As peso drops, so does prod’n

Mexico’s depressed film industry was shaping up for an era of renewed vigor and export-conscious filmmaking when December’s peso devaluation hit. Now 1995 looks to be a year of thin production – but that could be a blessing in disguise, as diminished resources are focused on truly viable projects.

Following the December exchange rate drop, economic problems have proved more serious than expected. Jorge Alberto Lozoya, head of national film institute IMCINE, announced March 8 that the org would support just five films this year.

The year looks bleak for producers and directors who’ve been waiting for the industry revival – and greater access to credit – that the internationally acclaimed “Like Water for Chocolate” was supposed to herald.

But there have been signs of an imminent upturn. Last year, Dallas-based Cinemark opened four top-notch multiplexes, and several other plex-builders, including United Artists, Hoyts, and new Mexican player Cinemex (with backing from J.P. Morgan & Co.) signed leases and began to build.

Meanwhile, leading domestic exhib Ramirez converted dozens of old theaters into four-, five- and six-plexes. Moreover, for the first time in recent memory, more screens opened up than closed down, and Mexican distribs looked forward to relief from a three-year screen squeeze.

At the box office returns were poor. Only one domestic movie placed in the Mexico City Top 50, the virtually unexportable “La Risa en Vacaciones 4.” This was the latest hit in a farce franchise from Televicine, the film production arm of TV giant Televisa, which released about 30 pixin’ 94.

For the second year running, Televicine looks set to dominate national film production. But the company’s stated goal of self-reformation is proving slow to accomplish.

On the one hand, topper Jean Pierre Leleu, appointed a year ago, is clear about his goals. He acknowledges the public has largely turned against Mexican movies, most of which – long protected by guaranteed distribution – have in the past been cheap and shoddy.

Leleu has thus green-lighted half a dozen films with relatively high budgets, aiming to recover lost domestic terrain and break into foreign markets. His biggest bet is on “Salon Mexico,” Televicine’s first million-dollar film, which he hopes to premiere at Cannes. Helmed by Jose Luis Gracia Agraz, pic is a remake of an Emilio Fernandez classic, which uses a period dance hall as a setting for crimes of passion.

On the other hand, Leleu has to deal with a backlog of 20 pix made on the cheap. Televicine sources say these pix will mostly be released this year. This could be a bad move if the company wants to revamp its reputation and encourage exhibs to afford the newer projects better screens.

An industry insider says Leleu’s goal of improving quality is hindered by senior Televisa execs, who like to put their protegees – often singers or telenovela actresses – in Televicine movies. As recently as November, shooting began on yet another vanity project, this one starring Paulina Rubio, a singer of dubious acting ability. It remains to be seen if Leleu has the political capital to steer a clear course.

IMCINE, meanwhile, has nothing yet in the works. The change of institute administration that typically accompanies a new presidential term (President Zedillo took office in December) always causes a hiatus.

But hopes are high for some past IMCINE projects, including “Fresa y Chocolate” (Strawberry and Chocolate), co-directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Taibo, a co-production with Cuba that is enjoying U.S. theatrical release.

Other IMCINE-supported pix with promise are “Dos Crimenes” (Two Crimes), a black comedy from freshman helmer Roberto Sneider, which picked up prizes for actors Damian Alcazar and Dolores Heredia at the Cartagena fest mid-March. And Jorge Fons’ “El Callejon de los Milagros,” based on the Naguib Mahfouz novel “Midaq Alley” and starring Salma Hayek, generated a buzz in Berlin, where it garnered a special mention from the jury.

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