Central AmericaMexico

Cine de México: A New Hope

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By: Erica Illingworth, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

When people talk of Mexico, they avoidably focus on the recent political corruption scandals, the case of the 43 missing students or the violent drug cartels that have swept the country and affected the daily lives of the civilians. But Mexico has more to offer, particularly in the film industry. The once prominent Mexican film industry is suffering and is in desperate need for change and improvement. Mexican cinema needs to receive more subsidies from the government, incentives for Mexican filmmakers to stay in Mexico to make films, as well as more international support to promote Mexican film.

Mexico has been cast in a spotlight with the release of film hits and Oscar wins by Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Also, the latest James Bond film, ‘Spectre,’ is going to open with an elaborate Day of the Dead scene, filmed in Mexico which will showcase one of the country’s oldest traditions in all its beauty. With this, it is clear that there is more to Mexico than violence, corruption and scandal, and the country should use this opportunity to push for more subsidies and incentives to revive its film industry.

The Mexican film industry has declined since the “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema ended in 1954. The film industry’s decline is in part due to a lack of subsidies and incentives from the Mexican government to make films, as well as the high competitiveness in the movie industry from Hollywood and Europe that leaves little room for smaller independent films. The Mexican film industry has suffered, but the recent spotlight cast on the country can revitalize it. The world is cognizant of what is coming out of Mexico, in terms of films, directors and actors (and actresses) alike.

Spotlight on Mexico

Why is there a spotlight on Mexico’s film industry? The answer to that lies in that back-to-back Academy Award wins for Best Director by two of Mexico’s greatest filmmakers. Alfonso Cuarón won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Director for his work on ‘Gravity.’[i] His work has also included hits like ‘Y Tu MamáTabien’ (2001), ‘Children of Men’ (2006), and ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004).[ii] This accomplished director has won two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and two BAFTA Awards.[iii] With these films and subsequent awards on his resume, Alfonso Cuarón has undoubtedly made a name for himself in the international film industry.

Moreover, Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu won Best Director for his work in ‘Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).’ The film won a total of four Academy Awards in 2015, including Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Writing, – such distinctions can be traced back to Iñárritu himself.[iv] Like Cuarón, Iñárritu was born in Mexico City, Mexico, and has garnered a number of hits on the international stage of the film industry as well. His filmography includes ‘Amores Perros’ (2000), ’21 Grams’ (2003), ‘Babel’ (2006), and ‘Biutiful’ (2010), all of which has gained critical acclaim.[v] He has a total of three Oscars, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award.[vi] Along with Cuarón, they are the only Mexican winners of the Academy Award for Best Director.

The third reason why Mexico is gaining a greater spotlight regarding its movie industry is the upcoming, highly anticipated Bond film ‘Spectre.’ This film production shut down Mexico City for the shoot of the opening sequence, and it is reportedly going to be the biggest opening in the franchise’s history. The opening scenes for this film are set in Mexico City during the national Day of the Dead festival.[vii] The production also consists of about 400 UK crew members and a whopping 1000 Mexican crew members. The film is also going to feature, for the first-time ever, a Mexican Bond girl. The mysterious character, Estrella, is played by model-turned actress Stephanie Sigman. Sigman gained notoriety for her role as the title character in the critically acclaimed film ‘Miss Bala,’ which was Mexico’s submission for the foreign-language category for the 84th Academy Awards.[viii]

Nevertheless, the filming of ‘Spectre’ in Mexico City has not been without controversy. Not only did the Mexican government ask for the filmmakers to choose a known-Mexican actress to be a Bond girl, but also asked to have various changes to the script. According to Fox News Latino, “The script for the new James Bond thriller ‘Spectre’ was modified to portray Mexico in a favorable way on the silver screen to audiences worldwide in exchange for $14 million worth of incentives offered by Mexican government officials.”[ix] Producers also agreed to the stipulation that the film’s villain Sciarra, originally scripted as a Mexican governor who was originally the target of an assassination, would be replaced as an international leader.[x] It is clear that an image change is important for Mexico, and this film has given them the opportunity to do so.

The Mexican government is dictating what is filmed of the country in ‘Spectre,’ and for it, Mexico is offering huge tax incentives for the Hollywood production companies, and with an already reported budget of about $300 million USD, Sony and MGM are giving into Mexico’s demands.[xi] This may be seen as a bribe, but Mexico will come out as the winner. Because of the upcoming opening scene, Mexico will be shown in a better light despite the violence and corruption associated with the country. Films are very influential, and the Bond franchise has millions of fans across the world who will see the film and without a doubt be influenced by the portrayal of Mexico City’s beauty.

