MEXICO CITY -- After Mexico's Golden Age of cinema in the 1940s and 1950s, it was as if the theater went dark. The money that had flowed into Mexican moviemaking during the second World War receded back to Hollywood and European capitals. And the Mexican industry sunk into a decades-long slump.
It's a new day for Mexican cinema -- an "age" perhaps too young to be called golden. But words like "renaissance" and "new wave" have been bandied about, as Mexican films increasingly win recognition as much by the arbiters of great cinema as at the box office. A nascent independent film industry, which sprung again onto the world scene at the turn of the millennium, has begun to come into its own.
There is more money, and more talent, in the field than there has been in years. Mexicans have taken three of the past seven awards for Best Director at Cannes. A new multi-million dollar production facility fit to host larger independent film productions is in the works. Film festivals have flourished and gained prestige; one in Morelia, Michoacan, inaugurated a film scriptwriting school last year. And, crucially, independent Mexican films are starting to earn their keep at the box office.
Only three Mexican directors have won Cannes' Best Director during its 66-year history -- two of them in the past two years, Carlos Reygadas and his protege Amat Escalante, who took the prize this year for his film Heli, a devastating portrait of the drug violence plaguing the country. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won the prize for Babel en 2006.
The renaissance has been driven in part by a younger generation of filmmakers inspired by the successes of movies like Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien -- the first Mexican films that in 2000 and 2001 revived a languishing national industry and made rounds internationally. But an important government stimulus known as Article 226 created a pool of funding that has incubated numerous projects since it was legislated in 2007. Article 226 allows companies and individuals to direct a portion of their federal taxes directly to the film industry in exchange for tax breaks and a share of a film's earnings, according to Chapulin Films. For a film to be eligible, 70 percent of the financing must be spent in Mexico, and 70 percent of the crew must be Mexican.
Famously late Mexico City residents lined up early for a recent sold-out showing of Heli, which brought in more than 1 million pesos, or $75,000, its opening weekend earlier this month. It was a solid performance for a low-budget movie that, as producer Jaime Romandia told the newspaper El Economista in June, was "patched" together over four years due to funding constraints.
Mexico's independent film producers still struggle for resources, said Julian Levin, director general of Canana Films, the production house founded by actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. Its movie budgets run from $800,000 to more than $10 million, he said, funded largely in the U.S. and with support from the Mexican government.
Government financing -- although it has risen since 2007 with the creation of a federal tax that earmarks funds for film production -- falls short of demand. Meanwhile, Mexico has one of the lowest commercial lending rates in the region, which hamstrings entrepreneurship. Levin notes that banks in Mexico require an enterprise be in operation at least two years before qualifying for a loan, but every movie is essentially a start-up.
"There is clearly a niche for art cinema," he said. "The question is how to grow it."
Mexico is betting on its budding industry in other ways that could serve as a means to that end.
Bolstered by links to prestigious international festivals including Cannes, Sundance and Berlin, the Guanajuato International Film Festival announced the state will break ground in January on a $16 million production facility just outside of colonial San Miguel de Allende. Called Fabrica GIFF, the space will be outfitted with production studios, workshops, post-production facilities, an "innovation center" and theaters -- with an eye on attracting national and international productions.
Mexico may be notorious for its piracy -- outdoor stalls selling cheap copies of the latest blockbusters, and even independent films, are as easy to find as street tacos -- but Mexicans are going to the movies in ever-greater numbers. In 2011, 205.2 million people went to the movies, up from 168.4 million in 2006, according to CANACINE, the national chamber for the cinematography industry.
The Mexico City office of the Motion Picture Association, which represents Hollywood's interests, expects movie theater attendance to grow 10 percent this year.
"All the studios are trying to co-produce, not just in Mexico but in many parts of the world," said Federico de la Garza, director of MPA Mexico.
Distribution of independent films has historically been a challenge in Mexico but both Canana and Mantarraya, the production house behind Heli and several of Reygadas' films, have distribution arms, as does Lemon Films, another leading independent production house in Mexico.
"It's cultural, and a little sad, because sometimes from outside, people see us better than we see ourselves," Levin said.
The 42 Mexican films that came out in 2011, according to the latest statistics available from CANCINE, represented just 7 percent of the total $738.4 million in movie tickets sold in Mexico.
Mexico's independent cinema still has plenty of room to grow.
Photo: Mantarraya Producciones