Ollie Balch’s television fame is all down to a mis-dialled telephone call. In early 2005, shortly after he and his wife Emma moved from their native London to Buenos Aires, the phone in the apartment they’d rented from an Argentine-American couple rang. On the other end of the line was a commercials casting agent looking for the previous residents.
“Emma explained the situation and he said, ‘You have a lovely English accent. Why don’t you and your husband come along?’” says Balch, whose day job is as a freelance journalist writing from Argentina for the British press.
Several auditions later, he found himself dressed in a doctor’s lab coat, on set in a commercial for the drug company Eli Lilly, explaining the dosage instructions for the attention deficit disorder drug, Strattera. “I basically did it for a bit of a story to tell my friends,” says Balch, who also got €500 for his efforts.
Over the past four years, foreign-language film and commercial crews have been increasingly drawn to Argentina by a combination of low prices, abundant skilled professionals, a surfeit of European-looking locals, and locations that can easily double for London, Paris and New York. The genesis of the business was the economic meltdown in early 2002, when the government ended a currency policy that had pegged the peso to the US dollar at a 1:1 ratio.
The peso soon fell to near 4:1 (it’s since levelled at around 3:1) which, while great for those with dollars or euros, hit the local population hard. The poverty rate, already high at 36 per cent, shot up to 58 per cent, while, according to local economics consultancy Orlando J Ferreres, consumer prices jumped 41 per cent in a year. When the economy levelled out in 2003 and 2004 (and CNN stopped broadcasting images of rioting Argentines), film companies swooped in to take advantage of the country’s many production houses (well-equipped with high-end technology bought during the 1990s) and the industry’s low wages.
The production boom helped Argentina to challenge South Africa as the film location of choice during the northern hemisphere winter, while also creating a frothy and often comic job market for expats and tourists. “Before this, Argentina had all the attributes – diversity of locations, the faces and talent, the filming infrastructure, the sex appeal – but no value. The economic crisis opened the market,” says Jennifer Webster, managing director of the Buenos Aires office of production service company Pioneer Productions (based in Budapest), which put together 25 commercial shoots in 2006 for brands such as HSBC and Levi’s (only three for the Argentine market).
A typical day’s shooting in Argentina costs €50,000 to €70,000, says Pioneer Productions coordinator Mercedes Bi-dondo, compared to over €200,000 in the US. In Argentina a costume designer who might earn €400 a day in Los Angeles would be happy to make €100,” says Michael Goodwin, a Canadian production designer now working in Buenos Aires.
Sensing economic possibilities, the city government launched an agency called BAset to speed location permits in late 2002. It took off: according to the Sindicato de la Industria Cinematográfica Argentina (SICA), the local industry union, there were 113 foreign commercials produced in Argentina in 2002 and 615 in 2006. These productions hired 13,880 people in 2006 (up from 2,718 in 2002).
Patrick Aduma is a 40-year-old Nigerian who founded the Attitudes talent agency a little over a year ago to offer mostly black and Asian English-speaking actors to production companies that find themselves shooting in a country short on both. In doing so, he found himself representing a curious group: unprofessional actors in high demand. “Most of the foreigners see it as a way to make an extra buck. They don’t think of it as a career,” he says of the commercials jobs, which now usually pay between €750 and €1,500 for a day’s work.
Sitting with him in a Brazilian restaurant in Buenos Aires’ bohemian Palermo Viejo neighbourhood, his point is proved by three Americans he represents, Danny Rosenberg, Scott Hayashi and Ashoka Thomas. None is a trained actor – 35-year-old Hayashi was selling computer equipment in Boulder, Colorado, before moving to Buenos Aires in 2003. But in the past year they have achieved most working thespians’ dream; between them they’ve appeared in over a score of commercials for brands including Capital One and Coors Light.
