Latin America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been as varied as the cultural and political landscapes of its patchwork of countries. But whether or not theaters remain open or film and TV production continues across the region — which spans Mexico and the majority of Central and South America — has come to depend on industry members themselves. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the private sector has stepped up in many countries where leaders have remained cavalier about the spread of the pandemic.
In Mexico, where 66-year-old president Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to encourage people to “keep living life as usual,” the government’s hands-off approach has seen businesses emerge to gain some control of the disease, with cinemas and production shuttering of their own accord in the absence of government guidance.
“We projected 365 million admissions worldwide for this year, but we don’t see that happening; we’ll see a big hit,” says Alejandro Ramírez, CEO of Mexican exhibition giant Cinépolis, which owns and operates 6,668 screens and employs more than 43,000 people worldwide, including in Spain, India, Latin America and the Middle East.
In the absence of a federal mandate, Cinépolis kept a handful of cinemas open, albeit with limited seating capacity and strict hygiene procedures, until announcing March 24 that it would close its entire Mexican circuit of nearly 900 screens.
“Spain offers unemployment insurance, but Mexico and the rest of Latin America likely does not,” Ramírez points out, adding he does not expect the Mexican government to provide any relief, given its austerity mandate. Per a 2018 study by the International Labor Organization, more than half of Latin American workers aren’t covered by a social security system that would protect them against risks related to illness, unemployment and old age.
Ramírez hopes lessons learned from the 2009 swine flu crisis in Mexico, where all cinemas shut down for nine days, will be considered. “The studios delayed sending us new films, so even when we opened our doors, there was nothing new to entice our audience,” he says, recalling that once new films were screened, people flocked to the cinemas. Local sources project an 11% dip in Mexico’s total box office earnings this year if all cinemas close through April.
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