US actor Brad Pitt attends a red carpet for his new film by director Quentin Tarantino “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in Mexico City on August 12, 2019. (Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images)
  • Industry

Hollywood in Mexico

One in an occasional series exploring the state of Hollywood films in global markets.

For the week ending November 3, Mexico was one of the countries that is bailing out a US flop, Terminator: Dark Fate. Hollywood films took all but two slots in its top ten charts, including Maleficent at No.2, The Addams Family at No. 3 and Joker at No. 5. The latter film, in keeping with its success around the world, has already made more than $42 million in Mexico.

Mexico is the world’s fourth-largest market in the number of movie screens and ticket sales. The top 20 films of 2018 were all Hollywood films led by Avengers: Infinity War. So far in 2019, only three local productions have cracked the top 20.

A Guardian article from 2013 stated, “Put bluntly, there isn’t the same passion for Mexican films as there is for cinemagoing in Mexico. And it has a big problem on that score: no country has been more affected by Hollywood’s behemoth presence over the border. The taste for US entertainment means the local industry has to kick hard just to keep its head above water.” Not much has changed in the intervening six years, except this: Hollywood has discovered that Mexico has talented directors who can add to the studio coffers.

In the last six years, five Oscars for Best Director have gone to Mexicans Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, the latter winning for Roma in 2019 and Gravity in 2014; Iñárritu winning back to back in 2015 and 2016 for Birdman and The Revenant. Del Toro won in 2018 for The Shape of Water. Cuarón now lives in the UK; Iñárritu and del Toro live in the US. In that period the “three amigos” have collected an astonishing 14 nominations and 6 Golden Globes to their names.

The law in Mexico, before NAFTA was passed in 1994, required at least 30% of screens to be devoted to Mexican films. After 1994, that percentage fell to 10%. Two cinema chains, Cinemex and Cinepolis, control almost every screen in Mexico and their preference is to exhibit Hollywood films. It was Cuarón who forced Cinemex to release Silver Lion-winning director Amat Escalante’s The Untamed in 2016 by tweet-shaming it after it was canceled by the chain. It then got a narrow release.

After Trump scrapped NAFTA and replaced it with USMCA (NAFTA 2.0 with a few updates), the Mexican government was quick to ratify it. But the film industry got short shrift as Mexico was more concerned about saving the deal than worrying about the local film industry. According to TeleSUR English, a Latin American TV channel, the Mexican Academy put out a series of proposals in an open letter, among them the elimination of the ban on funding local production with a tax on ticket sales. The proposals were ignored.

While everyone is in a wait-and-see mode, chances are Trump’s modus operandi of criticizing deals because Obama made them, threatening to scrap them, then tinkering with them in minor ways and presenting them as reboots and himself as a savior, might well occur again in terms of the USMCA.

In the meantime, the ubiquitous Netflix has made its presence known by producing 50 movies and television shows in Mexico in the last four years. Streaming services like HBO Latino and FilminLatino have existed for a while, but the deep-pocketed Netflix is a game-changer, especially for Spanish-language content. “The richness of talent in front of and behind the camera in Mexico was key in our decision to begin our local production strategy … four years ago,” Netflix Chief Executive Ted Sarandos said at a Netflix publicity event in Mexico City earlier this year. According to a Netflix press release, upcoming are four films, one a musical comedy based on the songs of Pedro Infante, a TV series on Tejano singer Selena, and five documentary shorts to be executive produced by Gael García Bernal. Just in case everyone has forgotten, Roma was a Netflix film that streamed to its 139 million worldwide subscribers. Netflix will open a Mexico City office as well, with dedicated content, marketing, and PR teams.

Just as an aside, Mexico was the first country where Netflix started producing local programming when it expanded to Latin America in 2011.

US production in Mexico continues apace, mostly because of the generous tax incentives – 80% of production, postproduction, and distribution with a ceiling of $1 million, as well as no VAT. 2019’s remake of Miss Bala opened earlier this year. Fear the Walking Dead shot seasons 2 and 3 over there as did 2015’s Sicario sequel. Narcos: Mexico, The House of the Flowers, Selena and Monarca are other well-known Netflix series shot in Mexico.

The 2015 James Bond film Spectre shot a spectacular sequence in Mexico City’s historical center involving a Day of the Dead parade and a helicopter stunt. Other recent well-known films include 2006’s Apocalypto (Mel Gibson-directed, shot in the Mayan language) and Jack Black’s Nacho Libre. Robert Rodriguez filmed Once Upon a Time in Mexico as part of his El Mariachi trilogy with Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp and Salma Hayek in 2002. And Hayek made her labor of love Frida in 2001 in the Mexico City area. Also, 2001’s The Mexican with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts was shot in Mexico.

At the last Guadalajara Film Festival, Mexico’s film industry presented an analysis of the local industry. Takeaways include the fact that Hollywood’s market share in Latin America is 85% of the box office total, and that 11 of the 45 international co-productions of the US industry were with Mexico.

The all-time box office champ in Mexico is not Coco who held the title briefly with $57 million in 2017. No surprise, Avengers; Endgame came in at $77 million this year.