However, there are a few questions to be asked, including: why did the industry and the Mexican government resort to tax incentives to change the country’s image? Secondly, why does the Mexican government prefer to give such a significant tax incentive for a Hollywood film, and not for its own filmmakers at home? The examples above show that the opportunity is now to push for change in the Mexican film industry; and the answers to the questions asked lie in the long history of the country’s cinema and politics, since the end of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, to the current domination of Hollywood of the film industry, to the violence and corruption that is seen throughout Mexico as the “War on Drugs” continues, and finally money. Hollywood is known for not being open to independent and low-budget films with plots that may not bring in large numbers of movie goers.

The End of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema

The Golden Age of Mexican cinema lasted from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, where beloved stars like Pedro Infante, María Félix, Katy Jurado, and Arturo de Cordova graced the silver screen. This time also allowed the renowned skills of film production from directors like Fernando de Fuentes and Emilio Fernández.[xii] During this time, studios were producing 100 feature films a year, and the film industry was one of the largest in the country. Film production in Mexico today has yet to match that of the Golden Age. Hollywood’s comeback after World War II, along with the rise of powerful unions and decreasing governmental support; has caused the Mexican film industry to falter.[xiii]

However, Mexico’s film industry is currently in an ideal position to make a strong comeback as there are many great Mexican directors and actors emerging on the international stage – i.e. Iñárritu and Cuarón. There is also the acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro who continues to bring hit after hit to the big screen, including ‘Hellboy’ (2004) and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006).

In the past decade, there have been Mexican hits that have brought in a lot of revenue for the industry. In 2012, revenue for the Mexican film industry reached over $146 million USD, still minute to what the US generated, but it is clear that interest is returning.[xiv] In 2012, internationally there were 316 films released, 65 of these films were Mexican and 28 of those Mexican films had no screenings in theatres, meaning that only 4.3% of Mexican films were shown in theatres.[xv] Despite this, there are many Mexican films that are breaking out on the international stage and have amassed considerable fortunes. Films like ‘No eres tú, soy yo’ (2010), directed by Alejandro Springall and ‘Nosotros los Nobles’ (2013), by Gary Alazraki, brought around $8 million USD and $21 million USD, respectively. Another film that gained international attention was ‘La Misma Luna’ (2008), directed by Patricia Riggen, which brought in over $6 million USD and many awards, including an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Award.[xvi] This award was created as a strategy to promote Latinos in the entertainment industry, and the name ‘ALMA’ represents the determined spirit of the Latino community and reflects both the spirit and scope of the awards program.[xvii]  The Mexican film industry is bringing in revenue, but in comparison to Hollywood, the industry is nowhere close to where it needs to be in order to be a profitable industry.

Why is the Mexican Film Industry Suffering?

As mentioned above, there has been a surge in interest and profits in Mexican cinema, but there is still not enough support for the industry, particularly by the government. The Mexican government does not provide enough tax incentives for local filmmakers, which causes them to leave the country. In the end, Mexico loses out. In 2009, the Mexican government only provided $73.3 million USD in grants and tax breaks to Mexican producers, which had to be spread thin to accommodate the 70 films made that were that year.[xviii]

Marina Stavenhagen, a former director of the Mexican Film Institute (Imcine), a company that issues grants, stated that only a tenth of Mexican feature films break even. In 2009, only one film took more than $4 million USD at the box office.[xix] With that information, one could see why production companies are hesitant to invest in films. Mexican film-makers have only 2 million USD to work with most of the time, as compared to Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Spectre,’ mentioned above, which has already blown past its $300 million USD budget, or the recent hit ‘Furious 7,’ which had an estimated budget of $190 million USD.[xx] The constant challenge for smaller budget Mexican films is to attract the attention of moviegoers and gain screen time.

The reported amount of $73.3 million USD in subsidies for Mexican productions, comes nowhere near the amount the US government provides to Hollywood. In 2010, it was reported that about $1.5 billion USD was given in subsidies for movie makers.[xxi] This allows for the extravagant productions like the ‘Harry Potter’ series, and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (just to name a few) to be made. With these films’ gripping visual effects, millions of people are waiting in line to see them, which allows these films to bring in a profit for the producers.

This leaves little screen time for low-budget Mexican films to be shown. For a country that has over 4000 movie screens, and the fifth-highest cinema attendance, Mexican filmmakers are still struggling to screen their films in Mexico.[xxii] Many of these multiplexes have opted out on showing independent films, and stick with the films that are sure to bring in the most ticket-buyers. Alejandro Ramírez, the head of Cinépolis, a theatre chain that accounts for almost half of Mexico’s screens, stated that he does show Mexican films and tries to give first-time Mexican directors at least a two-week run.[xxiii] However, with at least a half a dozen new releases each week, many of them produced by Hollywood, distributors like Cinépolis are less likely to risk losing attendance by showing Mexican films. For example, in the first eight months of 2010, American films accounted for 95 percent of ticket sales in Mexico, despite making up only 60 percent of the releases.[xxiv] Since most of the profits come from ticket sales, it is no wonder that most theatres opt for the Hollywood blockbusters rather than lower budget Mexican films.

