Filmmaking in Mexico: an insider's perspective

November 2012

By Roberto Girault, independent film producer and director

In the past 10 years, Mexico's film industry has shown signs of a return to its golden age of the 1940s and 50s, with the success both at home and abroad of its directors - Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Babel) and Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) - and actors - Salma Hayek, Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel) and Diego Luna (Milk). While government incentives have been crucial in fuelling this nascent revival, independent filmmakers still face a number of major challenges. In this article, independent film producer and director Roberto Girault discusses his experience in making the local hit film El Estudiante, and shares his personal views on the Mexican film industry.

Roberto Girault notes that Mexico's cinema
infrastructure is now one of the most
developed in the world, but that the Mexican
film industry remains vulnerable because of
poor market access and the corrosive impact
of film piracy. (Photo: Halo Studio)

Three years ago, I co-produced, co-wrote with my partner Gaston Pavlovich, and directed my first film in Mexico. El Estudiante (The Student), released in 2009, became one of the most successful domestic films ever. Over a million people saw it in cinemas across Mexico, and over 4 million viewers tuned in to the film's premiere television broadcast two years later. DVD sales reached over 130,000 by the end of 2010. The film's distributor, Quality Films, estimates an additional 300,000 units of the film would have been sold had it not been for the rampant piracy that undermines the economic sustainability of the creative industries in my country, as it does elsewhere in the world.

El Estudiante is not a thrill ride for teenagers, nor is it a big-budget action/adventure spectacular made according to an international formula; it features no special effects, has no big stars and neither exploits nor dramatizes the problems of gang violence that have beset my country. It was made with a modest budget - some US$1.5 million - made possible by the help of local private investors and a government tax incentive scheme. El Estudiante is the simple story of a quiet man in his seventies who finds the courage to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a student. This decision takes him on a last, bittersweet journey of self-discovery in which he himself becomes a "teacher" of the younger students in his literature and drama course. What he has to teach has nothing to do with academia but everything to do with the art of loving and giving. What they give him in return is the opportunity to witness their transformation and coming of age as human beings.

Wherever my co-writer, Gaston Pavlovich, and lead actor, Jorge Lavat, and I went with our film in Mexico, people thanked us for daring to reflect and celebrate the life-affirming qualities of Mexican culture. There is no doubt that El Estudiante caught the cultural mood and touched a chord in Mexico's collective consciousness. Yet, despite its cultural impact and the economic added value it created, my film, like many Mexican film projects, came close to never being made.

Mexican filmmakers face two major challenges

I want to make films in Mexico about real Mexican lives and stories, but this ambition is being made very difficult. Mexican film is beset by two major paradoxes that leave small and medium-sized creative film companies like my own in a precarious position. We struggle to earn a living from our creativity and to find adequate financing and distribution channels for the very films that are meant to express our national culture in all its richness and complexity.

Poor market access

The first paradox lies in the cinema exhibition market. Mexico has a first-class cinema infrastructure. In 2009, with 180 million ticket sales, Mexico became the fifth largest country in the world in cinema admissions, ahead of the UK, Japan, Germany and the Russian Federation. Yet, for all its size (over 4,500 screens countrywide) and efficiency, local cinemas are largely failing independent domestic films. International blockbusters that enjoy huge promotional support and the promise of bigger audiences tend to be favored over any other films. Those Mexican films that make it to local cinema screens are often caught in a vicious spiral. Cinema chains take them out of their theatres after only a week to make way for films they deem more profitable. So begins the slow process of commercial asphyxiation. Deprived of an adequate opportunity to build up an audience through word-of-mouth, domestic films suffer from a lack of exposure.

To address this situation, the Mexican Government recently introduced a helpful "opera prima" regulation that makes it compulsory for cinema operators to keep a Mexican film by a first-time director on their screens for a minimum of two weeks. This measure, however, has had limited success in that operators have worked around the obligation by programming domestic productions during working hours or late at night when cinema attendance is at its lowest.

