The MPAA in Latin America

Frederic Martel’s Mainstream (2010) is a very rich account of Hollywood’s (and America’s) global cultural dominance, based on a huge quantity of original research and reporting.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated into English (from French–it should be!).

Among many other things, Martel provides interesting detail on the global lobbying and enforcement practices of Hollywood–a subject we treat in our Media Piracy report.  You get a clear sense from Martel just how good these guys have been at their jobs, mixing product and politics, working the domestic and international angles simultaneously, and always cultivating the powerful.  Chris Dodd’s public threats, post SOPA, reflect how unusual it is for them to lose.  Here’s Martel on the history of MPAA lobbying in Brazil and Mexico, cobbled together from pp 28-32. Translation mine. MPA, btw, is what the MPAA calls itself outside the US.

Brazil

In Brazil, the MPA’s top guy is Steve Solot. From Rio de Janeiro, he coordinates the studios’ business across Latin America. Solot explains: “For the MPAA, South America doesn’t count in terms of box-office, but it’s more and more important in terms of influence and number of tickets sold. American films take over 80% of Brazilian box office receipts. And even for the remaining 20%, you have to remember that many Brazilian films are co-produced with the Americans. Overall, it’s over 85%.” …

For years, the MPA was represented in South America by Harry Stone. As Jack Valenti put it: “He was sort of a British cavalry officer type–tall and mustached, and completely bilingual in Spanish and Portuguese. Whoever was president of Brazil, Harry was one of his friends.” …

I questioned Steve Solot about his predecessor: “For forty years, Harry Stone did lobbying the old fashioned way–in grand style and in high society. He knew all the presidents of all the countries of South America. He gave sumptuous receptions with French champagne and caviar in American embassies and consulates. The Brazilian or Argentine elite would throng to these events to see early premiers of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, or Taxi Driver, in an era when those movies would normally take weeks to arrive….

Alberto Flaksman, of the Brazilian film board, confirmed Harry Stone’s crucial role in Latin America: “Harry was a notorious homosexual, but he was married to a rich, elegant Brazilian. As the president of the MPA for Latin America, he invited bankers, the jet set, businessmen, rich families, and also military leaders from the dictatorship to grand soirees–which took on a somewhat decadent atmosphere. In the 1970s, the MPA got along well with the dictatorship in Brazil and with Pinochet in Chile–although it had trouble in Argentina under Perón, who was very anti-American. At the same time, Stone avoided the stars of the Latin American cinema: he found them too leftist or nationalist. So he launched big Hollywood films without them, but with the dictators–and success followed. The Brazilian and Chilean oligarchy loved the American cinema and always did the MPA’s bidding. This proximity to local power permitted the MPA to obtain distribution advantages for American films, such as the elimination of export taxes, better exchange rates for repatriating box office profits, and sometimes–when relevant–the suspension of national quotas.

Mexico

[W]hen Mexico tried to put into place quotas to protect its film industry, Steve Solot arrived to coordinate the counter offensive. With the support in Washington of Jack Valenti and the American Congress, the MPA succeeded in torpedoing the legislation and the quotas. “The Americans were very clever. They conducted a double offensive: first at the level of the Mexican government, in the name of NAFTA, the North American free trade agreement; and second by lobbying on the ground with theater owners like me, to mobilize us against the quotas…” explained Alejandro Ramirez Magana, director general of the theater chain Cineapolis…

…. In Mexico, Jaime Campos Vásquez described an unusual career: “I’m Peruvian and, for 25 years, I worked in the Peruvian secret service. Today, I fight piracy for the MPA” ….

…. “You know, here in Mexico, the cinema owes a lot to the Americans. Fifteen years ago, there were no more theatres–no more films. Today, we’re building a new multiplex screen every day, and there are twice as many theatres than in Brazil–with half the population. All of that comes from Hollywood blockbusters… And the Americans encourage and support local production too. They train hispanic filmmakers in their universities and give them a chance in Los Angeles. A Mexican cinema is being reborn today.” (Hollywood has 90% of the box office in Mexico; the Mexican cinema less than 5%.)

The MPA’s headquarters in Mexico is discreet–a family home in a residential neighborhood, with no sign on the entrance…. Twenty-five people work there but wear different official hats. Jaime Campos Vázquez, for example, is not officially paid by the MPA: he is the director of the APCM, the Association for the Protection of Cinema and Music. This association was created by the MPA and the American record industry to fight piracy. “The MPA is the good cop” and we are the “bad cop” says Vásquez…. In fact, the APCM is the police branch of the MPA. It is directly linked to Los Angeles where it reports to Bill Baker, a former FBI and later CIA officer who supervises the fight against piracy and who reports directly to the head of the MPAA in Washington.

As a sidenote: Vázquez’s story about Hollywood’s role in the Mexican film business is somewhat misleading. It’s more accurate to say that Hollywood captured the Mexican market after the collapse of the domestic industry in the 1990s.  That collapse is usually attributed to the combination of the economic crisis of the mid-1990s and NAFTA–the North American Free Trade Agreement, which required elimination of Mexico’s 50% domestic film exhibition quota at the insistence of the American studios.

[From Piva et al. (2011)]

The fruit of this political strategy is today’s 90% Hollywood, 5% Mexican split at the Mexican box office–a ratio common across much of Latin America.  Film exhibition in Mexico has reconsolidated and grown in the past decade, but–as Vázquez notes–around the Hollywood blockbuster, not Mexican film.   Contra Vázquez, it’s not true that Hollywood has invested significantly in the renewal of Mexican film production. Recent growth is almost entirely the result of greater public investment.

Vázquez faces an uphill battle on enforcement: the trade narrative underlying Hollywood’s takeover has a long history in Mexican political discourse and shapes popular views of fairness in the marketplace.  As John Cross wrote in our Mexico chapter:

After economic need, the most common [pirate DVD] vendor rationales for piracy were criticisms of the culture industries, often situated within a wider critique of US and international dominance of Mexico’s terms of trade. When I asked a middle-aged couple whether piracy was a form of robbery, the man said yes but then added, “Let me explain. Who robs more, them or us? What have the record companies done for the country? What have the movie studios done? What have the presidents done for the country, to make jobs?” His wife added, “They just worry about themselves.” The man became so excited that he stood over me to make sure I wrote down every word: “That free trade agreement makes the rich richer and the poor more screwed because to benefit from trade you have to have a lot of money. Now [Mexican companies] are all transnationals, but the poor are worse off.”…

The vendors’ defense of piracy fuses the two main ideas that shape attitudes toward piracy in Mexico: (1) the paramount question of inequality, with the pirates providing the only low cost access to many kinds of cultural goods; and (2) a politicized, nationalist reading of piracy that attributes high prices to (mostly US) profiteering and that views domestic anti-piracy efforts as a form of subordination to foreign interests.

The Canadians, incidentally, stuck to their guns in the NAFTA negotiations and took away a series of “cultural exemptions” to liberalization of the audiovisual sector.   Mexico didn’t. Its chief negotiator argued that the issue “has little relevance for Mexico” and that “there is no cause for concern.” (Galperin 1999).  Sheesh.  Hopefully today’s Mexican trade negotiators won’t be so eager to get played.  Maybe Wikileaks can shed some light on this:

Mexican IPR officials have been keen to highlight their increasingly active role in the international arena, stressing their willingness to join the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations and their push-back against Brazilian efforts to undermine IPR in international health organizations.

Oh well.

 

 

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