The affluent neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca is home to numerous Rio studios. Image by Kenji Yamamoto via Flickr.

The affluent neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca is home to Rio studio Polo Cine & Video. Image by Kenji Yamamoto via Flickr.

Carnival, beaches and a giant Jesus statue overlooking some of the world’s most notorious slums: These are the symbols most foreigners identify with Rio. But thanks to its breathtaking landscape and some generous funding initiatives, the city is becoming a haven for both local and international filmmakers.

Hollywood blockbusters The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Fast & Furious 5 were filmed there, and various studios are choosing the city as a destination for movie releases; Tom Cruise visited Rio for the Oblivion premiere.

Until recently, Brazilian actors and directors went to Hollywood in pursuit of an international film career. But the 2011 animated children’s film, Rio, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Saldanha, was called “the equivalent of a Hollywood moon landing,” introducing Rio to the world and bringing the movie world to Rio.

The Brazilian government is also taking notice. In 2012, the Brazilian audiovisual market received roughly 174 million Brazilian reals ($73 million US) in incentives from the federal government to help attract filmmakers to the country’s capital.

If you build it, will they come?

Rio’s rise in the global film industry hasn’t come by fluke. The city has long been recognized for its thriving creative culture. The audiovisual industry, which includes sectors such as television, cinema, fashion and events (think the massively popular Carnival), has a business circulation of R$18.6 billion ($7.8 billion US).

It’s also home to Globo, the second-largest media network in the world after the United States’ ABC.

But it’s the regional and city hall-backed film fund RioFilme that is most responsible for putting Rio on the industry map.

According to Rodrigo Guimarães, the film fund’s investment manager, city hall plans to invest R$50 million ($22.6 million US) through RioFilme this year to promote industry events and projects for national productions and international co-productions.

The fund has also invested in theatres throughout the city, most notably the ultra modern 3-D CineCarioca Nova Brasilia, situated in a neighbourhood that until very recently was infamous for its gang activity.

In addition, Rio’s mayor will open bidding for the reconstruction and expansion of studio Polo Cine & Video, located in the affluent beachfront borough of Barra da Tijuca. The fund is also studying a project to implement a tax rebate in 2014, meant to improve the city’s appeal to international production companies.

These are important steps, and they have certainly made an impact. Last winter, a delegation of German producers let by media consultancies Medienbüro Knöbelspies and HMR International visited Brazilian film companies in Rio and São Paulo, attracted by the country’s young, tech-savvy demographic.

“This market is in a way new, modern and vibrant,” says Till Stein, managing director at German production company Lagerfeuer Medienproduktion MG, who was part of the trip. “Brazil is fresh, the consumers are young, and as I heard, 30 percent of them use the second screen while watching TV.”

Cine Carioca Nova Brasilia. Image by Andre Gomes de Melo via www.rj.gov.br.

The recently opened 3-D CineCarioca Nova Brasilia, located in the Complexo de Alemao, a group of favelas in the north of city. Image by Andre Gomes de Melo via www.rj.gov.br.

Shooting for the stars

Germany isn’t the only international player sizing up the scene. Famed Brazilian producer Diler Trindade has already developed several partnerships with international distributors through his company Diler & Associados, including Buena Vista International, Warner Bros., Columbia and Fox Film of Brazil.

Driven by the business opportunities in Rio, Diler has bet on projects that centre on the way of life of the Cariocas (the people of Rio). In addition to launching Bonitinha, mas Ordinária (Cute but Cheap) and Meus Dois Amores (My Two Loves) this year, the producer has completed Destino (Destiny), a coproduction with China.

New laws that allow for private sources to invest in Brazilian films have also enticed Western industry heavyweights. Take, for example, the 2007 film Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) and its sequel Elite Squad II, set in the criminal underbelly of Rio.

Produced by Brazilian Eduardo Constantini, the films were backed by the Weinstein Company, the influential New York-based film studio. Both movies broke box office records in Brazil and earned critical acclaim abroad.

Those record-setting numbers are set to keep climbing. Thanks to Brazil’s exploding middle class, more Brazilians than ever are going to the movies. In theatre Nova Brasilia’s opening year of 2011-2012, for example, 91 percent of ticket sales came from first-time cinema-goers.

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within broke box office records domestically and abroad. Image via imdb.com

Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within broke box office records domestically and earned critical acclaim abroad. Image via imdb.com

Living up to the brand

Rio is a city that sells itself. “It is a strong brand,” says Diler. “The town is beautiful and seductive, and Cariocas are very kind. The landscapes are stunning and there are all types of locations. In addition, there is a Rio Film Commission.”

It’s these qualities that make Rio a filmmaking destination. But it’s also hard to deny that the international spotlight has been shining brightly on the city because of its upcoming role as host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

For Diler, the opportunity is Rio’s to lose. “The challenge is to maintain the good impression after the international events that will be held in the city. Before and during this period there will be great chances for business in the audiovisual sector, including international co-productions.”

Still, some snags remain. As Lothar Segeler, a producer from German studio SoundVision, observed during his trip to Rio, Brazil’s tax system can be a pain. “Financing seems to take longer in Brazil, since you need to gather tax benefits from different companies, after your funding is approved,” he says.

Until Luck Do Us Part is the latest comedy to enjoy box office success.

Until Luck Do Us Part was the biggest box office success in Brazil.

What’s next?

It remains to be seen whether Rio’s film industry will manage to be robust enough to maintain homegrown talent while also drawing international projects and the dollars that accompany them.

For those ambitious enough to give it a shot, Diler points to some trends in Brazilian cinema for inspiration. “The comedies always attract audiences worldwide. It has always been like that,” he says. “As for romantic comedy, we are beginning to learn how to do it now in Brazil.”

In 2012, the Brazilian movie with the most viewers was Até que a sorte nos separe (Until Luck Do Us Part), directed by Roberto Santucci, with 3.3 million tickets sold. This year, another comedy directed by Santucci, De pernas pro ar 2 (Upside Down 2), was at the top, with a new record of more than 4 million viewers.

Both are subtle commentaries on the unexpected consequences of joining the new middle class. And as Rio’s film industry continues to flourish, those stories will reach more audiences – and hit closer to home.