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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Issues | February 2007 

Mexico's Creative Brain Drain
email this pageprint this pageemail usLorenza Muñoz & Reed Johnson - LATimes

A worker carries an Oscar statuette to be presented at the awards, at the Kodak Theatre during the 'Parade of the Oscars ' for the 79th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 24, 2007. The Oscar presentation ceremonies will be held February 25. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
With 16 Oscar nominations among their films, Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu are the toast of Hollywood and the pride of their homeland. This Sunday, at the 79th annual Academy Awards, Mexican-born cinematographers, costume designers and actors also could walk away with coveted gold statues.

But any success would belie the troubled state of Mexico's film industry, where their careers were hatched.

"There is a family of filmmakers in Mexico that is large and talented," said Del Toro, whose "Pan's Labyrinth" received six nominations, including one for best foreign-language film. "What is alarming is that there is no industry."

An inhospitable climate at home gives Mexico's top movie talents little choice but to cross the border to chase their dreams. Private investment in film production in Mexico is minuscule and government subsidies are erratic. Hollywood movies dominate the country's theater screens, crowding out homegrown fare. And many Mexicans prefer to spend $1 on a pirated DVD rather than $5 for a movie ticket.

The unfavorable economics have slowed film releases in Mexico to a trickle. Only 25 movies came out in 2005, compared with 42 in Brazil and 89 in Britain that year, the most recent period for which figures were available in many countries. That's a substantial increase from the nine made in Mexico in 1997 after an economic crisis.

Still, the total pales against Mexico's Golden Age of cinema from the 1930s to 1950s, when the film industry produced an average of 80 movies a year, giving birth to such legends as Dolores del Rio, María Félix, Pedro Infante and Cantínflas. Last year saw a modest improvement, when 33 Mexican films were shown in theaters, according to the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía, or IMCINE, the principal government institute for fostering film production.

Unlike France's film industry, which is subsidized in part through TV revenue, Mexico's does not benefit from the country's multimillion-dollar television business, despite the export of telenovelas around the world.

Nor have theater owners stepped into the void, despite a building boom in the last 10 years. Theater owners have refused to contribute any percentage of their box-office sales to a film fund even though they keep more than 60% of the proceeds, according to a report by IMCINE. In the U.S., cinemas split box-office receipts 50-50 with studios on most movies.

Attempts to establish film quotas that would set aside a specific number of theater screens for Mexican films have been quashed by lobbying efforts by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the U.S. trade group that represents studios and exhibitors.

"In Mexico, as moviemakers, we starve to death," said Jose Ludlow, the producer of "Love in the Time of Cholera," who now works full time in Hollywood.

He said Mexico's government had lagged behind Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Puerto Rico in establishing subsidies and tax incentives to entice film production. "The government has not realized what a great source of revenue film production could bring to the country. They are asleep at the wheel," Ludlow said.

Like the nannies and dishwashers who depart Mexico for the promise of the United States, ambitious filmmakers have done the same. Affectionately calling themselves Frijolywood, a play on the Spanish word for bean (frijol), many have landed in Hollywood, including Oscar-nominated cinematographers Rodrigo Prieto ("Babel"), Emmanuel Lubezki ("Children of Men"), Guillermo Navarro ("Pan's Labyrinth") and actress Salma Hayek.

The brain drain is a source of resentment for some filmmakers who stayed put in Mexico. They say Mexico needs a critical mass of talent if it is to build a flourishing Hollywood-style system for financing films.

"As soon as they have some success, they leave," said Billy Rovzar, an American-educated independent producer who co-founded Mexico City-based Lemon Films with his brother Fernando. "That is a problem."

If making movies in Hollywood is challenging, it is a near-heroic act in Mexico. González Iñárritu, whose "Babel" has a shot at winning the best-picture Oscar on Sunday, spent three years making his debut film, "Amores Perros." He and his crew were robbed at gunpoint while scouting one location and had to rely on protection from a street gang to ensure the shoot.

His movie, which cost $2 million, was finally released in Mexico in 2000 and became a box-office smash, grossing more than $10 million. Although González Iñárritu recouped his 20% investment, he never made a profit.

He left Mexico to make his next film, "21 Grams." With the rise of kidnappings in the capital, González Iñárritu worried about his family's safety. He was nervous about making a living. "It really hurt me to leave Mexico," said the 43-year old director, who lives in Santa Monica with his family.

Lining up financing is part of the challenge. Though "Pan's Labyrinth," "Babel" and "Children of Men" were made by Mexican filmmakers, only "Babel" had any investment from Mexico. "Pan's Labyrinth," which is Mexico's official Oscar foreign-language entry, was shot in Spain and largely financed by a Spanish television network, Telecinco.

