina – countries that already have an established industry with experienced crews and developed facilities.
The Internet Movie Database lists 2,642 titles filmed just in British Columbia, Canada, including big budget features like the “X-Men” trilogy and “Fantastic Four. Competition within the United States is also growing: several states – including Washington and Louisiana – have passed legislation with incentives for the film industry.
Garrido thinks Costa Rica’s natural beauty will be a big draw for studios. She argued the film industry is something the country should pursue citing that the pace of growth in the audiovisual industry is faster than other sectors. She said, for example, New Zealand’s audiovisual sector grew by nine percent last year, while the rest of the country’s economy grew by only three to four percent.
A healthy audiovisual industry would also bring jobs and create small businesses, especially in post-production, where companies are small.
“It’s a front where culture and the economy converge,” she said.
National Cinema Rebirth
From those foreign productions, Garrido said, local talent will learn and expand the country’s film industry. When an outside production arrives in a country, they hire local crews, Pacheco said.
The veteran producer said many of the more experienced members of the industry in Costa Rica have worked with North American or European productions.
Not only will the country’s film industry grow, but a foreign production also creates temporary surges in income for an area. Already there’s a boom, Lourdes said.
Only 15 feature-length movies have been produced in Costa Rica in the past 100 years, yet five are currently in post-production.
Garrido is not relying solely on foreign knowledge to cultivate local talent. In next year’s budget, $100,000 will be appropriated for Costa Rica’s membership in Ibermedia, a multinational group with a $6 million fund for independent filmmaking. Two weeks ago, the Culture Ministry also created Pro-Artes, a fund for the arts that includes $40,000 for short films.
For Pacheco, support for a Costa Rican film industry is alive in the country. She is producing Hidalgo’s film, which carries a $3 million budget, and said more than half of the money was raised in Costa Rica.
Creating steady jobs for people in the audiovisual industry is important, so they continue creating art for the public, she said.
But for Pacheco, creating jobs is not all. She wants talent to grow and the creativity in Costa Rica to have a place to flourish, not just have the supporting crew working on a foreign film.
“I want the director to be Costa Rican,” she said.