Mexican cinema is biding its time

Production, quality, and interest in Mexican films are in their best moment, but legislation issues are working against them

María Candelaria (1944) – File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 15/08/2017 12:03 José Juan de Ávila Actualizada 12:41

It's the 121st anniversary of Mexican cinema, but our national cinema is trapped between contradictions: on the one hand, the production and quality of national films are in their best moment, drawing the attention of lots of people to movie theaters; yet, on the other, the industry, creators, and institutions cannot reach an agreement on a wider screening of Mexican films, and the legislation on Mexican cinematography is so outdated that an initiative to proclaim August 15 as the “National Day of Mexican Cinema” was set aside.

Film critic Jorge Ayala Blanco said during an interview that Mexican cinema is currently going through a contradictory time. “You never had so many [Mexican] films before, and never of the quality and maturity they now have; yet, we know Mexican cinema is produced to fail during the first week in movie theaters. The films that finally make it to theaters are not the best of Mexican cinema, which are also made to be sacrificed; what we have are the more commercial, blockbuster films; light comedies without much substance,”

Ramón Ramírez, director of Public Relationships in Cinépolis, explained through a phone interview that movie theater chains depend on the films offered by distributors regardless of their country of origin. He claims the major issue of film selection relies on the freedom of choice of the audiences, whose taste you cannot force.

“Many films are clearly independent films which appeal at festivals, but the stories they tell aren't necessarily appealing to most audiences,” he says, although he remarks his company also promotes independent films and shows them at their art theaters and festivals.

Ramirez went on to say it's important to understand what people want and produce that; he claims most of the premiers in Mexico no longer come from Hollywood exclusively, since last year, out of 425 films, “only 202 were from the United States, 138 from the rest of the world and 85 [sic] were Mexican.”

According to the National Chamber of Cinematic Industry in Mexico (CANACINE), the percentage of sales of Mexican films at the ticket office has gone from 5.5% in 2009 to 8.9% in 2016, peaking in 2013 with 10.9%.

Ayala Blanco cautions that the success of Mexican films, such as the ones produced by Eugenio Derbez, “are only useful to inflate numbers,” similarly to those films produced with international festivals in mind. “Mexican films made to be shown at festivals, that's is just another way of conformity. It's an absurdity. The goal is to create an illusion, the illusion of the Mexcian cinema: if it is successful at festivals it means we're promoting it.” he says, insisting that Mexican films fail during their theatrical run when they are presented in the worst conditions possible without the required promotion.
A matter of Law
According to section 19 of the Federal Law on Cinematography, the screening time of Mexcian films at movie theaters is restricted to a 10% of total time, and to a minimum of one week.

Lucila Hinojosa, a specialist on NAFTA and Mexican cinema,  professor of the University of Nuevo León, says the Law on Cinematography was passed in 1992, two weeks after NAFTA was signed, and the Mexican Cinema has been living in a crisis from which it began to recover in 2006. This Law repealed the former Law on Cinematography, passed in 1949, stipulating that 50% of movie theaters should be reserved for Mexican films.

Even NAFTA is “more lenient” than the Mexican Law, considering it establishes a total screening time of 30% for Mexican films. Considering the recent creation in 2017 of the Federal Ministry of Culture – which incorporates the Mexican Institute of Cinematography (Imcine) and the National Movie Theater (Cineteca) under its jurisdiction – Hinojosa claims it's the best moment to review the problems Mexican cinema faces, the national legislation, and to renegotiate NAFTA on this matter.

A day on the calendar
On April 20, the Mexican Senate approved unanimously the initiative proposed in December 2016 to consider August 15 of each year as the “National Day of Mexican Cinema” and sent the minutes to the deputies for their discussion and vote, yet it coincided with the legislative recess of the Chamber and a time extension was requested. Thus, this new official anniversary will have to wait another year, if approved.

Despite this situation, the Federal Ministry of Culture, through the Mexican Institute of Cinematography (Imcine), decided to celebrate this year with cycles of modern Mexican films which “are a symbol of the diversity and splendor of our cinema and identity,” at the National Cineteca, and at the State movie theaters in Nuevo León, Zacatecas, and Tijuana.

It was on August 15, 1896, when a film was showed for the first time to a general audience, for the price of 50 cents per ticket.