Trunks of palm trees in the central square of Uruguay’s capital have been covered in neon-green cloth so that special effects can be added to a science-fiction series starring Keanu Reeves. At the racecourse across town, Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games stadium has been recreated for a Chilean television drama.
The scenes are part of Uruguay’s effort to become an audiovisual hub in Latin America by tempting foreign production companies with an increasing amount of tax credits for shooting on location.
Tax breaks introduced in 2019 have helped to lure producers, offering projects worth between $300,000 and $4mn a rebate of up to 25 per cent, capped at $700,000 per production, with a sliding scale for films with larger budgets.
This year the government is expected to set aside $12mn for the rebate, up from $4mn earmarked in 2019. During the pandemic, Uruguay offered production teams daily Covid-19 tests and had flexible entry requirements, capturing demand when many destinations were closed to filmmakers.
Time dedicated to shooting films and television series has more than tripled over the past three years, from around 24 weeks in 2019 to 80 last year, according to data compiled by Musitelli Film and Digital, a Uruguayan firm that rents broadcasting equipment. A single production can take anywhere from four to 16 weeks to film. Before 2019, the number of weeks dedicated to filming in Uruguay rarely surpassed 20 on average.
“This is a big moment for us,” Ernesto Musitelli, the company’s founder, said from one of two film studios he owns in the capital Montevideo. “Importantly the trend is continuing in 2023, with projects already in the pipeline.”
Musitelli, 51, began renting cameras in the late 1990s, mainly to regional advertising agencies and aspiring Uruguayan filmmakers. Today his parent company, Reducto, offers studio and post-production services, and his clients include Amazon Prime, Disney, HBO and Netflix.
Fundamental to the sector’s recent growth is the flexible and “open attitude” of the Uruguayan government, Musitelli said, when international streaming platforms are looking for more attractive and more affordable locations.
To help ease state bureaucracy over issues such as filming permits and hiring local talent, the government this month also established a new audiovisual agency, bringing different bodies and the private sector together under one umbrella.
“Our vision as a government was to adapt quickly and respond to demand for something entirely new,” said Mariana Wainstein, Uruguay’s national director of culture who is supervising the establishment of the new Cinema and Audiovisual Agency (ACAU). “There’s now a need for one coherent point of contact for those interested in coming to Uruguay and those working locally. This agency gives us stability.”
The launch of the audiovisual agency is part of a broader business strategy in Uruguay, whose free trade zones, research institutes, well-educated population and reputation for political and macroeconomic stability have boosted its local tech sector. Microsoft last year selected Montevideo for an innovation hub, alongside Munich and Shanghai.
Geography is also playing its part. Uruguay’s varied landscapes — including gaucho farms and European-style boulevards — plus shorter distances between sets have encouraged big-name producers to consider the nation as a location over neighbouring Argentina or Brazil.
Across the river in Buenos Aires the environment is more unpredictable, industry leaders said, with fluctuating costs due to spiralling inflation — of 95 per cent in 2022 — which has inevitably been a boon to Uruguay’s nascent industry. Argentine production companies have also heavily criticised the government for failing to support the industry and attract big foreign shoots.
Local production companies in Uruguay hope that the government agency can act as an agile department to keep up with the changing business environment and help promote the country abroad so it can attract projects worth upwards of $8mn. “We’ve reached a fork in the road, either we jump or stay where we’re sitting,” said Musitelli.
The productions that filmed in Uruguay in 2022 were primarily smaller ones, with budgets of about $1mn, according to research by Musitelli Film and Digital. But it is attracting larger projects now — Santiago López at Cimarron Cine, who said he “never thought” he could take on multimillion- dollar budgets, co-produced several projects beyond $8mn last year.
Montevideo was also chosen as a location for Society of the Snow, one of the most anticipated Spanish language films of 2023 due to be released by Netflix later this year, which documents a 1972 Andes plane crash disaster.
Fiona Pittaluga, who runs an annual film festival in Uruguay, hopes the agency can help strengthen the exhibition spaces available in the country and the distribution of locally made films. “Our objective has always been to put Uruguay on the map through cinema,” said Pittaluga, director of the José Ignácio International Film Festival. Each January projection screens are set up in this remote fishing village overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with sand dunes stretching along the coast for miles.
Festival guests this year included Efe Cakarel, founder of Mubi, a streaming service headquartered in the UK and the president of New York Film Academy.
“Big changes are afoot at an institutional level in Uruguay,” Pittaluga said. “The industry feels more alive than ever.”