MEXICO CITY — As local film production rises in Mexico, distribs are finding themselves cut out of the picture with three of the top four Mexican-made or co-produced films snapped up by major U.S. studio arms.

Top local hits so far this year are U.S.-Mexico co-prod “La misma luna” ($9.6 million) and “Arrancame la vida” ($7.2 million), both released by Fox.

Quality Films prexy Luis Calzada attributes this Hollywood advantage to the studios’ deep pockets and their ability to co-finance local productions. But, he adds, “With Mexican films, you can have a big hit like ‘Arrancame’ or you can have a disaster like so many others.”

To stay competitive and reduce risk, Quality began buying films jointly with broadcaster Televisa’s film arm Videocine four years ago. Quality brings a solid DVD distribution biz to the equation, while Videocine’s ties to Televisa give the partners access to a powerful marketing network as well as broadcast television. This year, they teamed up on Spanish-Mexican co-prod “The Orphanage” ($11.5 million) and Spanish horror pic “[Rec]” ($3.8 million).

Videocine also started producing films to bolster business. “Paradas continuas,” due in 2009, is the first collabration with Quality and Altavista Films.

This producer-distributor model is also appearing from the other direction, as shingles Canana Films and Mantarraya Films now have become bona fide theatrical distribs of both inhouse productions and pickups.

Meanwhile, perennial indie heavyweight Gussi stayed on top this year with titles such as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” ($13.3 million) and “Sex and the City” ($3.3 million), both via the distrib’s soon-to-disappear New Line deal.

A recent 25% devaluation of the peso has local distribs approaching the American Film Market with caution. “No one’s going to be rushing to buy or overspend,” says Canana prexy Pablo Cruz.

Distribs also are wary, but curious, about the digital world. “The market is still green in Mexico,” says Videocine’s head of acquisitions, Mineko Mori, noting many licensors don’t want to sell these rights “because the technology is still not 100% spillover proof.” (Videocine parent Televisa offers VOD through Cablevision and content via portal Esmas.com)

2008 B.O.

$539 million (estimate, through September)

Top title

“The Dark Knight” ($25 million)

Recent pickups

“Buscando al Soldado Perez” (Televisa/Videocine)

“Che” (Gussi/Artecinema)

“Lake Tahoe” (Tarantula Films)

“Management” (Quality Films)

“Tony Manero” (Canana Films)