23 Feb 19
Beside its status as the unlikeliest likely winner of the Best Picture Academy Award this Sunday, “Roma” is certainly the most talked-about production made in Mexico with U.S. money.
Alfonso Cuaron’s 10 Oscars-nominated, artful recreation of everyday life in 1970s Mexico City is far from the only one, though. Production in Mexico is expanding at a remarkable pace, thanks to changes in how Americans, and the rest of the world, consume entertainment – and to current economic and political trends between the neighboring countries.
Streaming giant Netflix – which bought “Roma” from Beverly Hills-based Participant Media and has reportedly spent much more than the film’s $15 million production budget on its lavish awards campaign – announced earlier this month that it’s opening an office in Mexico City and getting involved with oodles of new Mexican TV shows and movies.
” ‘Roma’ is an incredible story from Mexico that has connected with audiences around the world, and it is one of the many incredible Mexican stories we are so fortunate to have on Netflix,” Erik Barmack, Netflix’s Vice President of International Originals, told SCNG. “We have been investing in Mexico since our launch there in 2011, first with licensed content, and four years ago, we began our local production strategy in Mexico with ‘Club de Cuervos.’ Since then, we have only continued to expand our local investment and continue to bet on Mexican talent with more than 50 projects in different stages of production over the next two years.”
A scene from CLUB DE CUERVOS, Netflix’s first original Mexican series. Photo courtesy Netflix.
While the soccer dramedy “Cuervos” shows one side of Mexico’s diverse culture, another Netflix series, “Narcos: Mexico,” depicts another, darker one. One of the latter’s stars, Diego Luna (who got his big, international break in Cuaron’s 2001 “Y Tu Mamá También”), praised Netflix for the diversity and cultural authenticity it encourages at the FORO (forum) event in Mexico City two weeks ago, where the streaming service announced it local initiatives.
NARCOS: MEXICO star Diego Luna. Photo courtesy Netflix.
“Roma,” the actor thought, was a prime example of those qualities.
“I’m so excited, and I think we all are in Mexico, for the contribution of the film in terms of cinematic history and the celebration of a film that is in Spanish and Mixteco, in black-and-white, and that is a very specific story of this country and has had a chance to screen everywhere,” Luna said.
Such cultural specificity hasn’t always been a hallmark of American-backed productions in Mexico. The cross-border collaboration may have begun, in 1914, with future Hollywood director Raoul Walsh heading south to shoot a docudrama about revolutionary leader Pancho Villa (the bandit hero got a 20 percent cut of “The Life of General Villa” for his cooperation). But it inevitably became more of an Americans-abroad-focused thing, like such classics as “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969).
“Most of the films that have been done about Mexico, as I point out in the book, are usually about Americans or foreigners in Mexico,” observed Luis I. Reyes, whose recently published “Made in Mexico: Hollywood South of the Border,” is a comprehensive trove of facts on U.S.-backed productions there.
“Very few films about Mexicans themselves, as with ‘Roma,’ were made. I think that’s where it will go. Everyone’s going to want to find the next Cuaron or Inarritu or del Toro,” Reyes added, name-checking the Mexican directors of “Gravity,” Birdman,” “The Revenant” and “The Shape of Water,” who won four of the last five Directing Oscars. “Gravity’s” Cuaron is the odds-on favorite to win that prize again this year.
Prestige isn’t the only reason for investing in more Mexican productions. Mexico City, home of the big and fabled Estudios Churubusco movie studio, is the fourth largest TV and filmmaking center on the continent and the largest in Latin America. It’s cheaper to make shows there than in the States, of course, and according to the production incentive adviser Entertainment Partners’ website, Mexico offers foreign producers a refund or exemption on the country’s 16 percent value-added tax if they partner with a local production company.
And for at least one American maker of Spanish-language programming, there’s even a current political motivation for making shows in Mexico.
