Commercial titles juice local wickets

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s small, struggling film industry previously managed to produce one big local hit a year — if it was lucky. This year, it already has clocked three.

Local pics produced by market-savvy indie Lemon Films and the first crop of local films made by the major Hollywood studios are forging local records at the box office. So far this year, Mexican B.O. is up 20% year on year, driven in part by the performance of the three local pics.

On the top of the heap is horror pic “Km 31,” still in theaters and on track to earn more than $11 million. Pic will wind up as one of the top all-time horror films, from any country, in Mexico, and probably finish as the No. 3 all-time local B.O. earner behind last year’s toon “Una pelicula de huevos” and “El Crimen del Padre Amaro.” It may even best “Huevos.”

“Km 31″ is the sophomore effort from producers Billy and Fernando Rovsar, following the Tarantino-esque “Matando Cabos,” the No. 2 local B.O. earner in 2004.

A co-production with Spanish horror vets Filmax, the $3 million CGI-packed ghost story helmed by tyro Mexican director Rigoberto Castaneda has production values to match much more costly horror pics.

The first Mexican horror film in a decade, “Km 31″ seals Lemon Films’ position as the most successful new independent producers in Mexico in the last few years.

Meanwhile, the freshman efforts from local production offices established by the majors are proving the studios can stamp out successful product within Mexico.

“Cansada de besar sapos,” released by Buena Vista Columbia in December, took in nearly $6.8 million, and Columbia has just released “Las Ninas Mal,” which earned $1.6 million its opening weekend and may best “Sapos’ ” perf.

Both “Sapos” and “Ninas” are romantic comedies. “Sapos,” a first feature from commercial director Jorge Colon, follows a late-twentysomething graphic designer who catches her boyfriend cheating, forswears love and decides to embrace casual affairs — stumbling across her true love in the process.

“Ninas” skews toward teens, and is about the rebellious daughter of a presidential hopeful sent off to finishing school so as not to scandalize her father’s campaign.

All three films are formulaic fare that were carefully constructed attempts at making Hollywood-style commercial hits tailored for Mexico.

Until this run, making money with a local pic in Mexico has been a potshot.

Last year, Mexican films took less than 5% of the B.O. — and that was a comparatively good year.

“This is the evolution of the market. Everything has been tried, and now we are seeing what makes money,” says Philip Alexander, general manager of Buena Vista Columbia TriStar Mexico.

Part of the problem has been the inconsistency of locally produced product: A lot of Mexican films just don’t work very well. That has eroded Mexicans’ faith in the quality of their own cinema. Another problem has been that much of Mexico’s local cinema is too highbrow and arty to catch on with mass auds here, where family movies hold top B.O. spots.

“If auds start to believe again in the Mexican industry, then you can start taking more risks,” says Alexander. “We still have a long way to go.”

ColumbiaTriStar Mexico was the first major to open production offices in Mexico back in 2003. It was followed by Warner and Disney Latin American arm Buena Vista, which is part of a joint distribution deal in Mexico with Columbia.

Alexander pushed studios to get into local production with the pitch that high-concept commercial films created by Hollywood for Mexico and aimed at the broadest possible market segment could net significant auds. As long as budgets were kept below $2 million, profits were assured.

Of course, part of the trick hasn’t been so much that the films are much better than other Mexican efforts, but that they were products aimed at the right aud, slickly packaged and backed by Hollywood-scale marketing campaigns. Most Mexican indies don’t have the resources for such launches and often seem to lack savvy to push products to the right niche.

“Km 31″ was backed by an equally large-scale marketing push by Videocine, with heavy play for its spots on parent Televisa.

The boom may continue this year.

Warner’s planned summer release of its co-production with Lemon, heist-thriller “Sultanes del Sur,” in August, is also likely to score big. Fox’s upcoming release of “The Night Buffalo,” the freshman effort of scribe Guillermo Arriaga as a producer, which stars Diego Luna, and a first feature from respected commercial director Simon Bross, “Malos Habitos,” also could do well at the B.O. Lemon also has another thriller, “Los Justos,” in the same vein as “The Da Vinci Code,” which is heading for a fall release.

If they all pan out, the box office take of local films this year could double.

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