A New Golden Age for the Silver Screen

by | Oct 25, 2001

Mexican movies are terrible, don’t watch them, the taxi driver told me when I first arrived in Mexico City last summer. Mexican movies are terrible, and also tasteless, reaffirmed my Spanish teacher, Ramón. Don’t watch them, he said: they are full of sexual innuendo not the kind of Spanish I should be learning. My landlady, Emma, responded with equal disinterest. I saw Como agua para chocolate. I didn’t really like it. What about that American one with Liz Taylor? Now that was a movie!

Watching the film Amores Perros turned my initial impression on its head. The film premiered in Mexico City in mid-June of last year amid a deluge of publicity about the Mexican film industry, following its award at the Cannes Film Festival. The long, snaking lines of eager spectators coiled around the theater hallways impressed me as much as the show. Amores Perros demonstrated to me that the popular opinion of the Mexican film industry was off the mark. Not only was the movie technically accomplished and thematically powerful, but it was also a huge commercial success. In the United States, Amores Perros continues to generate box office buzz with its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and numerous other awards at film festivals across the world.

The gap between popular opinion and the increasingly high quality of Mexico’s films underlines the Mexican film industry’s many incongruities. Half a century ago, Mexico had one of the most prestigious film industries in the world; now it commands little respect even from its own citizens. Mexico also has a world-class film school and an internationally respected pool of film technicians. Despite this vast reservoir of potential, however, the country produces very few films each year, and only a few films of merit.

As in almost every other industry in Mexico, the Mexican state has much to do with the history of the film industry. From the beginnings of film in Mexico to the present day, the Mexican government has played a central role in the development of the industry. Its involvement has run the entire policy gamut, from a near-total nationalization of the industry to its near-total abandonment.


The Golden Age of Mexican Film

Mexico’s industry has of course been vulnerable to the tide of global economic and geopolitical factors. The famed golden age of Mexican film occurred only in the context of global depression and then global war. During the 30s and 40s, Mexican filmmakers took advantage of favorable global conditions and catapulted their products into theaters across the world. At its peak, cinema became Mexico’s third largest export and its sixth largest industry. Mexican movies and movie stars won international acclaim and commerical success. Actors such as Pedro Infante and Cantinflas became household names across Latin America and Spain; Marí­a Felix enjoyed as much fame as Elizabeth Taylor.

Despite spectacular growth rates in the Mexican economy during the 50s and 60s, the film industry began to stagnate. American businessman William O. Jenkins had amassed a virtual monopoly over the exhibition sector, limiting film production to only those products that would ensure box office success. The result: a glut of low-cost, simplistic films.

President Luis Echeverrí­a’s administration (1970-1976) stimulated a brief but spectacular resurgence in Mexico’s film industry. Echeverrí­a, whose brother was a well-known actor, took a special interest in film and undertook large-scale intervention in the industry, amassing a vertical monopoly. The unprecedented attention and funds allocated to the industry succeeded in producing a body of work unparalleled since the golden days.

Nelson Carro, film critic for the Mexico City publication Tiempo Libre, discusses the Echeverrí­a period with mixed feelings. While massive state support facilitated the production of high quality films, it also left filmmakers unprepared to fend for themselves. The next presidential administration drastically curtailed its film interests but did nothing to help filmmakers find new sources of funding. By the late 60s, both the quantity and quality of Mexican films had begun to ebb.


The Industry Today

When Carlos Salinas de Gortari assumed the presidency in 1988, the film industry had long fallen victim to its own decadence. State-owned production companies had become cash-sucking machines, siphoning their budgets off to inefficient waste, administrators back pockets, and the production of low-quality, tasteless films. State-owned distribution and exhibition companies were also riddled with inefficiency and corruption, and those that had not already gone bankrupt were on the verge of doing so. Most absurdly, the industry’s only legal regulation was an antiquated and ineffectual law dating back to 1949.

Salinas overhauled the framework of the entire industry. Inefficient bureaucracies were reorganized, state-owned enterprises were liquidated and privatized, and new, market-oriented policies were drafted and passed into law. His administration restored profitability to the distribution and exhibition sectors and cut the pork out of the production sector. Production statistics fell precipitously during his administration, from 76 films in 1988 to 28 films in 1994, but these numbers do not reveal that most of the films no longer produced were of abominable quality. Many internationally acclaimed films were produced during his term, including Alfonso Arau’s Como agua para chocolate and Jorge Fons El callejón de los milagros.

