The latest poster boy for Mexican cinema is Guillermo del Toro, whose movie “The Shape of Water” is the top contender going into Sunday’s Oscars, with 13 nominations including best picture and best director.
Del Toro is one of the “three amigos” in Mexican filmmaking along with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — who won the best director Oscar in 2015 and 2016 with “Birdman” and “The Revenant” — and Alfonso Cuaron, who won in 2014 with “Gravity.”
In the past four years, films by Mexican directors have scooped up a total of 15 Oscars, six Golden Globes and a host of film festival prizes.
That international success has been matched by a boom in Mexican productions: there were 160 last year, according to Ernesto Contreras, director of the Mexican Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
That is up from just 12 in 2000, the year Inarritu released his first film, “Amores Perros.”
But good luck trying to catch a Mexican movie in Mexico, where two big movie theater chains rule the market and consumers tend to prefer Hollywood blockbusters.
In 1993 — the year before the United States, Mexico and Canada launched the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — movie theaters here were required by law to devote at least 30 percent of total screen time to Mexican films.
In 1997, the percentage was reduced to 10 — but no one seems to be enforcing the law anymore.
“I hate the fact that out of 160 films, only 80 get a theatrical release,” Contreras told AFP.
“When ‘Coco’ and ‘Thor’ came out, 98 percent of Mexican movie screens were showing those two films.”
– ‘Offensive and outrageous’ –
Two chains, Cinemex and Cinepolis, operate nearly every movie theater in Mexico.
Even Mexican movies that win prestigious prizes abroad have trouble reaching an audience at home.
Director Amat Escalante won the Silver Lion at the Venice film festival with “The Untamed” in 2016, but found out just as he was promoting the movie that Cinemex had canceled plans to release it in Mexico.
It took a tweet from Cuaron, who called the decision “offensive and outrageous,” to make Cinemex reconsider. It released the movie at 28 cinemas, out of the more than 2,500 it operates.
“The major chains don’t really have an interest in making room for Mexican films. They would rather show American films and fill their theaters,” said French film critic Jean-Christophe Berjon, who lives in Mexico.
Mexico is the world’s fourth-largest market in both number of movie screens and ticket sales, after China, India and the United States.
“For the United States, it is the largest foreign market,” said Berjon — one where even Hollywood movies that flop at home can make money.
The renegotiation of NAFTA triggered by US President Donald Trump could have been a chance for Mexico to carve out more space for its domestic films.
The Mexican Academy published an open letter in September calling on the government to defend the industry.
Proposals include scrapping the clause in NAFTA that bars member countries from funding film productions with a tax on movie admissions, which is a system used in Europe.
But with the seventh round of negotiations currently under way, Mexico looks more concerned with simply saving NAFTA — it sends some 80 percent of its exports to the US under the deal — than driving a hard bargain on behalf of filmmakers.
Like many business sectors in Mexico, the film industry has little choice but to take a wait-and-see approach.
“We’re waiting to see what happens, and we’re preparing for every scenario,” said Contreras.