Want to See a Mexican Oscar-Winning Film in Mexico?  It’s Complicated …

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By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Although the U.S. film industry’s Oscar ceremonies may be fading – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has just come up with a new category, “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film,” to gin up attendance – few American movie-goers have missed the fact that four out of the last five Oscars for Best Director went to Mexican-born filmmakers, and two of them also picked up the Oscar for Best Picture:

  • 2014, Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
  • 2015, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman; also won Best Picture
  • 2016, Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
  • 2018, Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water; also won Best Picture

Now Playing in Mexico

But when you cruise by the Cinemagic on Calle Guamuchil in Huatulco, or the Cinépolis on Av. Jorge L. Tamayo Castillejos in Oaxaca City, do you see these films on the cartelera de cine?

Nope.  When this was written, the only films at either theater made by Mexican directors were the comedy Más Sabe el Diablo por Viejo (The Devil Knows More Because He’s Old), directed and co-written by José Pepe Bojórquez, and a feel-good film about estranged parents with a son who may go blind, Ya Veremos (We’ll See) by Pedo Pablo (“Pitipol”) Ibarra.

Más Sabe was produced by the Mexican company Traziende Films, with a little help from an educational film company called La Victoria Films.  In the complicated world of getting a film from the studio to the screen, though, it was Fox International Films that bought and distributed Más Sabe through the U.S. company 20th Century Fox.

It took four production companies to make Ya Veremos, one each from Chile and the U.S., a Mexican film-financing company, and a Mexican distributor; post-production services were also provided by a Mexican company, but the more extensive distribution (and thus income) has been provided by a U.S. company.

With the exception of the Spanish film Escobar: La Traición (Loving Pablo), with Spanish stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, and the Argentinian film Chavela (described elsewhere in this issue) up in Oaxaca City, all the other movies at either cinema were American, and hardly the country’s most artful output: The Meg (shark on steroids), Hotel Transylvania 3:  Summer Vacation, Life of the Party (Melissa McCarthy), and a couple of horror and thriller pieces.

Where Are the Award Winners?

While obviously getting a film made and shown is a major undertaking (kind of like getting a car made – who knows which parts came from where?), why is it so complicated to get award-winning Mexican films onto Mexican screens?

According to Los Angeles. Times reporter Kate Linthicum, the Mexican film industry has begun a new Golden Age, with 176 feature-length films and perhaps 600 shorts made in 2017 (the original Golden Age ran from the 1930s to the 1950s).  The 2017 feature films won over a hundred international awards.

The problem comes in distribution.  Mexico has two VERY large cinema chains, Cinépolis (48% of the domestic market with 205 theaters, plus 230 theaters internationally) and Cinemex (42% of the domestic market with 264 theaters).  Cinemagic is doing something different – with 11 theaters in eight Mexican states, they focus on smaller cities, those with populations between 50,000 and 70,000 people.

Sooo, Linthicum argues that Cinépolis and Cinemex pretty much determine the market, and they believe that Hollywood movies account for the “vast majority” of ticket sales.  In 2017, the 20 top-grossing movies shown in Mexico were made in America.  And in a “Catch-22” scenario, Mexicans who do want to see the finest Mexican films watch them online because they are NOT showing up at the theaters.  In the rare cases when they are shown, the interested audience has already seen them, or the chain tends to schedule them at inconvenient times, expecting that they will draw only a small audience.

The Government Gets Involved

Mexican filmmakers are trying to work with the government to promote rapid release of Mexican films in Mexico – in fact, government support has been crucial to revitalizing the domestic film industry. Although it was organized in 1983, the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía (IMCINE, the Mexican Institute for Cinematography) didn’t start pouring money into actual production until about 2010; IMCINE supported over half (96) of the 2017 feature films.  In the mid-1990s, there were perhaps 10 domestic film productions per year; aspiring directors went to the U.S. to get financing, a trend that perhaps resulted in “internationalizing” some of Mexico’s best directors and on-screen talent, who moved on to films that appealed to a worldwide audience and tend to work abroad.

With increased Mexican government support, there are intangible benefits that may well serve to increase the authenticity of Mexican-made films.  In Mexico, the director gets the “final cut,” that is, there are no studio vetoes of the director’s vision in the interests of studio philosophies about what makes for box-office success.  Nor, reports Linthicum, do they need to simplify what a film says about Mexico or the Mexican people; U.S. films tend to concentrate on portraying the drama of immigration or the thrill-and-gore of the drug business.  And they are free to include as much sex and violence as needed to tell their stories.

And with increased support, perhaps the Mexican film industry will achieve some of the heights of the National Film Board of Canada, which while it is fading a bit amid budget cuts, served up some of the best filmmaking in the world in the mid-20th century.  At this point, unless IMCINE develops some new policies to promote distribution once the films it supports get made, it doesn’t look hopeful for theatrical showings.  NAFTA has encouraged the importation of Hollywood films, Mexican films don’t often have sufficient marketing budgets, and the big chains have eliminated most small independent cinemas (hats off to Cinemagic!).

On the other hand, IMCINE has taken some initial steps to work on the problem.  IMCINE has a program to promote showings of first films by Mexican directors, but distributors tend to show them at those low-attendance times. It has started the Fonde de Inversión y Estímulos al Cine (Fund for Investment and Promotion of Cinema), which has $1.9 million to help theaters convert to digital if they pledge to screen Mexican pictures.  IMCINE has set up a tax-credit program (Eficine 189) that encourages people to invest in motion pictures so a given production can approach other sources of financing with a ready “nest egg.”  And, while it doesn’t do much for theatrical release, IMCINE has set up two or three digital platforms, and works with cultural outlets to release Mexican-made films for local viewing.

See for Yourself

No matter how you watch them – find them in a theater, see them at a library or museum, or watch them online – movies made in Mexico, by Mexicans, will give you a better idea of the country you’ve chosen to spend your time in.  If you have a Netflix account, here are five interesting films available now (as of the 2017-18 “season,” Hulu was not available in Mexico).

Desierto (2015), starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, border crossing drama produced and directed by Jonás Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón.

Como Agua para Chocolate (1992), with a screenplay by Laura Esquivel, based on her novel of the same name, a magic realism essay on forbidden love produced and directed by Alfonso Arau.

Semana Santa (2015), directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella, the story of a widow, her young son, and her boyfriend who take their somewhat dysfunctional relationships on holiday in a decaying Acapulco.

Las Elegidas (2015), a Mexican-French co-production, tells the story of teen lovers Sofia and Ulises.  Ulises is tasked by his family to bring Sofia into their prostitution business; directed by David Pablo, produced by Canana Films, the studio set up by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna in 2006.

Estar o No Estar (2015), a romance told in the recollections of Augusto, who has moved from Xalapa to Tlacotalpan (in Veracruz, worth seeing for the scenery) and has a one night stand with Nastenka (or does he?). He dies from eating a can of expired sardines.  Something for everyone.  Written and directed by Marcelo González.