The current biggest hit in México, We Are The Nobles ( Nosotros los Nobles), has grossed $32 million in its first months of release this spring. The film’s director, Gary "Gaz" Alazraki, was a young Mexican student at USC's film school more than 12 years ago when the idea came to him to make a movie satirizing his country's nouveau riche and newly powerful. The comedy is hitting the Mexican public’s social nerve in the way that Eric Toledano’s Untouchable hit the French audience last year. Both deal with the common social issues which are dividing the country – issues of the haves and the have-nots. L.A. Times discusses this break through as a social phenomenon. For Director Alazraki it is great; for México, perhaps it is a mixed blessing.
Nosotros los Nobles is actually a Warner "local-language" production, part of the intensifying pattern of U.S. studio involvement in overseas markets. This on one hand might be considered good for the Mexican film industry in that it demonstrates to the Mexican filmmakers the commercial imperative they need – adopting forms (like Nosotros' high-concept comedy) and marketing that can hold their own and fire up the mainstream. Warner actually had previously adapted this formula with their 2010 romantic comedy No Eres Tú, Soy Yo (It's Not You, It's Me) which holds the Number 5 spot in the domestic all-time list. However both films failed to gain footholds in the U.S. or international markets, whereas Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, starring Gael García Bernal, captured the international market as a bonafide, original Mexican feature, funded by private Mexican capital.
Warner, true to the majors’ treatment for this sort of local production, will predictably do little more internationally than to allow its release (after the pirates have already gotten to it) stateside -- through Gussi, a very strong Mexican distributor, and Cine Latino, a company owned by the ubiquitous Jim McNamara who is also a partner with Lionsgate, the second of U.S.’s only three Latino distribution companies, Pantelion. The third company is Cinema Tropical.
What Has Happened to Mexican Films in Mexico
In the mid 1990s, after México joined the North American Free Trade Area, Mexican cinemas were flooded by U.S. imports which obliterated the Mexican national industry overnight. IMCINE was the last dam preventing Mexico being not merely flooded but drowned by Hollywood blockbusters.
And then a resurgence of Mexican films seems to have started again with the all-time hit Amores Perros in 2001 and El Crimen del Padre Amaro in 2002.
The exciting event of a local film out-grossing an American film in 2001 was the beginning of a worldwide trend in which local hits began to challenge U.S. or North American hegemony, not only in México but throughout the world.
To counteract this, the U.S. major studios began to implement another tactic. They began to invest in local production, as described above. This development and more about the U.S. hegemony is further elaborated on recently by Nancy Tartaglioni, readers who want to know more can read her article here.
An additional factor affecting the Mexican film industry today is the gravitational pull of Los Angeles. It is a strong force, not just for name auteurs like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro but also for the below-the-line crew in the thousands who can and do enrich the Mexican industry if they are not drawn to L.A., which ironically is itself struggling with runaway production and increasing unemployment for the L.A. local film trade.
Support For Film Production
Mexican filmmakers have been very open in their complaints since 2003 when the government plan to sell off its government-owned systems of support of filmmaking was thwarted by the country’s filmmakers. The government was forced to recognize officially that “the production, and in recent years, the coproduction of motion pictures, television series and international commercials have been important factors in the development of the film industry.”
The filmmakers’ demand for specific up-to-date information and support services for the film, television and video industries led to the creation of the National Film Commission, a nonprofit and specialized organization founded by the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE) and the Churubusco Azteca Film Studios. A good step-by-step guide to government support for filmmaking can be found here on IMCINE’s official website.
Mexican Film Schools
Even with the increasing production of art house cinema in Mexico in which the two public film schools CCC and Unam participate very actively, in effect, today México still has no real self-sustaining film industry.
One person interviewed in Guadalajara during the festival this past March says, “In México the government does everything, but it is not enough. Creativity is fettered by government laws.” If everything is subsidized, creativity falters. Creativity does not come out of a bureaucratic mindset.
The problem the subsidy system creates is that if you do not have money at risk, then you do not care about the return on the investment. Given production numbers are holding steady, the big problem for these finished films is theatrical distribution. Some suggest that a solution might be to allocate more money to the theaters to show the Mexican movies that do get made in order to give them a chance to earn back money and to force the films to be more commercial. Only one state out of the 31 states which comprise the United Mexican States offers exhibition support.
