Mexico's film industry
More films, more subsidies, elusive profits
WHEN the Morelia International Film Festival began in 2003, the organisers struggled to find a home-grown release with which to open it. This year’s festival, which took place last month, was spoilt for choice. The number of films made each year in Mexico has trebled in the past decade (to around 70), largely thanks to a big increase in state funding. Last year the government gave out $73.3m in grants and tax breaks to Mexican producers; this year it will also offer rebates to foreigners who make their films in Mexico.
Production does not yet match the golden age of Mexican cinema between 1940 and 1955, when studios turned out 100 features a year and film was reckoned to be the country’s sixth-biggest industry. Hollywood’s comeback after the second world war, over-mighty unions and, in the 1980s, the slashing of government support saw the industry steadily wither.
Though film production has expanded again, profits remain scarce. Perhaps only a tenth of Mexican features break even, reckons Marina Stavenhagen of the Mexican Film Institute (Imcine), which gives out the grants. Last year only one took more than 50m pesos ($4m) at the box office. This is odd given that Mexico has the world’s fifth-highest cinema attendance. With 4,500 screens, it has twice as many as Brazil, a country nearly double its size.
Worldwide, films get about half their revenues from DVD sales, a market which in Mexico is eaten away by rampant piracy. A quarter of the income often comes from television rights—another lost cause in Mexico, whose dominant network uses its might to drive hard bargains. Mexican producers therefore rely on cinemas for up to 90% of their money, compared with around a quarter for film-makers elsewhere.
They also complain that they cannot get their films shown. Eight-screen multiplexes have squeezed out independent picture-houses. Alejandro Ramírez, head of Cinépolis, a chain which accounts for nearly half of Mexico’s screens, says he shows any Mexican film that has a distributor, and tries to give first-time Mexican directors at least a two-week run. But with half a dozen new releases each week, few distributors are willing to gamble on Mexican films, which are easily trampled by the likes of Harry Potter. In the first eight months of this year, American films accounted for 95% of ticket sales in Mexico, despite making up only 60% of the releases.
This is at least partly because they are often better. Mexico’s bonanza of grants has not always improved quality: “Anyone has access to funding now. People are drawing up budgets they know they can’t recover, because a bigger budget means a bigger salary for the producer,” says Álvaro Curiel, whose shoestring comedy “Acorazado” (“Battleship”) was the toast of this year’s Morelia festival.
Imcine takes portable screens to neighbourhoods that lack cinemas, holding free screenings for Mexican flicks. The audience’s delighted reaction suggests that people would go to see more home-grown films if they were cheaper and more widely shown, Ms Stavenhagen says. Most telling is the illegal market. Judging by the stalls around Mexico City, Mexican movies are a big part of business for the pirates.