It’s the best of times and worst of times

23 Mexican films to screen at Cannes

No year in memory has experienced such a Mexican presence in Cannes — a full 23 films, including nine features, two documentaries and 12 shorts, including its first film to compete for the Palme d’Or in six years.

The Mexican Film Institute (Imcine) has been holding jubilant press conferences on almost a daily basis. Mexico’s Culture Ministry has been handing out achievement awards to local heroes. And the national cinema is running a several-week long “Panorama of Mexican Film,” synchronized with Cannes, to celebrate an apparent golden moment in the nation’s film industry.

But dig a bit deeper and the shiny stuff starts to look a bit more like pyrite.

Mexican film, despite the self-congratulation, is not quite living up to the hype. Local films have struggled at the box office, with a mere 18 bows accounting for just 5% of total ticket sales here in 2004. And when it comes to exports, Mexico hasn’t really had a true overseas hit since 2001’s “Y tu mama tambien.”

And despite Mexico’s conspicuous presence in Cannes, it offers only a handful of films up for bid in the Market section. Several of Mexico’s largest production companies aren’t even going, while others — like Altavista, which produced “Amores perros” and is one of Mexico’s most prolific prodcos — are putting only one or two films on the block.

“The problem in Mexico is sales and promotions,” says Altavista topper Monica Lozano, who relies on U.S.-based representation to sell her films, including her latest, most ambitious project, “Voces Inocentes” (Innocent Voices), which didn’t make its money back in Mexican cinemas and desperately needs big international pickups.

Lozano says local sales companies, as well as Imcine, which traditionally reps the bulk of Mexican films overseas, have done a poor job getting out the word on Mexican film — a mortal sin in a country where it’s nearly impossible to recoup production costs with domestic box office alone.

Imcine in particular, Lozano says, spends nearly all its budget on getting films shot and edited, leaving scant Pesos for actually promoting them to foreign buyers. “We should work to create some kind of national representation for all of Mexico to improve how we sell what we make,” Lozano says.

For its part, Imcine — which has a roughly $20 million budget to

spend on co-production, promotions and sales — says producers are increasingly expressing frustration with their sales efforts, and feel their films have a better chance with independent reps. “In the past, films we’ve co-produced have looked to us to do their sales,” says Alfredo del Valle, Imcine spokesman. “But increasingly they’re trying to take care of that themselves.”

Among those still trying to figure out the sales game is Televisa Cine, the film production arm of Mexican broadcaster Televisa, producer of last year’s top Mexican moneymaker, “Un dia sin Mexicanos” (A Day Without a Mexican). “We used to use Televisa’s own sales staff. Then we had a kind of deal with Imcine and then an alliance with different Mexican producers,” says Eckehardt Von Damm, head of Televisa Cine. “Now we have a pair of American reps.”

Some producers believe a massive reworking of heavily funded Imcine, such as sharply reducing the number of films it finances and instead dedicating much of that money to promotion and sales, is this country’s best chance.

Others believe co-production with foreign countries with more experience in sales is the way to go. One such film, last year’s “Conejo en la luna” (Rabbit in the Moon), was the fruit of the first-ever c-production between Mexican and Brit outfits. The result: “Conejo” is bowing this month in London, a rare place for a Mexican film to hang its hat.

And that kind of exposure, says Altavista’s Lozano, is the most important thing of all. “We must look for any avenues that will allow Mexican cinema to travel and get seen.”