“The dynamic that’s going on, which I think is interesting, is that for the last 15 years, I’ve built a business bringing in talent from Mexico that I couldn’t find in the U.S., both production and acting talent, and producing the shows in the U.S.” explained Lenard Liberman, the CEO of LBI Media, the parent company to Burbank-based, Spanish-language EstrellaTV Network. “But the Trump presidency has made it very, very difficult to get visas now. What used to take a month or three weeks now takes six months or a year or does not get done at all. So we recently started producing one of our shows in Mexico (“100 Latinos Dijeron,” a version of the “Family Feud” game show), with Fremantle Media Mexico.
“100 Latinos Dijeron” is a “Family Feud” gameshow made entirely in Mexico, exclusively for EstrellaTV’s U.S. audience.
“It’s the first production that we’ve done 100 percent at a studio in Mexico,” Liberman, the U.S.-born son of Mexican parents, continued. “I would’ve produced that show in L.A. and given jobs to the United States. We just can’t get the professional workers or the actors in, and we had to move some of our work down to Mexico.”
There have been some negatives to such partnerships. The crew at one of the “Roma” locations was violently robbed (the film was made in Mexico by Cuaron’s company, Esperanto Filmoj). A location scout for “Narcos: Mexico,” Carlos Muñoz Portal, was found murdered in 2017, and the case remains a mystery.
As far as Hollywood money interests are concerned, there’s the recent underperforming of “Miss Bala,” Sony’s remake of of the acclaimed Tijuana-set, 2011 Spanish-language thriller (the original’s creator, Gerardo Naranjo, has gone on to direct episodes of “Narcos”). Starring “Jane the Virgin’s” Gina Rodriguez and directed by “Twilight’s” Catherine Hardwicke, the 95 percent Latinx cast-and-crewed remake has grossed less than $15 million since its release in North American theaters on Super Bowl weekend.
That shouldn’t discourage future co-productions in Mexico, though.
“There have been a host of new films released in 2019 that fell flat,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the Sherman Oaks-based media measurement and analytics company comScore, pointed out. “There are a variety of reasons why ‘Miss Bala’ may not have done well, but it’s been hard lately for any newcomer to break out.
“But if you’re in this business, you have to realize you’re going to miss as many times as you hit,” Dergarabedian continued. “One movie shouldn’t discourage anyone from doing future projects in Mexico or with a predominantly Mexican cast. For every ‘Miss Bala,’ there could be a ‘Roma’.”
While Netflix tends not to release how many of its 139 million worldwide subscribers watch particular shows and hasn’t reported what “Roma” has made from the 1,400 theater screens its played on internationally, the massive prestige the film has accrued has, at the very least, drawn audiences who may never have watched a Mexican movie before. An arguably similar phenomenon rises from the success of Santa Monica-based Pantelion Films, which has released such Mexican productions as Eugenio Derbez’s bilingual “Instructions Not Included” to big U.S. ticket sales.
“It used to be that foreign language was some kind of pejorative,” Estrella’s Liberman observed. “People are crossing international barriers now just to watch quality programming and product. There’s always been a long history of programming out of Mexico. It’s just that, historically, it was controlled by one or two groups. The fact that you have a Netflix now and you have independent producers producing, it’s created more diversity and more interesting formats. Where it used to just be novella novella novella, the fact that there are so many platforms now looking for great content means that there’s a lot of people being creative.”
If what Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos said to the 400-plus creatives who attended the FORO event is any indication, specifically Mexican shows are what his company, and the world, wants.
“The things that we are looking for are things that will be very relevant in the home territory, and the likeliness to travel is also a nice plus,” Sarandos, who added that over 100,000 Mexicans have already worked on Netflix Originals, said.
“ ‘Roma’ has brought renewed attention to Mexican filmmakers and filming in Mexico,” author Reyes said. “It’s gone in an ebb and flow, depending on the world situation and economics. The future is bright now, though, because of ‘Roma’ and the Latino talent that’s out there, both in the U.S. and in Mexico. That’s great for trans-national productions.”
This, whether or not “Roma” becomes the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Whatever happens Sunday Luna, no doubt along with many of his countrywomen and men, feels like Mexico has already won.
“Everyone’s talking about it and it’s making history,” the actor said of “Roma” at the FORO event. “And we are a few days away from a day we’re all expecting here, the 24th when the Oscars happen. There’s 10 nominations; I guess there’s never been so many Mexican names badly pronounced on that show!”