'Chico and Rita' not yet a box-office hit.
"Chico and Rita"--which has received rave reviews worldwide--is an animated cartoon film about the romantic ups and downs of a talented Cuban jazz pianist and a sultr y singer during the late 1940s who both trek to New York in search of fame and fortune.
The movie--made on a $13 million budget--is a collaboration between Spain's Fernando Trueba (whose film "Belle Epoque" won an Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1993); artist/designer Javier Mariscal, and the British animation company Magic Light Pictures.
It uses the romance between the two main characters to bring to life Cuba's vibrant musical scene during the pre-Castro days.
At that time, Cuban bands were often in demand at concert halls and VIP nightspots in New York, Las Vegas and elsewhere. Some Havana-bound flights from U.S. cities back in those days even included Cuban musicians who entertained their fellow passengers.
Financing came from U.K. sources and Spanish broadcasters TVE and TV3, while Grammy-winning Cuban musician Bebo Valdes--an innovator of his countr y's mambo sound--performed the film's soundtrack, which also incorporates the legendary Latin jazz music of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Chucho Valdes, Charlie Parker, Tito Puente, Chano Pozo and Ben Webster."
DESPITE PRIZES, FILM NOT A FINANCIAL SUCCESS
Even so, actual Cuban input for the movie was strictly musical.
"We did not receive any help from the Cuban government. I neither asked for it nor had any agreement with them," Trueba said. "What we received was much help and collaboration with Cuban musicians--both inside and outside the island."
It's no surprise that Trueba and Mariscal worked together in this film. Back in 2000, they also collaborated on the Latin jazz documentary "Calle 54" - which brought together some of the same musicians highlighted in this film too.
The marketing of "Chico and Rita" revived the popularity of pre-Castro era Cuban culture to a European and American audience enthralled with bands like Buena Vista Social Club and spin-off acts like Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer during the late 1990s.
They and the foreign tourists who visited Cuba in recent years helped fuel the film's success in the two countries, Spain and England, where it was originally released.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film's distribution in Spain by Walt Disney International resulted in more than $1 million of gross receipts at theaters in that country.
And even though it lost out to Johnny Depp on Academy Awards night, "Chico and Rita" still won a Goya award in Spain for best animated feature film.
Referring to the movie's Oscar nomination, Mariscal told Reuters he was "very surprised, because normally animation is an American market. It's very strange that Hollywood saw our film and liked it enough to nominate it."
Mariscal is right: "Chico and Rita" bumped off Holly- wood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Pixar Animation Studios, whose "The Adventures of Tintin" and "Cars 2" were expected to be nominated in that Oscar category.
"Chico and Rita won prizes internationally, but is not a success from an economic point of view," says Trueba. "It's more of an 'art film'. Film animation for adults is something new, risky enough, unlike children's animation, which is a very safe market, since parents are always looking for films to take their kids to."
One benefit of the movie's Oscar nomination is its expanding audience in the U.S. market. Dave Jesteadt, director of the film's U.S. distributor, GKIDS/LumaFilms, told Cuba-News recently that "Chico and Rita" on the verge of going beyond the art-house crowd in New York and Los Angeles.
"We are at around $150,000 in U.S. box-office revenues, but that is only after two weeks of release and in a small number of theaters," he notes.
"It's continuing to open over the next few months, so this is just the beginning. The Oscar nomination definitely boosted interest in theaters and audiences, and sent the film from 10 or so theaters to over 100 [in the United States], and possibly many more."
Like Buena Vista Social Club more than a decade ago, "Chico and Rita" has proven once again that among Cuba's most enduring exports is its music and culture. _