The Curious Case of Argentina’s Cinema Subsidies

EspañolThat Argentina lives to hand out subsidies won’t surprise anyone. The existence of subsidies to Argentinean cinema, however, has largely gone unnoticed in the country, and the state’s backing of the silver screen has provoked little criticism.

The distinction drawn by the government between “our” cinema and “foreign” movies scarcely raises an eyebrow among critics. But the administration of Cristina Kirchner has increased film production subsidies from almost AR$47 million in 2008 (US$3.6 million) to a total of AR $130 million (US$10.15 million) in the past year, according to figures from La Nación Data.

Many of the handouts are destined for directors or producers who are friendly to Kirchnerista ideology. Among the recipients are employees and senior officials within the Kirchnerista regime.

But even aside from the issue of how much public money is going to private individuals, the topic begs a wider question: who is the National Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) to arbitrarily decide which works deserve subsidies and which don’t?

El documental sobre la vida del expresidente Néstor Kirchner recibió casi US$1 millón en subsidios. Su recaudación en los cines solo representó la tercera parte de esa cifra.
A documentary charting the life of the late President Néstor Kirchner received almost US$1 million in subsidies. Ticket sales only recouped a third of this figure. (Facebook)

The INCAA, which runs on a budget assigned by Congress, doesn’t source the subsidies from its own budget, but via the Fund For Cinematographic Development (FFC). The FFC is in turn sustained by a 10 percent cut of all cinema ticket sales, and from a fixed tax on certain TV channels, among other sources.

But with all the transparency and concern for the public interest that we’ve come to expect from the Argentinean bureaucracy, the INCAA is barely interested in the likes, or dislikes, of the movie-going public. Instead, an INCAA employee enjoys absolute discretion over which flicks will receive state support. Unlike in the majority of other commercial activities, the filmmaker as a result undergoes no risk; the cost of failure is invariably borne by the general public.

Forcing cinemas to meet quotas for local offerings, and slapping duties on foreign works, are just some of the mechanisms that the state uses to promote Argentinean movies.

As a result, we end up with movies with absolutely zero interest for the public, as was the case with Miseria, which was screened in only one cinema in the entire country to a thrilled audience of 13. Yet Miseria received subsidies of AR$667,387 (more than US$50,000) between 2009 and 2011. Put another way, the state forked out almost $4,000 of public money for each person who attended a screening of the film. A fairly miserable figure indeed.

When the state pays the role of financial backer and hands out subsidies to selected films, it doesn’t take into account the director’s experience, the skill of the actors, the professionalism of the producer, or the quality of the location — all factors which investors carefully weigh up when deciding to put their own money into productions.

While the government plays with public money, we’re all left worse off. Surely it would be fairer if the public decided whether to reward or punish a production? Wouldn’t it also be fairer if those who subsidized Argentinean films were those who were interested in seeing them?

Those films which we rarely see — nor often even know they exist — are hugely expensive for the rest of society. Beyond the question of efficiency in how state resources are distributed, the main problem lies in arbitrarily assigning public money on the basis of personal artistic taste.

All this goes to show that Argentinean cinema is not alien to the cronyism and failures that afflict the distribution of public resources elsewhere in the country. When it comes to efficient and transparent public spending, Kirchner would almost definitely receive a rotten tomato.

Adam Dubove contributed to this article. Translated by Laurie Blair.

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