However, Mexican filmmakers usually speak of Salinas with acrimonious contempt. While Salinas encouraged the production of high quality films, his 1992 reform to the Federal Film Law crippled the production sector of the film industry. Among other measures, the reform liberalized ticket prices and reduced the screentime quota for Mexican films from 50% to zero over four years. Producers no longer had secure sources of funding or outlets for distribution. When the peso crisis of 1994 shattered the Mexican economy, most filmmakers were left unable to produce films. Production fell to 17 in 1995, to 16 in 1996, and to 13 in 1997. In 1998, with only 10 films produced, national production fell to its lowest point since 1932.

Filmmakers were unable to change the law until 1997. In that year, popular discontent with the ruling party led to electoral defeat in the midterm congressional elections. For the first time in its history, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) no longer held a majority in the lower house of Congress. Marí­a Rojo, a prominent actress known for her roles in Rojo Amanecer and La Tarea, won election to the lower house as a deputy from Mexico’s left-of-center party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Working together with the National Action Party (PAN), Mexico’s conservative party, the filmmaking community succeeded in passing a new Federal Film Law that better protected filmmakers interests.

The reform efforts, however, sparked a contentious and ugly debate between the three sectors of the industry. The production sector’s most controversial demands were the reinstatement of a screentime quota of 30% for Mexican films, a production fund through the taxing of exhibition companies, and the maintenence of the prohibition on the dubbing of commercial films. Not surprisingly, the distribution and exhibition sectors vehemently opposed the suggested changes. The final law called for a 10% quota, but revoked the concept of taxing exhibitors profits to pay for filmmaking. A fund would be created, but would be funded directly by the government. The prohibition on dubbing, however, was maintained.


Future Prospects

Today, government funds have succeeded in reviving the industry. Through the Mexican Film Institute, the government has supported the production of over 30 films since 1998. Moreover, now that filmmaking is once again a profitable industry, new private companies are moving into the business. Altavista Films, the company that produced Amores Perros, is the result of a joint venture between Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim and live-entertainment mogul Alejandro Soberanes. Their company, Estudio México, owns a distribution arm, Nuvisión, in addition to Altavista. This new combination of Mexican-owned companies that both produce and distribute may circumvent some of the common problems that Mexican producers face with American-owned distribution companies. Argos Cine is another prominent private production firm. Sexo, pudor, y lágrimas, a feature film release by Argos in 1998, came in third at the national box office, trailing only Titanic and Tarzan.

The Hollywood-dominated distribution sector continues to push the line on the dubbing issue. Unsuccessful in the legislative branch, it has moved its efforts to the judicial realm. In 2000, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in favor of the distributors. Columbia Pictures has already begun the dubbing of American films into Spanish, although considerable resistance to dubbing may prevent dubbed films from reaching the market anytime soon.

The dubbing issue aside, the film industry as a whole is well-poised to regain some of its former glory. With a new legal framework, better economic conditions, and the interest of private capital, production companies already have dozens of projects in the works.

In August of last year, I traveled to Guadalajara to meet with Emilio Garcí­a Riera, a historian of the Mexican film industry, to hear his opinions on the current state of the industry. When I asked him where he thought the industry was going, he repeated one of his well-known quotes: Mexico will never again have a golden age of film in the absence of a worldwide depression or World War III. Given the worldwide hegemony of Hollywood, his sobering remark is probably right. While cinema may never become the crown jewel of Mexico it once was, the determination of filmmakers to persist at their craft will ensure that Mexico continues to have its own film industry. With a more balanced legal framework in place, the industry has begun to function once again, bringing films with Mexicans as well as Americans to the silver screen.

Fall 2001, Volume I, Number 1

Jennifer Liu graduated from Harvard University this June with a B.A. in Social Studies and a Certificate in Latin American Studies. This article is based on her senior thesis, a look at how recent political changes in Mexico have affected its film industry. She would like to thank the many Mexican filmmakers, businessmen, and cinefilos-at-large who aided her in her research and hopes that Mexico is indeed entering a new golden age in its film industry.

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