Production and B.O. boosts catch US attention

Paramount’s newly named Worldwide Acquisitions Group prexy, Mineko Mori, points to an improving Mexican market, which now ranks fifth in the world among filmgoers and is seeing a spike in U.S. studio interest in both local distribution and production. “It looks like the trend is upward,” Mori says. “People talk about (economic) crisis, but it’s cheaper to go to the movies than on a trip.”

Numbers for 2008 from Mexico’s national film chamber Canacine reflect this trend. Canacine topper Alejandro Ramirez, who is also CEO of exhib Cinepolis, says movie attendance in Mexico has tended to track alongside that of the United States, but Mexico saw a 2.6% rise in theatergoers to 182 million tickets, vs. a 3.7% drop in U.S. auds last year.

Domestic box office reached a record $642 million. While it’s a modest increase from 2007’s $630 million, the overall rise in terms of local currency was 5.7%. (The value of the peso dropped by more than 20% in the last three months of the year.)

And Mexican productions managed to garner 9% of the total B.O. — a 7% increase in market share over 2007 — with 45 of the 318 films released made locally. Much of this boost can be linked to Mexico’s Article 226 fiscal stimulus program that started in 2006. It provided funding to 57 of the 70 local films produced last year.

U.S. studio participation at the distribution level clearly had an effect. The top six Mexican films were distributed by Universal, Fox, Warner Bros., Disney and Sony, selling a total of more than 11.4 million tickets.

U and Fox did particularly well with the top three films: U’s “Rudo y Cursi” and Fox’s “La misma luna” and “Arrancame la vida” (Tear This Heart Out), respectively, took the Nos. 3, 7 and 8 spots for the top-grossing Mexican films of all time.

But distribution is only the beginning, as co-productions, first-look deals and fully studio-funded local pics begin to flourish.

Par’s first Mexican pickup — Argos Cine’s border drama “El traspatio” (The Backyard) — was recently released, and Mori says the major will announce a local co-production this year.

“With so much happening, we have to choose that one project we want to start off on and the co-producers we want to work with,” she says. “With more activity, it makes sense.”

Mori’s take on Mexican film is echoed by many studio execs, and it’s good news for local shingles.

“I think it’s a positive trend that will stimulate local production,” Argos Cine prexy Tania Zarak says. “The Mexican industry clearly has the resources for it.”

Headed to the Guadalajara fest with six pictures, Canana Films is perhaps Mexico’s busiest shingle at the moment and has placed itself at the center of the trend. Founded by Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and producer Pablo Cruz, Canana will bow the first pic from its deal with U’s Focus Features, Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin nombre.” The project is emblematic of the kinds of ties being developed between Hollywood and Mexico.

Both Disney’s Latin American production arm Miravista and Sony’s Columbia Pictures Mexico have been building up local production for some years.

After 2006 co-production “Cansada de besar sapos” (Tired of Kissing Frogs) from helmer Jorge Colon, Disney is teaming up with Juan E. Garcia of Run Jorge Run to make dramedy “Sin ella.”

Sony is set to fully fund director Issa Lopez’s naughty-boys-get-caught pic “Amigos imaginarios,” following the box office success of her last film, “Casi Divas,” and her script for “Ninas mal” (Charm School) — both of which had Sony backing.

And, among its upcoming co-productions, Warner Bros. will back producer Walter Navas’ next project, “Caida libre,” (Free Fall) along with Mexican star Barbara Mori’s company.

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