The sustainability of the Mexican film industry may be changing however. Law 226 permits money that would otherwise go to taxes to be invested instead into film production. This tax credit for private individuals and for privately owned business seems to be making a difference by encouraging private businesses to partake in production. This, along with improving access and marketing to theatrical exhibition, could create an actual industry.
Out of the approximately 100 films produced each year in México , 80% have government financing and only 30 or 40 of them get any theatrical release. Out of that only about 2 Mexican movies out of the 30 or 40 movies have any significant box office returns.
Of the 5,500 screens in México which the major U.S. studios fill with product, Sony/ Disney and Universal/ Warner Bros. dominate the market in México to the tune of 50% of the box office. Along with Fox and Paramount, they hold 91% of the box office receipts.
There were 252 non-Mexican films receiving theatrical distribution in 2012. 128 were from the U.S. (and grabbed 90% of the box office), 31 were from France, 13 from Spain, 11 from Latin America and 11 from other countries, including So. Korea.
While all the theaters are now digitized, online exhibition of films has not taken hold because the internet does not reach everyone and most Mexicans do not have credit cards to pay for downloading or streaming even if they did have internet access.
Changing the Model
Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro all appropriated a kind of American dynamism or genre literacy, as well as private financing, that broke from the European-influenced art-film model that IMCINE, the Mexican public film-development organization had practiced since the 1980s, and they created such classics as Amores Perros, El crimen del Padre Amaro and Y Tu Mamá También.
Today, the newest development in México is that of Canana, the production and distribution company of Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Pablo Cruz and Julian Levin. After its international successes, Canana signed a co-production agreement with Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media. The Academy Award nominated No was their first film together. They are now coproducing The Ardor. Canana also set up Mundial , a 50-50 joint venture with Stuart Ford’s U.S. based international sales company, IM Global, to sell Iberoamerican films internationally.
No demonstrates the power of coproductions today and international sales which increase both budgets and international commercial reach. The four production companies which coproduced No come from different countries, and each one brings special strengths to the production. The film was initiated by Chile’s top production company, Fabula, owned by the brothers Pablo Larraín and Juan de Dios Larraín who started with Fuga in 2006, broke out with Tony Manera in 2008 and most recently produced the sleeper hit of the Berlinale 2013, Gloria.
When Fabula cast the worldwide star Gael Garcia Bernal in No, the deal also included his company Canana as coproducer. This was the first coproduction of Canana and Fabula with U.S. based Participant who put up the US$ 2,000,000 budget for the picture and then became a partner in a slate of coproductions. The French company, Funny Balloons, was also coproducer and more importantly, as the international sales company for No it was able to sell territories to back up the financing. It pre-sold or licensed the finished film extensively: Austria to Filmladen, Australia to Rialto Distribution), Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia to Babilla, Czech Republic to Film Distribution Artcam, Denmark to Reel Pictures Aps, France toFunny Balloons, Germany to Piffl, Greece to Strada Films, Hong Kong to Golden Scene, Hungary toCinefil Co Ltd., Italy, Mexico to Canana, Netherlands to Npo, Netherlands Public Broadcasting, New Zealand to Rialto, Norway to Art House, Peru, Portugal to Alambique, Russia & CIS to Frontiers, Singapore to Cathay, Spain to Golem, Sweden to Atlantic, Switzerland to Cineworx Gmbh, Turkey to Tiglon, United Kingdom toChannel Four Television. Box Office Mojo calculates international box office from these countries to be US$ 5,408,080 plus the Sony Pictures Classics No. American box office reported at US$ 2,343,664.
Even without domestic dominance, Mexican features make an impact on the international film industry. The worldwide trend of coproductions as the engine driving the international film business is very much in sync with what is happening today for young Mexican filmmakers who begin by the help of the state and are able to get their first films financed in their home countries, as well as for the “veterans” like Bernal and Luna, Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro who are fully integrated into the international film industry.
And the private equity growth in production looks promising as well. Last year, Mexican feature films financed 100% by private equity numbered 40 compared to 14 in 2011, 10 in 2010 and 9 in 2009. Films with state support last year numbered 70, up from an average of 58 in the previous years 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008.
Another interesting note is that out of the 67 Mexican films that received theatrical distribution in 2012 (of the 112 total produced), 23 were by women. Bringing a different sort of equity to 50% of the population is also a goal of the international film community, and should be a goal of the Mexican government as well.