Mexican investors seem disinclined to gamble on moviemaking. Gabriel Beristain, a cinematographer who has worked on a range of films including "Dolores Claiborne" and "The Ring Two," had hoped to start a privately owned, state-of-the-art studio in Mexico to re-energize production.

In 1999, through a former schoolmate, then-President Ernesto Zedillo, Beristain met Carlos Slim, owner of Mexico's telephone monopoly and, according to Forbes magazine, the world's third-richest man.

They drove to a vacant lot owned by Slim on the outskirts of the capital to discuss Beristain's plan. Slim listened and then, as Beristain tells it, asked him a simple question: "He said, 'Mr. Beristain, do you have any money?' And I said, 'No, Mr. Slim, not even half a cent. But I do have the know-how and the will.' And he said, 'Yes, but do you have any money, Mr. Beristain?' And that was the last time I heard from him."

Beristain closed his Mexican production company in 2001 and settled permanently in Los Angeles. He is now planning to direct a movie about Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer who lived in Mexico during the 1920s, that will be financed by Mark Cuban's 29/29 Productions.

Slim declined to be interviewed.

Filmmakers in Mexico's trenches are hoping that a tax incentive passed last year by Mexico's Congress will help spur private investment in film production. The incentive would allow individuals or corporations to allocate as much as 10% of their federal tax payments to a national filmmaking fund.

There appears to be some interest from such companies as Grupo Salinas, a media and telephone conglomerate; Corporación Moctezuma, the dominant beer maker; and retail giant Liverpool. Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has been advising individuals and corporations on the law, which will take effect in March.

But it remains to be seen whether other crucial pieces fall into place. "The real proof will be in good movies," said Mariano Teran, senior tax manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Mexico. "Filmmakers have to understand this is not a gift from the government but that they have to earn it."

How that will play out remains to be seen. Historically, Mexican filmmakers have relied almost exclusively on the government to fund their movies. This has led to cronyism and complacency, Cuarón said.

When Cuarón and Del Toro began their careers, they had to go outside of Mexico's film establishment to make their movies, in part because they had difficulty joining the Mexican film unions.

Del Toro, González Iñárritu and Cuarón are still outsiders: None has been invited to join Mexico's equivalent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"My generation and up was raised suckling from the PRI," said Cuarón, 44, referring to the political party that ruled Mexico for seven decades. He said the younger generation was cutting its ties, trying to copy the Hollywood model of financing.

For instance, the Rovzar brothers returned to Mexico in 2003 fresh from Boston University and the University of San Diego with a plan to make three to five movies a year. To make their movies, which cost $2 million to $3 million apiece, they receive 30% of their budget from the government film fund and the rest from investors.

Billy Rovzar said that after two profitable movies, investors were now coming to him. To make sure his movies are commercial, he has tried to make them as wide in their appeal as possible. He made sure "Kilómetro 31" received the equivalent of a PG-13 rating rather than an R.

"An R rating would have cut our audience by a third," he said, noting that the movie, costing $3 million, has grossed $8 million after only three weeks in release. "You can push the envelope a little, but the more people see your movie, the more money you will make. Our goal is box-office entertainment, not art."

But making movies with wide appeal is not everyone's cup of tea. And even some who have made wildly popular films feel they need to leave in order to grow into great filmmakers.

It took directors Rodolfo and Gabriel Riva Palacio four years to find financing for their first animated feature, "Una Pelicula de Huevos." The film, about the adventures of a couple of eggs, plays on the double meaning of huevos, which in Spanish means "eggs" but also "testicles."

After opening in April 2006, "Una Pelicula de Huevos" went on to gross about $15 million, as much as "Shrek" did in Mexico and more than any other animated Mexican film ever. The brothers got a call from Creative Artists Agency, the Hollywood talent firm. This month they met with executives from Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Animation and Cartoon Network to discuss future projects.

On Oscar night, the Riva Palacio brothers intend to cheer on their Mexican compatriots. But they also hope they too can walk up onstage one day.

"Maybe in 20 years or so, Mexico will have an industry," said Rodolfo, 36. "But until it does, we are ready for the studios to tell us, 'Hey, you two, come to Hollywood.' "

Muñoz reported from Los Angeles and Johnson from Mexico City. -
By the numbers: Mexico lags behind many other countries in films released each year. Figures are for 2005:
U.S - 563
France - 200 (estimated)
Spain - 142
Britain - 89
Brazil - 42
Mexico - 25
Los Angeles Times

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