With a total of 140 films produced in 2015, Mexico is home to one of the 20 largest film industries in the world. In addition to well-known Mexican filmmakers who are mainly working abroad, there has been a recent boom in the presence of Mexican productions in international film festivals. And the number of Mexican film festivals rose to 119 in 2015, 20 more than the year prior. 2015 also marked the first time in the history of Mexican cinema that important awards were received at four main international festivals: Cannes (Michel Franco’s Chronic), Berlin (Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles), Venice (Lorenzo Vigas’s Desde allá) and San Sebastián (Julio Hernández’s Te prometo anarquía).
What is disappointing, though, is the number of viewers these films manage to attract once they hit the theater circuit at home. Attendance numbers for domestically produced films have fallen from 12% of tickets sold in 2013 to 10% in 2014 to just 6% in 2015; 54% of Mexican-made theatrical releases are seen by fewer than 10,000 spectators each.
After discussions with a range of film industry professionals, distributors, filmmakers, and festival programmers, it is easy to understand why. (These conversations were tellingly uniform in the kind of views expressed, and they reflect, to a degree, the state of film distribution worldwide.) While 70% of films produced in Mexico in 2015 benefited from some kind of state support, there is currently no significant policy in place for the promotion and distribution of national films on the exhibition circuit. As a result, only a small proportion of domestic films ever make it to a cinema screen. By programming these titles at times of low cinema attendance, resulting in very short runs, distributors have managed to bypass recent regulations implemented by the Mexican Film Institute that were intended to promote first films by Mexican directors. That, along with the inclusion of cultural products in the 1994 NAFTA agreement, which has further diminished the percentage of non-Hollywood films getting enough exposure; low marketing expenditures; and the extinction of most privately owned, small local theaters, which were more likely to program them, causes most Mexican productions to withdraw from theaters before they have a chance to reach enough spectators.
At the same time (and, to a certain extent, because of the conditions mentioned above), the resurgence of an “alternative exhibition circuit” and the prevalence of pirated DVD copies and, to a lesser degree, streaming—with three digital platforms having been launched with public participation in 2015*—ensures that at least some of these titles are reaching their audience, which is slowly growing despite the difficulties of theatrical distribution.
Along with a number of private exhibition spaces like Cine Tonalá and La Casa del Cine Mx, film clubs, festivals, and itinerant exhibition, the National Cinematheque, or Cineteca Nacional, with 10 theaters and an open-air projection space, is at this point the most prominent platform for film exhibition outside the commercial arena. Although there is some resentment about its recent programming strategy, which is inclusive of more conventional and commercial forms of filmmaking, the Cineteca has managed to become the main destination for Mexican cinephiles looking for more diverse programming, with over one million spectators in 2015—40,000 more than the previous year. One important thing to note, however, would be that, with the exception of public institutions such as the Cineteca and the Filmoteca de la UNAM, and despite the constant growth of alternative exhibition initiatives, most of these institutions are surviving thanks to subsidies or side ventures such as restaurants, bars, and comedy clubs operating in the same space. This is a troubling state of affairs in a country that has the world’s fifth-highest cinema attendance and where film traditionally targeted popular audiences and was considered one of the most democratic forms of entertainment.
This idea of cinema as a fundamentally popular, accessible art form is put to question by some in the Mexican film press, who juxtapose films marketed toward a larger audience inside the country with international, award-winning productions. These comparisons are made in a way that is simultaneously condescending and emblematic of the strain in Mexican society that views auteurist or independent cinema as elitist and cut off from the tastes of the Mexican public. And it is true that, despite the exploitation of Mexico’s ongoing violence and poverty problem by a number of filmmakers—which also seems to fulfill a set of reductionist criteria often set by international programmers—almost everyone I interviewed commented that audiences are rarely eager to be confronted with the problems they face in their daily lives. The resulting preference for films that they perceive as more traditional, escapist, and aspirational contributes to the creation of two parallel film markets: one looking to international festivals and, eventually, commercial distribution abroad, and one catering to audiences inside the country.
Special thanks to Albino Álvarez Gomez, José Manuel García, Carmen Carrara, José Antonio Valencia and the Filmoteca de la UNAM; Jorge Sánchez, Juan Carlos Domínguez Domingo, Monserrat Sánchez and the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía; Tzutzumatzin Soto, Raúl Miranda López and the Archivo Memoria of the Cineteca Nacional; Lola Díaz-González, Carlos Sosa and La Casa del Cine Mx; Iván Trujillo and the Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara; Claudia Prado and the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica; Mariana Musalem and the Campamento Audiovisual Itinerante of Oaxaca; Alonso Aguilar and the Los Cabos International Film Festival; Isabel Rojas, Rigoberto Perezcano and the Associación Oaxaca Cine; the Oaxaca Film Festival; Juan Carlos Rulfo, Pau Montagud, Bertha Navarro, Michel Franco, Amat Escalante, Gabriel Ripstein, Paul Leduc and Alexis Grivas for their help and conversations.