Mexican biz bulks up

'Crimen' success still pumping local industry

Hollywood is bent on rescuing Mexican cinema. Three studios have opened production shingles in Mexico, and others may follow.

Local distribs and post houses are boarding pics as well, hoping to tap into young Mexican auds that have driven the success of recent pics like “Ladies’ Night,” “Matando Cabos” and “Nicotina.”

None, however, has beaten the all-time record set by controversial priest drama “El crimen del padre Amaro,” which grossed $26 million worldwide, more than half of that in Mexico. “Crimen’s” phenomenal success spurred Columbia TriStar to bow its shingle two years ago, tapping former Nuvision exec Gabriel Ripstein to head it.

In March, Disney’s Latino label Miravista lured Argos Cine chief Inna Payan to lead its new Mexican outpost, while Warner Bros. hired indie producer Leonardo Zimbron to oversee the new Warner Bros. Pictures Mexico.

While attending a two-day pitching session at the Guadalajara Film Fest last week, Paramount Home Entertainment Mexico’s Raul Bravo revealed the company also is seeking projects to co-produce. Twentieth Century Fox Mexico, so far, has limited itself to releasing pics. Its recent pickup, Luis Mandoki’s “Voces Inocentes,” held steady at No. 3 for a month.

The most hotly pursued project at the pitches was, not coincidentally, the most economical to produce: dark comedy “Cinco dias sin Nora,” based on the real-life story of scribe-helmer Mariana Chenillo’s grandmother.

“Mexican films have legs,” says Philip Alexander, head of Columbia TriStar/BVI’s joint venture in Mexico. “Their grosses tend to drop only 20% in their second and third week.”

According to Victor Ugalde, head of state-backed film fund Fidecine, Mexican pics averaged admissions of 835,000 each last year, more than double the standard 400,000 tickets per local film in the past.

But working for studio affiliates also means more red tape. Ripstein and his counterparts must clear projects with their respective head offices before they can start principal photography.

Columbia Pictures Prods. Mexico has yet to start production on any project, for example. It put what it thought would be its maiden pic in turnaround when it realized it would be too expensive.

“We hope not to exceed budgets of $2 million and at least achieve breakeven in Mexico,” Ripstein says.

Shingle has four pics in development, three of them romantic comedies, a popular genre with Mexican auds. The most sought-after writer in town, “Ladies’ Night” scribe Issa Lopez, is penning two of them.

Warner Bros. Mexico’s first pic, the $1.7 million romantic comedy “Radicales libres” (Free Radicals), is Lopez’s directorial debut. But Zimbron is still waiting for the final greenlight from Burbank.

Payan, who continues to oversee post-production on Argos Cine’s much-anticipated thriller “El Marlboro y el cucu” as a concession to her former employer, is hoping to produce at least one pic for Miravista this year and has several other pics in the pipeline.

In contrast, more agile indies, such as top distrib Gussi Films, have revved up their new production arms with less fuss. Gussi kickstarts with “Motocross,” a high-octane road movie that starts shooting next week.

Upstart distrib Decine, founded by two former marketing execs of studio affiliates, Richard Ham and Nicolas Rubio, has boarded various projects at both script and post stages. It hopes to co-produce the next pic by Issa Lopez. “We went for ‘Radicales libres,’ but Warner outbid us,” Ham explains.

More facilities, such as Cinecolor, are providing post-production or special-effects services in exchange for a producer’s credit and a percentage of box office revenues. Fledgling f/x house Metacube is co-producing two pics and plans to produce “Un dia de muertos,” a 3-D animated pic helmed by Metacube chief Carlos Gutierrez.

Prospects for a recharged film industry are looking up, with projects in development at Canana Films, the new shingle launched by thesps Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Leon; Fernando and Billy Rovzar’s Lemon Films (“Matando Cabos”); and Christian Valdelievre’s Lulu Prods. (“Temporada de patos”).

With Argentina and Brazil already experiencing a production glut, Mexico could also find itself with a bigger supply of product. “We expect 40 to 45 films to be made in 2005, compared to 36 last year,” Ugalde says.

Because of studio and indie distrib backing, these pics will have a better chance at getting released. After all, only 18 out of 36 productions hit the bigscreen last year.

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