In a country where the minimum wage is $180 per month and the theatre costs $7, street DVD-R dealers (known here as the "camelos") are a cultural force. They're everywhere and there's something so exuberant about it; when an ad campaign against piracy launched, the cheesy ads cropped up at the beginnings of pirate DVDs within days. Just for kicks.
Entire musical genres like Tecnobrega depend on this network for distribution. Musicians make money--pretty good money--affiliating with party promoters who use the songs to market big street parties.* Banda Calypso grew out of the Tecnobrega scene into a national pop sensation; their recent release will be the first (I've heard) that they didn't themselves hand directly to a street CD duplicator as soon as it was done.
So if piracy could launch a band into superstardom, it was only a matter of time before it launched its first movie. Tropa de Elite was the movie.
A workprint leaked 8 weeks before the release from a subtitling shop that was preparing the English version (dude was later fired). The cameloes went to work, pushing the general theme "Get it now because the Policia Militar is gonna ban it!" There were some half-assed machinations to censor the movie and harass filmmakers, but even if it was only partly true, it was the perfect hook.
The strongest promotion was from word of mouth. It was like a nuclear reaction, everybody was talking about this movie. I was at a barbecue with a bunch of Policia Militar a few weeks before, and they'd all seen it, some dozens of times. If you saw the movie, you talked about it. The NY Times quotes an estimate that 11.5 million people saw the film before the release. One of the police at the barbecue told me "when this film comes out in theatres, nobody's going to watch it!".
"No way," I responded, "It is going to explode."
And it did. Broke records in the first weekend in Rio / Sao Paolo, and broke records nationwide.
We watched an interview with Padilha last week and somebody asked him about piracy. Without blinking, he fires back, "I think it's awful". Everybody in the room groans.
* Tecnobrega is like reggaeton with more of a 80s synth sound and Sun Ra's fascination with space (the DJ booths are pyrotechnic-laden spaceships that ascend on hydraulics at climactic moments during the night). Many of the songs are "homanagens" (literally, homages) about how awesome a certain promoter is. You get a lot of songs like a synthed-out version of "Crazy" by Gnarl's Barkley singing about how awesome the outfit Principe Negro ("Prince Black") is. Principe Naaaaaaaay-groo! You get the picture.