In an exclusive interview, Fernando Meirelles remarks: “I feel sorry for the studios that have to compete with Netflix”


By Fernando Berenguel

In recent years, a few details have come to make a big difference in the career of Brazilian cineaste Fernando Meirelles as well as in terms of the baggage of O2 Filmes, the production company of which he is a partner. Last year, the ecological and patriotic messages directed by Meirelles were seen by more than three billion people during the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics. Meirelles directed the ceremony alongside Andrucha Waddington and Daniela Thomas.

His production company on the other hand has recently been responsible for TV successes such as Felizes para Sempre? (Happily Ever After?), a series nominated for the APCA award, which generated hundreds of comments when a high-end prostitute played by Paolla Oliveira showed her derriere. Another success was the series The Wise Ones whose 2nd season is currently in post-production. Last year it was nominated for the International Emmy. “Today TV is more interesting than cinema” has been this director’s mantra in recent interviews. And even though it was the cinema industry that made him famous, with Meirelles directing projects that received 8 Oscar nominations (4 for City of God and 4 for The Constant Gardener), he doesn’t have the same enthusiasm as he used to for the big screen. In recent interviews, he’s revealed that he doesn’t go often to the cinema, and prefers to watch films on television or even on his computer.

Perhaps this is exactly one of the reasons why the director has decided to direct his next film for Netflix. After being away from cinema for five years after directing 360 with Anthony Hopkins, Meirelles appears to have found a secure partnership with Netflix and its efficient worldwide content distribution model. This interview in fact was conducted through an exchange of emails while the cineaste was in Argentina filming scenes for The Pope, the film about Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis which will be released next year. For cinema fans, Meirelles is promising to share a diary of his production notes during his daily filming with us (as he did between 2007 and 2008 during the filming of Blindness). In the interview, the cineaste comments on the supposed sexual abuse committed by Harvey Weinstein, the producer who was one of the people most responsible for the international success of City of God. Take a look:

Observatorio do Cinema: Recently the Brazilian audiovisual production market has begun to resemble the American market with broadcasters reducing their production and buying content from independent producers more and more (with production companies even producing evening soap operas). Could Brazilian broadcasters essentially become distributors of content?

Fernando Meirelles: Given the size of the TV networks here, I think it’s going to be difficult to see them as just distributors, but something has changed which I can confirm by personal experience. O2 Filmes, the production company of which I’m a partner, has been doing projects for Globo which have been series based on our ideas for some time, like City of Men, Sound and Fury, and The Wise Ones, as well as others. Now there’s a new model that’s beginning to appear in which they develop projects in-house and hire independent producers to make them. O2 Filmes has already made three series for Globo using this system, the most recent being Vade Retro. The same happens with HBO and other channels which are their partners. This market is dynamic and it’s been reinventing itself, and maybe that’s why the rate of growth in the Brazilian audiovisual sector has had no parallel in other sectors of the economy.

The miniseries Happily Ever After? produced by O2 Filmes

OC: In its almost 26 years of operations, O2 has produced around 30 television series. More than half of them have aired in the last six years due to the Audiovisual Law which obliges cable TV channels to exhibit at least 3 hours of national content per week. What are you expecting in terms of the future of the production market over the next few years?

FM: These laws are right on target. The audiovisual sector isn’t like mining or agrobusiness in which profits are concentrated. Investing in audiovisual production spreads resources throughout an enormous chain of service sectors, led by the invention of technology and the demand for skilled labor. More importantly, production helps us examine and think about our country. I travel a lot, and I’m always surprised to see how television in many developed countries is so poor in terms of reflecting local culture. In contrast, when I turn the television on in Brazil I see myself there. Try watching TV in Italy or Germany to see what I mean. If Congress has the good sense to preserve the mandatory exhibition of national content, known as the Audiovisual Law, even if modified, this will become an even more promising area because the consumption of content has never been greater and the number of screens in Brazil and all over the world keeps on growing. For the health of the planet, consuming knowledge, education and content is much better than consuming goods. Information doesn’t use up natural resources and doesn’t overheat the earth. And that’s where our economy should be heading.

OC: In terms of technical quality, financing and production, what are the main differences between producing a film in partnership with a large studio and producing one with Netflix?

FM: The relationship with Netflix is similar to the relationship with other studios, but without the interference of the marketing department. They understand films. All of the contributions that they’ve provided in terms of the screenplay or the production have helped the project. What’s most impressed me about their model is how they decide what they’re going to produce and how they plan their releases. There they don’t base what they do on an executive’s intuition hoping that everything will turn out well. They don’t have to.

They have a precious tool which is information about their 100 million subscribers. Big Data. They know which films each person has seen, which films they’ve abandoned in the middle and during which scene, whether they’ve seen them on their cell phones, Ipad or TV and how many times. They know which trailers each customer has watched, the time between their watching two episodes of a series, where they fast-forwarded or paused, and how much later they watched the film again, and so on. With this data, algorithms not only say which kind of film should be produced for each type of customer, but also how to release them. This information is available on Google. For each project they make a dozen trailers and production posters and pieces which are custom delivered to each customer. If I like an actor and he’s in a film, I’ll receive a poster or a trailer with him, even if he isn’t the protagonist. For sure this film about the pope that I’m making and which I was invited to do, must have been born due to a demand among the 1.2 billion Catholics who are subscribers. Maybe many of them live in Latin America, and in fact I’ll be able to make part of the film in Spanish. Having a Latin American director could also be a choice of this algorithm, or am I just being a bit paranoid here?