“It’s something I never would have even considered in the States because I wouldn’t want to deal with the bullshit. Here it’s fun,” says Rosenberg, a 23-year-old in a trucker hat and aviator sunglasses. Rosenberg came to Buenos Aires while backpacking around South America in late 2005, six months after graduating from college; he’s since stumbled into minor advertising celebrity back home. “I’ve been called by people I haven’t spoken to in four years who’ve seen my face on the screen between Saturday Night Live segments. I have one aspiring actor friend in New York who just doesn’t believe it.”
Mariano Kon, the international division manager at production house Cuatro Cabezas, posted ads on craigslist.com and trolled local expat blogs to put together a regular staff of four or five English speakers who develop and vet story treatments, screenplays and presentations for foreign clients. “We contacted every person with an English accent we could find,” he says.
According to Kon, Cuatro Cabezas has seen a 200 per cent increase in international business since 2004; among his current English-language projects is a documentary re-imagining the Falklands War for the Discovery Channel UK. Fellow production house Cinema 7 has just finished a four-part documentary on secret societies such as the Masons and the Illuminati, which it filmed in English even though it only has a contract to show it on the local cable channel Infinito. “In entertainment you have to think about the world market,” says Rodrigo Vila, Cinema 7’s managing director. “And English, the world language, opens doors.”
Of course, getting American and English cultural mores right can prove more difficult than the language: Patrick Aduma talks about typical Argentinisms creeping into foreign commercials, such as extras speaking inches from each others’ faces, Latin-style, or men greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek instead of a handshake: “That’s really common here, but in the US they probably thought it was a gay bar.”
Hiyashi recalls repeated instances of Argentine women arriving on set to play office assistants, wearing far less clothing than would be customary in a typical office in, say, Toronto. “The girl comes out in a short skirt and an almost restrictively tight sleeveless top that has ‘sexual harassment’ written all over it,” he says. “They send her back with something a little bit more conservative.”
The facts can go astray too: Matt Chesterton, editor of the Time Out guide to Buenos Aires, corrected the secret society screenplay and recalls one scene that claimed Abraham Lincoln was involved with the Masons during the American War of Independence. While Lincoln’s membership in the Masons is debatable, his participation in the war is not: he was born 26 years after it ended.
While Argentina has challenged South Africa’s spot as the southern hemisphere’s favourite set, it may want to read up on that country’s recent history. “South Africa got all greedy and priced itself right out of the market,” says Webster. South Africa costs about 35 per cent more than Argentina, according to her colleague Bidondo. “Here, the crews’ attitudes have changed. They used to be desperate for the jobs and now it’s the other way around.”
Webster says that Argentina is already losing some jobs to Uruguay for that reason. According to Kon, production prices, which used to be two-thirds below America and Europe, are now only about one-third less. “The challenge for Argentine businesses is to be known for quality, not price,” he says. “If not, this boom will end.” Kon knows from experience: in 1990 he worked on the production of Highlander II there, shortly after a previous peso devaluation led to another film boom. “Two years later the boom ended because it became so expensive,” he says.
For now, however, Buenos Aires continues to play the discount doppelgänger of Paris, London and New York. On a breezy Sunday last November, Douglas Andrew Town, a university English professor and translator, and Tim Phillips, an internet entrepreneur who moved to Buenos Aires from London with his half-Argentine wife in June 2006, found themselves dressed as English intelligence officers in the elegant but tatty old library of a musicology institute in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo neighbourhood. Done up with a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and a grandfather clock, the room bore more than a passing resemblance to a Whitehall ministry circa 1982.
Neither of the English expats was a professional actor – Phillips had been hired for the three-hour, 500-peso (€120) job after a phone-call voice check and an emailed headshot – but that didn’t disqualify them from speaking roles in the Cuatro Cabezas Falklands documentary.
As Phillips prepared to charge in with a military dispatch, Town pointed out that his unfurled on-screen map listed the Islands as the Malvinas – their Argentine name – to which director Emiliano Larre replied that perhaps British intelligence couldn’t procure other maps that day. Town laughs: “I said, ‘Look, one of the reasons why the British actually got to the Falkland Islands in the first place was because we were very good at cartography.’”
Bowing to history, Larre put a piece of paper over the offending name, adjusted the camera, and called for action.