With El Estudiante,our distributor, Luis Calzada of Quality Films, fought hard to give the film a high-profile release. Uncharacteristically, for a Mexican film, 100 prints of the film were distributed thanks to funds from the government of Guanajuato, the province in which the film was shot. By the end of the first week, however, pressure from the cinema chains was such that the run moved into its second week with only half the initial number of prints being screened. By the end of week three, however, the power of word-of-mouth was beginning to pay off, and the film became a great success. In the end, El Estudiante beat all the oddsand ran for 22 weeks - something unheard of for a domestic film in recent years.

Film director Roberto Girault (back to camera) on set
guiding leading actor Jorge Lavat (Chano) in the film
El Estudiante, one of the most successful Mexican
films ever. (Photo: Halo Studio)

While El Estudiante was a box office success, only a very small proportion of the local films made each year in Mexico ever make it to a cinema screen. Those that do are caught in a poverty trap resulting from low marketing expenditure, a small number of prints and short runs. Even when the films are good (and they often are), their commercial failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 2009, the year I directed El Estudiante, only 16 of the 66 domestic films shown on the screens of Mexican cinemas reached or exceeded their forecast box office revenue.


The second paradox relates to film distribution and the protection of filmmakers' rights. With such a narrow window of opportunity for films to be screened in cinemas, independent producers and directors like me and independent film distributors such as Luis Calzada are under enormous pressure to gain a foothold in other markets if our films are to be economically viable. While online film platforms are still in their infancy in Mexico, DVD sales and national broadcast television should be natural commercial outlets. Piracy, however, means most domestic films only realize a fraction of their actual value in this important market.

Piracy is a scourge on filmmakers large and small. Its implications, however, are arguably all the more devastating for independent filmmakers given the economic uncertainties and constraints under which they work and their limited capacity to withstand any erosion of box office revenue.

For independent filmmakers, piracy is not just a direct hit in terms of lost box office revenue, it also means other potential sources of revenue elsewhere in the distribution value chain are undermined. If the streets are awash with illegal copies of our films when they are still struggling to attract audiences in the cinemas, their value is then diminished in other parts of the consumer market. Mexican television broadcasters are notorious for paying low licensing fees for rights to domestic films, arguing that once a film has been extensively pirated, its premiere broadcast value is seriously reduced. Piracy saps the very foundations of the independent film financing pyramid, which is fragile at the best of times.

In May 2012, I presented El Estudiante to an audience of WIPO delegates, in a showing organized by the Mexican and US Permanent Missions to the United Nations in Geneva. This was an excellent opportunity for me to draw the attention of policymakers to the importance of copyright and the exclusive rights it confers on behalf of not only Mexican filmmakers but all filmmakers and film entrepreneurs around the world.

Government incentives

In recent years, the Mexican Government has introduced important new incentives in the form of tax rebates, which have been crucial in supporting the domestic industry. Without doubt, these measures have stimulated local film production, making it possible for independent filmmakers to capture wide-ranging perspectives of contemporary Mexican culture in all its drama and depth. These incentives, in large part, also account for the reason Mexico now produces over 60 domestically-financed films each year. Ultimately, however, government incentives, no matter how helpful, can only go so far in building sustainable creative industries. Such incentives may help make the high-risk economic activity of film production a more attractive investment proposition but, ultimately, investors need to be sure they will get a return through the subsequent licensing of film rights in different consumer markets. Without such security, every creative industry eventually flounders and declines.

Ensuring that the creative industries, such as the independent film sector, enjoy effective copyright protection coupled with a determination to combat piracy, is key in fuelling the sustained growth of the film industry. At a time when international film companies are looking for the safest and most conducive environments for making and distributing films, such an approach can strongly influence investment decisions. The long-term benefits are clear in terms of creating an operating environment that stimulates economic activity and job creation.

In the past 10 years, Mexican cinema has undergone a fragile renaissance. Directors and screenwriters such as Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Arriaga, Alejandro Iňárritu or Guillermo del Toro have headlined major international productions, conquering the world with original and powerful works. The country's best cinematographers are in global demand, and the competence and diligence of Mexico's "line producers" and technicians are attracting major film projects to the country's state-of-the-art studios and diverse shooting locations. Mexico's cinema infrastructure is now one of the most developed in the world. These are all undeniable assets, but the Mexican film industry will remain vulnerable if the economic value of domestic films continues to be diminished by poor market access and if piracy continues to corrode the value of film rights.

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