By Ginger Gentile (San Telmo Productions)
I came to Argentina in 2002 and fell in love—not with a man (that came later) but with the creative spirit of a country that moves from crisis to crisis with the grace of a tango dancer. In New York, my home, whenever there is a recession people get depressed and stop going out. Not so in Argentina—people take to the streets to protest and to make art, theater, movies and dance the night away in underground nightclubs. After all, if you are unemployed, why not party more?
Now the economy is booming in Argentina and the audiovisual industry—one of the biggest in South America—has only gotten bigger, producing more than 120 feature films per year, hundreds of commercials and is the fourth largest exporter of television formats in the world (Russia and Israel can´t get enough of our crazy telenovelas). The lean years have made Argentine technicians some of the best at creative problem solving in the world.
While I never thought of being a filmmaker in the US, it suddenly was possible here. I threw myself into studies and am one of the few people from the US to work their way up the industry—I started as Assistant Director but also wrote scripts, edited shorts and did camera and eventually went on to direct documentary films.
I met my husband, Gabriel Balanovsky in 2006 when he produced a commercial that a friend of mine directed. In 2008 we decided to form our own production company, San Telmo Productions. After years of working for others, we wanted to create a place where not only we could create original content but also provide great services for clients, while giving the stars of our company—our crew—all they needed to do our job correctly.
Here is some advice if you want to shoot in Argentina, going from general to more specific:
The fixer is providing you not just with his or her time, but also his network and reputation. You will leave, but the fixer will stay on. The good reputation of the fixer is what will open doors for your shoot and it must be maintained for the fixer to keep working. It may seem ironic, but locals will often work harder for a local production company or fixer than a foreign company if contracting directly. The reason is simple: it is unlikely that a foreign company will come to film again, BUT the local production will keep working. If a worker messes up the local production company will let their network know and this person will unlikely to be hired again. This is why as a local production company we draw the line at doing things that are illegal or dangerous. We act as a guarantee with locals that the production will go smoothly. We have actually got a few jobs when a local who is contacted directly by a foreign company has said “I will only do the shoot if this company is involved.”
Be clear on goals, not how to get there. For a fixer to do his or her job, there has to be a degree of trust. Vet the fixer, ask for references, but once hired let them work. Each country has its own way of doing things. A year ago we did the local production for a European reality show that wanted to stay on a tight budget for locations but also wanted “knock-your-socks-off-locations”. A hard request, but not impossible. But it became near to impossible to do so because the company required that a rep from their company was present during all scoutings and negotiations. As soon as the location owner saw a European, prices went up. Then the European tried to negotiate the price down, perfectly reasonable in some countries but not in Argentina. The owners got angry and offended. In this case the client should have told us their max budget, we would have offered less and know we have some wiggle room. In Argentina it is not offensive to offer a low first offer, but it is to make a low counteroffer.
By focusing on the “what” and not the “how” you can also allow for the creativity of Argentine crews to come through. More than 120 feature films are made each year and hundreds of commercials are shot. While the industry is huge budgets often are not, and the technicians here have years of creative problem solving experience.
Film crews show up on time. I can´t speak for the entire population, but if you cite the crew at 5am they will be there, so don´t cite earlier than needed.
Traffic in Buenos Aires is crazy, and parking difficult to find. So instead of having PAs drive cars (and most people don´t own cars) we hire a van with driver. Having a dedicated driver makes all the difference, and it actually works out to be cheaper than renting a car and paying for gas, parking, etc
Argentina is not a CARNET country so all gear needs to have a special customs clearance. A local production company can arrange this through a recognized broker. They are very strict about bringing in equipment, so this is step that cannot be missed.
If your local consulate says you need work visas, they need to be provided by a company that is registered with the RENURE, as we are. These letters need to be double notarized and the originals sent to the consulate.
Argentina is the size of India with a population of only 40 million people. Distances can be huge, especially in Patagonia where you can drive hours without seeing any cars, or even a service station. Luckily, infrastructure is good and there are many flights. But keep in mind that you can´t just drive a few hours from Buenos Aires and be in wine country or on the ski slopes.
And in all of our time working, we have never paid a bribe, nor been asked for one. Even surprising for us! (OK, we once paid some money to a guy to turn off his radio during near a shoot, but that has been it).
Argentines hate signing things, especially appearance releases. They get scared by legal documents. We´ve developed ways to get people to sign, mainly by saying “aren´t lawyers in other countries crazy? This is just so you don´t ask for more money later.” If you can keep these forms short, and in Spanish, that really makes things easier.
Some of the craziest things we´ve filmed as fixers? The Church of Maradona has to be up there at the top—an actual religion that worships the football star and even recreates the “hand of God” goal as part of its mass. Interviewing a criminal gang who counterfeit dollars—while they were masked, armed with AK-47s and with a big pile of white powder on the table. Filming man on man tango (not gay tango, which exists, but men who are so manly they don´t need women to dance with).
For us the best part of our job is to break stereotypes. Such as showing that Argentines may have given the world the first Latin American Pope, but are really quite unreligious. That same-sex marriage is legal and not a big deal. That there are tons of tech start-ups and ground-breaking scientific work being done. We would love for you to see a different side of Latin America and transmit it to your viewers back home.
Ginger runs San Telmo Productions with her husband Gabriel. Based in Buenos Aires they produce everything from TV and documentary to short films and commercials. Their website is: http://www.santelmoproductions.com
All photos courtesy of San Telmo Productions
Gingers blog: http://www.filminginargentina.wordpress.com
Cool film locations in Argentina: http://www.therealargentina.com/argentinian-wine-blog/top-argentine-film-locations/
Film Commision of Argentina: http://www.caf.gov.ar/