I feel sorry for the studios that need to compete with this and still depend on their boss’s intuition. They haven’t got a chance.

From my point of view, I’m happy to know that there won’t be months of promotion for the film’s release and not knowing whether the film was a success or a failure. It’s a new world that I’m enjoying getting to know.

Fernando Meirelles (center) at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008

OC: At the Cannes Film Festival this year a manifesto was published by Michael Haneke, Wim Wenders and the Dardenne Brothers asking for the creation of quotas for European films in streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Could ideas like this could be a new solution for filmmakers (including Brazilian filmmakers) who wish to access a greater audience and earn larger profits?

FM: In Netflix, Hulu and Amazon there’s no concept of audience or profit; what matters is how many subscribers the film has helped sign up. No one cares how much the film made in the first weekend, and there’s no profit sharing because there’s no boxoffice. It’s a different kind of logic.

I think the claims of my colleagues/idols are very positive and just, but I believe that Netflix is already doing this. While I’m shooting this feature film in Argentina and Italy, I know that Paul Greengrass is beginning to shoot a feature film in Norway with a local cast. They definitely think globally.

OC: At the same festival, the director Almodovar criticized the distribution of Okja because the film wasn’t exhibited exclusively on cinema screens. Should films distributed just through Netflix participate in traditional festival competitions?

FM: Of course they should. A film doesn’t stop being a film because it’s exhibited on another screen. When Netflix released the sensational Beasts of No Nation, some theater chains in the United States boycotted the film because they thought that the competition of a simultaneous release was disloyal and indeed it was. But there’s nothing they can do about it. Thus Netflix decided to build their own screens and make deals with chains to create their own circuit, perhaps to make it clear that their products are indeed cinema products. This film that I’m shooting here in Argentina will be released on these screens a few days before they air on TV, but for sure the revenue that’s of interest is the money that comes from subscribers and not the boxoffice. The fact is that this business has completely changed. Cinema screens, even though they offer us the unique experience of sharing a type of collective dream, will increasingly become a residual showcase for the industry, except for film events. All over the world cinema attendance has fallen. In the United States and Canada, sales revenues rose a little in 2016, but the sales of tickets fell. Revenues have increased, because the tickets are now more expensive. We know that there’s this migration in terms of our audience, especially in terms of young people, from the big screen to small screens, and from dark screens to anywhere, even inside a bus. This crisis in terms of the Brazilian cinema audience isn’t just a phase we’re passing through; it’s a worldwide trend. The good news is that there have never been so many screens around the world and as much consumption of content, so the issue is whether we know how to respond to this inexorable change in terms of where and how to tell our stories. There are still people who make woodcuts, and this leads me to believe that there’ll always be a place for films, even films made from ‘film’ rather than ‘video’, which in fact is a new wave outside of Brazil. I hope I’m right, because a work that’s born from an insight of the human mind will always be a form of resistance to this world in which decisions are made based on algorithms, which is the world we live in today.

The trio from the new Netflix series: Anthony Hopkins, Fernando Meirelles and Jonathan Pryce

OC: Before Jonathan Pryce was selected for the role of Pope Francis in The Pope, many commented on how similar he looks (the actor played High Sparrow in Game of Thrones) to the highest authority in the Catholic church. Did you see any of his scenes in this series? Did you know of these comparisons between the appearance of these two men?

FM: Yes, the similarity between the two of them wasn’t a crucial condition, but it will help the audience see Cardinal Bergoglio being played by the actor. Pryce also has a lightness and a sense of humor that we also identify with Pope Francis. These things help.

OC: This is your second project with Anthony Hopkins. What led you to work with him again?

FM: I’m a fan. Hopkins has presence and authority, even though he’s a soft spoken man with few gestures. Pope Benedict XVI, who he interprets, is just like him. Hopkins like the Pope is cultured and profound. Of course he’s a great actor and could do any role, but like Pryce, these similarities help. He was interested in the film because it deals with issues of faith and our connection with realities that are beyond our daily world. He says that he’s had some memorable experiences in this area and that the subject is of great interest to him.

OC: The personalities of the two popes were the subject of attention in the world press mainly during the first few months of Pope Francis’s papacy in 2013. Does Anthony McCarten’s screenplay deal with the more reserved personality of Benedict XVI and the more open posture of the current pope?

FM: Yes, even though opposite personalities would be great to create drama, little by little I’ve come to perceive that their opposite personalities are not as different as I imagined at first. It’s more of a difference in style. As far as I can understand, Benedict XVI is more of a believer in a church that should point the way to the world, looking beyond the world, while Francis prefers a path which involves listening and exchanging ideas with the world. Beyond this, their faiths and doctrines appear to be the same. Pope Francis is one of the most interesting voices in the world today, and since he’s the head of one of the oldest and the largest institution on the planet, his voice is heard. It’s impressive how he manages to be convincing politically, making strong attacks on the economic system and the consumerism which is destroying the planet, but at the same time his discourse offers the ideas of forgiveness, of mercy and love of thy neighbor, values that are increasingly rare in this digital age of anonymous hate.