Local industry falters despite H'wood help

MEXICO CITY — Hollywood has spent the last year scouring Mexico for a sure thing. Now major shingles are making their first bets on a crop of Mexican films and studio picks are looking more like “Ladies’ Night” — the little-acclaimed yet slickly packaged No. 1 local earner in 2004 by scribe Issa Lopez — and less like “Amores Perros” — a film everyone at first turned down but won international acclaim as well as B.O. magic.

Warner begins shooting the Lopez-penned “Radicales Libres” in October. She is making her directorial debut with the pic, about four young adults adrift in Mexico City. Warner is also looking to co-produce with Lemon Films “Sultanes del Sur,” a bank heist helmed by Alejandro Lozano and scripted by Tony Dalton, the team behind “Matando Cabos,” the second-biggest local hit in 2004.

Disney’s Miravista is taking a bigger risk in funding the first feature of helmer Mario Munoz, thriller “Venganza en el Valle de las Munecas” (Revenge in the Valley of the Dolls).

But not even these majors are willing to pony up all the cash. Government film fund Imcine is contributing to both “Radicales Libres” and “Venganza.”

After two years of searching, Columbia TriStar has four scripts in the pipeline. Another Lopez script is waiting for a final nod from studio execs.

There hasn’t been a runaway box office hit since “Y tu mama tambien.” And a string of flops, like Alfonso Arau’s big-budget bust “Zapata” in 2004, have left Mexican moviegoers suspicious of the quality of homegrown movies and frightened investors.

This year the government film institute Imcine says more than 40 films will be shot compared to only a handful back in 2000. But even if that many are lensed, far fewer will be seen. After 38 films were shot in 2004, only a dozen have made it to the screens so far this year, and together they earned only 3.3% of the box office.

The majors’ caution over whether to throw down the average $1.5 million for a Mexican film has other producers wondering if they are even serious about producing in Mexico.

Richard Ham, one of the founders of Decine, which has launched four pics without a commercial success yet, opines that the majors’ production plans are little more than a PR exercise to distract from the ongoing desolation of the local pic scene.

Decine’s “Al otro Lado” tried for an ambitious summer launch, and despite coming in fourth at the B.O. its opening weekend, pic had half of its prints wiped off the screens two weeks later with the simultaneous arrival of “Batman Begins” and “Madagascar” on 650 prints each. That blockbuster deluge ate up more than 40% of Mexico’s screens.

Don’t look to the government to stop the majors anytime soon. In lawless Mexico, a nominal rule that requires 10% of screens be filled with local productions exists only on the books. Two years ago President Vicente Fox’s government nearly cut funding programs before a local and international outcry changed its mind.

Despite a few new small funds, there are still no real incentives to spark local production. Despite approval last year by Congress, the government has yet to issue the operating regulations for a tax incentive to draw Mexico’s industrial wealth into filmmaking. With presidential elections next summer, there is little chance parties will be paying attention to filmmakers.

Mexican filmmakers are unanimous in stating that an industry as such just doesn’t exist. Only a small pool of accomplished scriptwriters and directors are producing quality work.

“It is not that there is a great lack of talent; there just haven’t been enough opportunities for people to develop their careers,” said Juan Tovar, development head at Alfonso Cuaron’s Esperanto. “When you make two to five movies a year for a couple decades, this is inevitable.”

Esperanto has yet to commit to any homegrown projects, but other indies are forging ahead, hoping to at least break even.

“Amores Perros” and “21 Grams” scribe Guillermo Arriaga is prepping his first project as producer, an adaptation of his novel “El Bufalo de la noche.” Arriaga has tapped Venezuelan director Jorge Hernandez, whom Arriaga praised as the brightest star to recently come out of the Lodz film school.

Decine is taking the strategy to fund films that have hopes of traveling, Ham said, such as “I Love Miami,” a comedy about a boat accident that throws a bewildered Castro on Florida’s coast.

Altavista has four upcoming projects, including “Un Hombre Ejemplar,” helmed by Luis Estrada (La Ley de Herodes), and Daniel Gruener’s dark comedy “Morirse en Domingo,” scripted by Antonio Armonia.

Luis Mandoki’s $5.6 million “Voces Inocentes” took in only $5 million in Mexico. Mandoki’s ambitious project with Altavista about the drug war, “Amapola,” has been put on ice after Arenas Entertainment pulled $3 million in funding from the project.

Lemon Films’ “Kilometer 31″ will be released in December. Horror film is the first shot in nearly a decade, and its psychological bent promises a good showing in Mexico, where films like “The Grudge” have scored big.

Meanwhile, expectations are high for new projects in the works by “Battle in Heaven” helmer Carlos Reygadas’ Mantarraya Producciones and Fernando Eimbcke (“Duck Season”).

A wave of independent digital films is also building up, led by young auteurs in Guadalajara and Monterrey. Tovar said there is nothing solid yet, “but just give them time.”

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