Studio goliaths crowd out indie distribs

· L’Equipier (Cinemas Nueva Era)
· The Door in the Floor (Gussi)
· Mil nubes de paz (Alfhaville Cinema)
· Ver, oir y callar (Decine)
· Yo puta (Quality Films)
2004 STATS
Top film: Shrek 2 (UIP, $28.5 million)
Top indie film: A Day Without a Mexican (Videocine, $5.8 million)
Total B.O.: $486 million
Releases: 281
Screens: 2,800

MEXICO CITY — While Mexico’s box office picture keeps getting better, it’s proving a headache for the nation’s indie distribs.

With a whopping 20% surge in receipts last year to nearly a half-billion dollars, it would seem like a great time to be in the Mexican distribution biz but nearly the entire ticket harvest has gone to the majors’ coffers.

Simply put, with Hollywood bowing pics with as many as 800 prints at a time — a huge number for Mexico — independent distributors have serious problems finding screens to put their product on, says Leopoldo Jimenez, general director of Cinemas Nueva Era.

His company has been distribbing a dozen, mostly European, titles a year for a decade. But now it’s boosting that number to 20, in order to maximize the limited screen space and time available.

“It’s very difficult to get a film into a second week of distribution,” Jimenez notes.

One result of this squeeze is a fast-growing market. Mexico’s top two exhibs, Cinepolis and Cinemex, have responded by building screens at a fast pace but despite the growth, less than 10% of box office receipts go to pics.

Mexico’s largest indie distrib, Gussi Films, averaging 40 releases a year and a lineup heavy on New Line and Focus Features product, has approached the problem with a two-fold solution: It increasingly relies on video sales. Alejandro Lebrija, head of acquisitions, says home entertainment is highly profitable despite Mexico’s rampant piracy problems, in part because most of his titles are too arty for pirates to bother with.

Also, despite Lebrija’s claims that “we can’t compete with the majors,” he’s doing just that. In January, Gussi sent out “The Grudge” on 350 screens, by far the distrib’s widest release. In doing so, it went head to head with Warner’s heavily promoted “The Aviator.”

It worked. Not only did “Grudge” open stronger, it lasted longer and made more money. “Aviator” closed after seven weeks with $4.5 million in receipts. “Grudge” was still going strong after 10 weeks, when it was a hair under $6 million.