Mexican Films at the Box Office

Due to a small budget, Mexican films are outcompeted at the box office, which makes these films more difficult to see. For this reason, movie makers are often forced out of Mexico and go elsewhere to make their films. Ironically, the three biggest Mexican directors today, Cuarón, Iñárritu and Del Toro, all left Mexico after struggling to finance their films.[xxv] Cuarón’s film ‘Gravity’ was backed by Warner Bros. Pictures and had a budget of about $100 million USD, whereas films back in Mexico receive a fraction of that budget.[xxvi] These directors have been successful at the box office, and are definitely supported by Mexico, however, their best works have been financed by Hollywood.

Since Cuarón, Del Toro and Iñárritu have had repeated international acclaim with their films, a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, like Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Gerardo Naranjo, have begun to make their mark in film festivals across the globe. But these filmmakers have struggled to get to the same level of box office success and support from Hollywood. This is mainly due to the budgets allotted to them and the genre of art house they are put into.[xxvii] An art house film is a genre which encompasses films where the content and style are often artistic and experimental. The film is intended to be experimental.[xxviii] Despite the competitive niche, this generation of filmmakers are determined to stay in Mexico to make their films, and be a part of the generation that finds their success at home.

The Process to get Attention for Mexican Films

For Mexican films, distribution is crucial for the film’s success. It is without a doubt that Mexican films and filmmakers win prizes and top honors at various prestigious festivals across the globe, including Cannes, Sundance and Locarno Film Festivals. These awards generate attention for Mexican filmmakers, but Mexican films still struggle to get distribution and exhibition, particularly in the United States.[xxix] This is in part due to the fact that in the US, every foreign film is automatically put into the category of art house cinema, which represents less than one percent of the American box office.[xxx] If that is not competitive enough, this genre is often dominated by European films, which often have higher budgets than Mexican films.

When a film is labeled as an art house film, it will be showcased at fewer theatres and will have fewer time slots, meaning that not a lot of money will come from it (unless, of course, it becomes a hit, which seldom happens). It is a difficult challenge for smaller budget Mexican films to gain international recognition. This difficult path ultimately ends with a nomination at the Academy Awards, but the Best Foreign Language Film category has proven to be stacked with great competition.

Getting nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film is an extremely difficult process as each country must pick only one of their films to be submitted as their official selection to the Academy. This is a feat in itself, and in 2013, there was a record 71 submissions.[xxxi] After the screening process, a volunteer committee of Academy members then pick six films for the shortlist, and then the executive committee adds three more to that list. From there, a specially selected screening committee in Los Angeles and New York watch all nine films and then pick only five films that would be officially nominated for an Oscar.[xxxii] Many films that make the final cut come from Europe; Mexico has had a few notable nominations over the past decades but no wins.

Opportunities for Glory in Mexican Cinema

The way the international film industry is set-up, getting Mexican films to the silver screen is difficult and these films are often lost under more extravagant, but not necessarily better, blockbusters. Mexican films, despite their small budgets, are well made and receive the acclaim (but not always the Oscar) they deserve.

The back-to-back Oscar wins by two of Mexico’s own, and the highly anticipated opening sequence of the Bond film ‘Spectre,’ has set the stage for Mexico to turn its film industry around, and not only bring prominence back to it, but also change the violent image Mexico is often attributed for. Mexico has worked very hard to make its screen time in ‘Spectre’ notable (it is clear that they have given Sony enough incentive for it). The international film community is now taking notice of Mexico and there have been recent steps to bring films made in the country more available to the masses.

In recent developments, AMC Theatres has teamed up with Movio, an analytics company that breaks down the demographics of moviegoers in an average theatre, to promote smaller budget, indie and foreign films.[xxxiii] Starting in July, AMC will combine the data from its social media following and its loyalty program with Movio Cinema. From this analysis, both companies will push to promote what moviegoers actually want to see. Stephen A. Colanero, AMC chief marketing officer, stated, “Movie lovers want to see great movies, but some of the best movies can get lost in the shuffle. This new partnership gives us the ability [. . .] to connect guests with the information and promotions they are most likely to love.”[xxxiv]

The Mexican Film Institute (Imcine) also plans to use Filmin Latino, a subscription video service to distribute Mexican and Latina American films.[xxxv] This service will provide independent films with limited distribution options, which will give moviegoers the ability to see these films. Filmin Latino director Jorge Sanchez stated that the service’s offerings will be managed by a team of curators in Mexico and Spain, to ensure the quality of the films, as well as to ensure that Mexican films will not be drowned out by blockbusters from Hollywood.[xxxvi]

Additionally, Imcine is continuing to find ways to carve out a larger market share for Mexican films, negotiating with theatre chains like Cinepolis and Cinemex, who together sells about 90 percent of tickets in Mexico, to find ways to attract Mexicans to see Mexican films.[xxxvii] A new focus has been put on Mexican cinema, and the international film industry is doing the right thing to work with the Mexican government and production companies to push these Mexican films to the front stage. It is the new age of Mexican cinema, and this year marks a pivotal point for the film industry in Mexico to become what it once was, and compete with its European and American counterparts.

