MEXICO CITY – It was just four simple words, but filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón's spontaneous outburst when picking up his Golden Globe last month was an authentic nugget of Mexican spirit: “Gracias, cabrón. ¡Ay güey! (Thanks, you bastard. Wow, man!)” he said as he hugged an amused and surprised Ben Affleck.
Cuarón, the first Mexican to win the Best Director award, was being honored at the 71st annual Golden Globes ceremony, hosted by the Foreign Press Association of Hollywood at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel, for his movie “Gravity,” about two astronauts lost in space.
Next up: this week's Academy Awards, where the director is on the short list for the same category. “Because of my thick accent, they ended up doing what they thought I said, not what I really said,” the filmmaker joked, before thanking “Gravity” protagonist Sandra Bullock at the Golden Globes. “I want to thank you for not quitting when you thought that I had told you, ‘Sandra, I’m going to give you herpes,’ when I really meant to say, ‘Sandra, I’m going to give you an earpiece.’” Cuarón might be the best, and most famous, example of contemporary Mexican cinema: deeply authentic but easily relatable, unafraid of poking fun at itself yet confident, ready to take the world by storm.
This is a new renaissance for Mexican cinema, as national films and artists increasingly win recognition from critics and moviegoers, within the country’s borders and beyond. After a decades-long slump -- Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema was during the 1940s and 1950s -- the industry is experiencing a rebirth.
“The ‘age’ is perhaps too young to be called golden -- but words like ‘renaissance’ and ‘new wave’ have been bandied about,” says local arts reporter Lauren Villagran. The movie that arguably marked the turn of a new era in Mexico’s independent film industry was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s gritty drama “Amores perros” in 2000. The film, which followed the brutal lives of several citizens of Mexico City, was a smash hit, both critically and commercially. Filmed on a budget of $2 million, it grossed $5.5 million in the U.S. alone, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won a Cannes’ Jury Prize. “Mexico has no film industry. We are very behind,” said the filmmaker in the press tour of his breakthrough film. “But what it does have, which is an advantage over other countries -- particularly the U.S. -- is the quality of the people."
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"The U.S. might produce 300 or 400 movies a year, whereas in Mexico there are maybe 12. But out of those 12, six are highly intense and exploratory of human issues, whereas in the States, maybe four fit that bill,” he added.
González Iñárritu went on to make an international name for himself with hits such as “21 Grams” and “Babel,” which earned him a Cannes’ Best Director award and seven Oscar nods. And, true to his words, the early 2000s saw Mexico developing an independent film industry focused on showing the intimacy of daily life in the country, with modest budgets and the hunger of a younger generation of filmmakers. The next hit out of Mexico was “Y tu mamá también,” released in 2001, a coming-of-age road trip story of two teenagers who fall in love with an older woman. The movie was a hit at the Mexican box office, making $2.2 million in its first week -- the biggest opening ever for a Mexican film until last year. Distribution company IFC Films brought it to the U.S. without submitting it to the MPAA for fears of an NC-17 rating due to sexual scenes and language; it opened in March 2002 in 286 theaters and, according to numbers by Box Office Mojo, netted more than $13 million in the 20 weeks it showed, making it ninth in the ranking of top-grossing foreign movies in the U.S. at the time.
The movie also launched director Cuarón onto the international film scene. Since then, Cuarón has directed blockbusters such as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Children of Men” as well as working as producer in indie darling “Pan’s Labyrinth." Come Sunday, March 2, he might become the first Mexican to win an Oscar for Best Director.
Cuarón was not the only artist involved in “Y tu mamá también" to be widely recognizable after the success of the movie. Actors Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, who played the two main characters, also became household names, both in Mexico and abroad. Both actors would go on to play in internationally acclaimed movies (Luna in “Milk” and “The Terminal,” García Bernal – who had already taken part in “Amores perros” – in “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “The Science of Sleep”) and take an active role in promoting Mexican cinema. Friends in real life, Luna and García Bernal started production company Cananá Films in Mexico City in 2011, which focuses on producing Mexican films committed to social issues, and distributing foreign films in Mexico.
