Mexican business on notice

Breakout directors stump for local support

MEXICO CITY — The award’s season run of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” has once again piqued wider interest in Mexican cinema.

That interest has reoccurred every five or six years, since “Like Water for Chocolate” hit big in 1993. It peaked again after Inarritu’s “Amores perros” and Cuaron’s “Y tu mama tambien,” mutating into a wider acquisition craze in Hollywood for Latin American cinema.

During these same past two decades, the Mexican industry has been hovering on the brink of extinction. Inarritu describes the industry as “bipolar.”

“From the outside, it looks really good; there is this amazing generation. But from the inside, it is the opposite,” Inarritu says.

“Things are so bad and there are so many things that have to be done.”

Del Toro is just as grim in his assessment. “It’s a terrible coincidence that there is such visibility for a portion of film storytellers and film craftsmen while at the same time the Mexican industry itself has been in dire straits for decades and remains on the verge of disappearing.”

Del Toro hopes the Oscar recognition for himself and his fellow Mexicans will help filmmakers back home lobby the government to approve reforms that could help strengthen the local industry.

“This convergence of Mexican talent, not just writers and directors, but across the board, sound designers, set designers, cinematographers, every award is giving us ammo to go to the federal government and demand that action is taken to ensure the survival of the Mexican film industry,” del Toro says.

In the ’90s, when del Toro and Cuaron were building their careers at home and embarking on their first Hollywood projects, Mexico’s industry was practically non-existent. Only a handful of films

were being made every year.

“There were many things that went wrong within the industry; there was a thematic decadence, an absolute shutdown of unions to new members,” says del Toro. “It created a crisis in cinema and that led to the loss of an audience.”

But del Toro says the government also failed to protect the Mexican industry. Under NAFTA, the audiovisual industry was treated like any other as the barriers to free trade went down.

“With NAFTA, the Mexican industry was left in the cold to just be openly ravaged,” del Toro says.

Mexico has no exhibition quotas for national films, no kickbacks from the television industry like Europeans enjoy. The major distribs went to the Supreme Court in 2003 to overturn a 10¢ B.O. tax to fund local production, and based on NAFTA provisions, they prevailed.

“The biggest obstacles that Mexican cinema has are internal,” del Toro says. “There are a persistent number of critics that would love for Mexican cinema to die, just to prove them right — there is a side of the cultural establishment that finds it not as reputable or posh as European cinema, and there is a side of distribution and exhibition that would love for it to be quiet forever.”

Mexican films took in 4.7% of the 2006 local B.O. (compared with 11% in Brazil and 60% in South Korea, economies with roughly the same GDP as Mexico). And 2006 was a boom year compared with a decade ago. However, much of the B.O. surge was due to one film, toon “Una pelicula de huevos.” Other films averaged takes of $500,000.

While production in Mexico has picked up from the handful of films being produced per year in the ’90s, distribution remains a problem for many films that do get made. Some 65 films were produced in 2006, according to the government, but only 28 saw theatrical distribution.

“Things are getting better, but distributors are not getting braver when the right time comes,” del Toro says.

He points to the 2006 film “El violin,” the tyro effort from Francisco Vargas that went to Cannes but has yet to find domestic distribution. “‘El violin’ is definitely a movie that would find an audience, and I really find it obscene that it isn’t being distributed.”

Chances of government reforms to aid the industry are slim. Former President Vicente Fox in 2003 proposed selling off the national film school and Estudios Churabusco, the nation’s principal studio lot, as well as cutting the two government film funds that provide approximately $14 million in funding per year. And the current conservative, pro-market administration of Felipe Calderon is also unlikely to sponsor any protectionist reforms or pay any special heed to the film industry.

The trio of filmmakers have long criticized the small film establishment that exists of dominating resources that could be used for young filmmakers.

Inarritu criticizes the hogging of limited government film funds by mature directors who continue to receive federal funding despite the fact their films have almost no impact at the B.O.

“Why does the government continue to fund the careers of filmmakers who have failed to find their own audiences?” Inarritu asks.

Adds del Toro: “We need to generate new voices; that is another urgency in the state of our cinema. The future of Mexican cinema is not about Alejandro, Alfonso or I, or (Arturo) Ripstein or (Felipe) Cazals. It’s about the guys that are yet to come out.”

Mexico’s film industry is facing a make-or-break year in 2007. A new tax incentive designed to draw private investment into film production is finally gaining traction, and the measure has raised the hopes that the industry could become self-sufficient.

“This is going to allow some 20 or 30 more films to be made this year,” Inarritu says. “You can’t really call what exists in Mexico a film industry, because you can’t make your living working only in film. You have to do TV or commercials. But with the new tax incentive, filmmakers have a new chance, and in five years, I think we could see directors, writers and talent making their living from film.”

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