By: Erica Illingworth, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: Cinema in Chiapa de Corzo, México. Photo from: Johannes Kruse. Accessed from Flickr.com, March 30, 2008, retrieved May 18 2015.

[i] CNN Staff, “Oscars 2014: Winners List, CNN.com, March 3, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/02/showbiz/oscars-2014-winners-list/index.html.

[ii] “Alfonso Cuarón: Biography,” IMDb.com, 2015, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0190859/bio.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] CNN Staff, “Oscars 2015: The Winners List,” CNN.com, February 23, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/22/entertainment/oscars-2015-winners-list-feat/index.html.

[v] Alejandro González Iñárritu: Biography,” IMDb.com, 2015, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0327944/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Bauer SOA, “Spectre Opening Sequence will be ‘Biggest in Bond History,’” Empire Online, March 30 2015, http://www.empireonline.com/news/story.asp?NID=43845.

[viii] John Hecht, “’Miss Bala’ Crowned Mexico’s Foreign-Language Oscar Submission,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 22, 2011, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/miss-bala-crowned-mexicos-foreign-239309.

[ix] “Mexico Pays for Script Changes in New James Bond Thriller ‘Spectre,’” Fox News Latino, March 19, 2015, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/entertainment/2015/03/19/mexico-pays-for-script-changes-in-new-james-bond-thriller-spectre/.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “Did Sony Score $20M from Mexico for ne Bond Film?” CBS News, March 17, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mexico-asks-sony-script-changes-james-bond-film-spectre-tax-incentives/.

[xii] “Por Fin: La Epoca de Oro 1936-1959,” Cine Mexico, retrievedApril 6, 2014,http://cinemexicano.mty.itesm.mx.

[xiii] “Mexico’s Film Industry: Acción!” The Economist, November 18, 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/17525912.

[xiv] Lista Destacada, “Las 15 películas mexicanas más taquilleras de la historia,” Forbes.com, julio 19, 2013, http://www.forbes.com.mx/las-15-peliculas-mexicanas-mas-taquilleras-de-la-historia/.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] “Mission and Vision; The NCLR Alma Awards,” ALMA Awards.com, retrieved May 9, 2015, http://www.almaawards.com/mission/.

[xviii] “Mexico’s Film Industry: Acción!” The Economist, November 18, 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/17525912.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Sandy Schaefer, “’Fast & Furious 7’ Budget Swells; More Details on Paul Walker Scenes,” ScreenRant.com, May 2014, http://screenrant.com/fast-furious-7-budget-paul-walker-scenes/.

[xxi] Robert Tannenwald, “State Film Subsidies: Not Much Bang for too Many Bucks,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, December 9, 2010, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3326.

[xxii]“MPAA Theatrical Statistics: 2008,”The Motion Picture Association of America, Washington, DC, http://www.mpaa.org/researchstatistics.asp.

[xxiii]“Mexico’s Film Industry: Acción!” The Economist, November 18, 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/17525912.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] “Art House Definition,” Wonderful Cinema, accessed April 29, 2015, http://wonderfulcinema.com/art-house-definition/.

[xxix] Carlos A. Gutiérrez, “Why Does Hollywood Love Mexican Filmmakers but not Mexican Films?” Remezcla.com, February 26, 2015, http://remezcla.com/features/why-does-hollywood-love-mexican-filmmakers-but-not-mexican-films/.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Mark Olsen, “The Difficult Path to a Foreign-Language Film Oscar,” Los Angeles Times, January 06, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jan/06/entertainment/la-et-mn-foreign-films-oscars-20130106.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Carolyn Giardina, “AMC Theatres Targets Indie Moviegoers With Movio Deal,” The Hollywood Reporter, May 05, 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/amc-theatres-targets-indie-moviegoers-793590.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] “Mexico Hopes Filmin Latino will Boost Movie Industry,” Fox News Latino, March 09, 2015, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/entertainment/2015/03/09/mexico-hopes-filmin-latino-will-boost-movie-industry/.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] John Hopewell, “Sanchez Maps Mexico’s Movie Future,” Variety, February 4, 2013, http://variety.com/2013/film/news/sanchez-maps-mexico-s-movie-future-1118065614/.