As the industry started to grow, the Mexican government became more invested in locally produced movies. A law passed in 2007 created a pool of funding that has incubated numerous projects on the condition that 70 percent of the funding be spent in Mexico and 70 percent of the crew be Mexican.
However, government financing is not enough, and independent film producers still struggle for resources. Cananá Films' projects have a wide range of budgets, from $800,000 to more than $10 million, most of which comes from private investors in the U.S. “Our idea is to continue strengthening Mexico’s movie industry, which has taken a long time in taking off,” said Julián Levín, CEO of Cananá, in a radio interview. “There have been stimuli, like the fiscal benefits and support from the federal and local governments, and we are reaching a real financial model that can push our industry forward.”
But besides the government’s interest and individual artists’ efforts, the support Mexican cinema needs to win is, precisely, the hardest to attain: that of its own public. Mexicans are going to the movies more than ever, but they usually choose to watch foreign films – mostly Hollywood block-busters and comedies. According to numbers by CanaCine, the association for the Mexican cinematography industry, in 2012 229 million people went to the movies – a 35 percent increase from six years before, when Mexican theaters received 168.4 million visitors. Such numbers gave Mexico the fourth-highest number of moviegoers in the world, after India, the U.S. and China.
Mexican moviegoers' tastes tend toward foreign productions. The 42 Mexican films that came out in 2011 represented just 7 percent of the total $738.4 million in movie tickets sold in Mexico. A year later, the country’s total box office netted $841 million, but local films contributed a mere $7.8 million.
“It is cultural,” Levín said. “We are perceived better from outside than from within.”
But, as happens in movies, there's a twist at the end: 2013 was a stellar year for Mexican cinema, and it might be a sign of things to come.
Moviegoer numbers continued their upward trend, with 257 million tickets sold during the year, as did box-office earnings, which grossed $902 million. However, for the first time, two local productions made it to the top 10 most-watched movies in Mexico: comedies “No se aceptan devoluciones” (released in the U.S. with the title “Instructions Not Included”) and “Nosotros los Nobles” (“We Are the Nobles,” as it was translated in English). “We Are the Nobles,” a class comedy about a wealthy Mexico City businessman who fakes going bankrupt to teach his entitled children a lesson, grossed $26.6 million at the local box office, making it the sixth-largest-netting movie in the country. The film was distributed by Warner Bros. in the U.S. in late 2013 on 875 screens across the country.
The real star of last year, though, was “Instructions Not Included,” which was the most-watched Mexican movie of the year and second in total profits -- after "Despicable Me 2," netting $45 million at the local box office. Eugenio Derbez, the brains behind “Instructions Not Included,” thinks both movies mark a shift in the mentality of Mexican filmmakers. “The industry is finally realizing that people want to see Mexican movies,” he said. “We just need to give them what they want to see.” Leonardo Zimbrón of Filmadora Nacional, which produced “We Are the Nobles,” said the industry has been learning from the past decade of hits and misses. “We are working to understand our audience, and how to best release films that [speak to] them,” he said.
The formula is working north of the border, too: The smash success of “Instructions Not Included,” which follows a Mexican playboy being forced to take care of his estranged daughter, was distributed by Pantelion Films – a joint venture of Lionsgate and Televisa – and grossed $44 million in the U.S. Fernando Pérez Gavilán, Televisa’s Pantelion co-head, said during the press tour that the market conditions were prime for such a release.
“Latino audiences are traditionally underserved in the U.S. market – and when there are movies with Latino characters, they always stereotypically concentrate on immigration, gang and drug issues,” he explained. Uniformly praised by critics and the public, “Instructions Not Included” is currently the highest-earning Spanish-language movie ever, and fourth-highest-grossing foreign-language, topping classics like France’s “Amélie” and crowd-pleasers like Sweden’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
“We are making movies that we make sure work in both markets,” added Pérez Gavilán. Pantelion’s latest import, “Pulling Strings,” a romantic comedy about the relationship between a mariachi and a U.S. embassy staffer, made $5.6 million in its first month.