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Mexico's creative brain drain

Any Oscar triumphs by filmmakers born in the country belie the troubled state of its movie industry, which gives talent little choice but to cross the border.

February 24, 2007|Lorenza Munoz and Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — With 16 Oscar nominations among their films, Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu 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, Maria Felix, Pedro Infante and Cantinflas. Last year saw a modest improvement, when 33 Mexican films were shown in theaters, according to the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, 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. Gonzalez Inarritu, 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 Gonzalez Inarritu 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, Gonzalez Inarritu 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.

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