MEXICO CITY — The beginnings of economic renewal and a host of new multiplex screens spelled good news at the Mexican box office last year, with Motion Picture Assn. members’ rentals up 17% in dollar terms over 1995.

But the recovery has barely been felt by local producers, with just 17 features starting production. That’s better than the previous year’s historic low of 13, but still minuscule compared with the annual average of 90 in the 1980s.

MPA member billings were $52.6 million (including $5 million in UIP pickups), up from $45 million in 1995.

From this total, Daily Variety estimates that last year’s B.O. grew to around $145 million, factoring in all indie product, while attendance grew 19% to 81 million.

Top of the distributors’ league was Columbia TriStar/Buena Vista Intl., with a 38% MPA share. The joint venture distribbery beat out UIP, at 35%, for the first time in six years, thanks to strong B.O. from “Toy Story,” “Jumanji,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Rock” and “Striptease,” each placing among the year’s top eight pics.

Lead title for the year was far and away “Independence Day,” which grossed $10.5 million, while second-place “Twister” grossed $6.9 million.

Biz is still far behind the pre-devaluation level of 1994, when MPA rentals reached $68 million. But distribs agree that 1997 should see another healthy climb, thanks to the improving economy and continued expansion by domes-tic exhibitors Ramirez and Cinemex and foreign players Cinemark, United Artists and CinemaStar.

Recovery is taking longer to trickle down to the domestic industry. While last year’s tally of startups showed improvement, the figure includes six co-productions — chiefly relying on overseas coin — against one in 1995.

Worse, Mexican pics made little impression at the box office. Only Jose Luis Garcia Agraz’s “Salon Mexico” placed in Mexico City’s top 50, against four national titles in 1995.

Prospects for 1997 are slightly rosier. Mexico’s leading producer, Televisa subsidiary Televicine, is talking about a slate of eight pics, while the government has nearly doubled the budget for film institute Imcine.

And several new players are entering the industry this year. Video retailer-distributor VideoVisa recently commit-ted to co-producing with Alameda Films the next pic from Carlos Carrera (“No Return Address”) and is seeking other projects. Paybox Multivision is planning a slate of low-budget titles for which it is seeking co-production partners.

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