MEXICO CITY — Barely two years ago, President Vicente Fox touched off a national uproar when he proposed slashing federal funding for Mexico's film industry, once among the world's most prolific. The president's austerity-budget proposals to sell off the legendary Churubusco Azteca studio, shut down the national film school and ax the federal agency in charge of movie promotion and financing eventually were turned back amid cries of anger from filmmakers and a wave of negative media coverage.
Mexico's storied film industry is still only a shadow of what it was during the so-called Golden Age of the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, when the country churned out an average of 80 features a year and Pedro Infante, Maria Felix, Cantinflas and other matinee idols had the stature of saints. But film industry officials expect Mexico to produce at least 40 feature-length films this year -- five times as many as were produced as recently as 2000 -- plus scores of soap opera telenovelas, commercial and industrial films, music videos and other cinematic fare.
Then last week, the federal government said it would step up its loans to small- and mid-size film production companies and allot about $300,000 to the national film commission, known by its Spanish-language acronym Conafilm, to develop strategies to make the industry more competitive in the global marketplace. Also last week, the Mexico City government announced that it would streamline filming-permit regulations to help promote more movie shoots in this swarming, strangely photogenic metropolis.
Some filmmakers hailed the initiatives as a welcome, if minor, about-face from a federal government widely perceived by Mexican artists as being blase about promoting the national culture. Others predicted that the new measures would have little impact on Mexico's film industry or doubted they would be implemented at all. "Yeah, that'll be the day," said Arturo Ripstein, the veteran director of such daring and acclaimed movies as "El Lugar Sin Limites," when told by a reporter of the initiatives.
The new federal measures amplify an ongoing debate over how much the Mexican government should be involved in the movie business, as the country's film industry continues to rebound from a devastating mid-1990s national economic slump that triggered a massive devaluation of the peso. In 1995, only five feature films were produced in Mexico.
Since that low-water mark, the industry has slowly regrouped, spurred by the international success of a new generation of filmmakers, including Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("21 Grams," "Amores Perros") and Carlos Carrera ("El Crimen del Padre Amaro").
Meanwhile, there's a promising group of even younger directors who haven't yet been recruited by Hollywood, raising hopes that Mexico's so-called film renaissance isn't simply a passing phase. Their number includes Fernando Eimbecke ("Temporada de Patos") and Carlos Reygadas, whose assured, rhapsodic first two features "Japon" and "Batalla en el Cielo" have drawn raves from Los Angeles to Cannes.
Foreign filmmakers also have been returning to Mexico. Parts of such movies as "Frida," the bio-pic about artist Frida Kahlo, and the sword-and-sandals epic "Troy" were shot here. Mel Gibson's new movie "Apocalypto," which reportedly will be an action film set 3,000 years ago in an ancient civilization, will be shot in the state of Veracruz along the Atlantic coast.
Under the most ambitious and costly of the new federal measures, announced last week by the nation's secretary of the economy, Fernando Canales, the government will allocate about $1 million to back loans to small- and medium-size film and television production companies. Though modest by Hollywood's bloated budgetary standards, the program is expected to benefit as many as 35 film-related companies throughout Mexico.
Sergio Molina, Conafilm's director, said one of the government's primary objectives is to spur more co-productions between Mexico and foreign countries. Perhaps a more immediate effect on filmmaking may be felt in Mexico City, which intends to simplify and standardize its labyrinthine processes for obtaining a shooting permit. According to city government figures, in an average year about 20 feature films, 15 \o7telenovelas\f7 and 2,100 commercials are made in Mexico City, whose unusual blend of pre-Colombian, colonial and modern architecture, along with rambling parks, elegant old church squares and rich and poor neighborhoods gives filmmakers plenty of backdrops to choose from.
But in recent years, the capital has been losing film and television production to other regions of the country that have fewer regulations and restrictions, a version of the runaway production problems that have plagued Hollywood. A major obstacle is that each of the city's 16 \o7delegaciones\f7, or districts, has operated under different criteria for awarding film permits.