MEXICO CITY — “The Untamed” (“La Region Salvaje”), a Mexican thriller about sex, lies and a mysterious monster, won the Silver Lion directing award for filmmaker Amat Escalante when it premiered at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival. Three years earlier, Escalante won the director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his graphic drug trafficking drama “Heli.”
It’s no wonder “The Untamed” was quickly picked up for distribution in the U.S. and across Europe.
But not in Mexico.
Mexico’s film scene is booming, with a record 175 films made here last year. And in Hollywood, Mexican directors seem to be a key to success at the Oscars. Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award for directing Sunday, and three of the past four directing Oscars went to Mexican filmmakers — Alfonso Cuaron in 2014 (“Gravity”), and Alejandro Inarritu in 2015 (“Birdman”) and again in 2016 (“The Revenant”).
But despite an increase in state funding that has nurtured Mexican cinema, with Mexican films winning more than 100 international awards in 2017, domestic distribution and exhibition has not kept pace with production. That means that films made in Mexico often can’t be seen in Mexican theaters.
Filmmakers and government officials say the country’s two major theater chains are reluctant to give space to new Mexican films when Hollywood movies account for the vast majority of ticket sales. Last year, the 20 top-grossing movies in Mexico were American-made.
Only after public pressure, including a chiding on Twitter by Cuaron and Del Toro, did “The Untamed” finally open in Mexico last month — nearly two years after its world premiere. The film didn’t last long in theaters, in part, Escalante said, because Mexicans had been able to watch it for months on iTunes and Amazon.
Escalante said he and other prominent filmmakers have met with government officials in recent months to see what can be done to speed up the release of Mexican movies inside the country.
“We feel the Mexican audience shouldn’t have to wait a year and a half to see a Mexican film,” Escalante said.
“It’s an enormous contradiction,” said documentary filmmaker Tatiana Huezo, whose films “Tempestad” and “The Tiniest Place” won prizes at festivals around the world and screened in Mexico.
“We’re making a huge number of films, but so few are shown here,” she said. “We can’t see our own stories.”
Today’s burst of moviemaking calls to mind Mexico’s first golden age of cinema, in the 1930s and 1940s, when stars such as Cantinflas, Maria Felix and Pedro Infante put Mexico on the map as one of the world’s top film producers.
The industry began to fade in the 1950s, overtaken by Hollywood imports and the government’s clumsy efforts to intervene in the film business, which included imposing ticket price controls and buying major studios and movie theaters. By the mid-1990s, fewer than 10 films were being made each year, in large part because there was little access to private financing.
The climate was so inhospitable that budding filmmakers such as Del Toro, Inarritu and Cuaron had little choice but to cross the border to chase their dreams.
Life for filmmakers in Mexico began to improve about 15 years ago, when the government increased its support. The Mexican Institute for Cinematography now gives away about $44 million a year for film productions — more than 10 times what it was providing in the 1990s. Well over half the films produced in Mexico last year were financed or co-financed by the government.
Government assistance allows for more risk-taking, said director Alonso Ruizpalacios, whose new film, “Museum,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal, was partially funded by the government and won the screenplay prize last week at the Berlin Film Festival.
“The director almost always has the final cut in Mexico,” said Ruizpalacios, who co-wrote “Museum.” “The filmmakers I know in Hollywood really envy that.”
In recent years, Ruizpalacios has dabbled in Hollywood. He directed the first episode of the upcoming Starz show “Vida” and is preparing to direct two episodes for the fourth season of the hit Netflix show “Narcos.”
“It pays the rent,” he said of his Hollywood work. “But I have to come back here to do my own projects to have real control.”
Another upshot for directors working outside Hollywood is freedom from “political correctness,” said Escalante, whose “The Untamed” includes explicit sex scenes involving an octopus-like alien monster and whose 2013 “Heli,” about an autoworker whose life is upended by organized crime, has graphic scenes of torture.
“There’s this carefulness and fear of offending in Hollywood,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to make these movies in the U.S.”
Filmmakers say they are also able to portray Mexico with more complexity than they would in Hollywood, which tends to tell two kinds of Mexico stories: immigration dramas or bloody drug-war thrillers.
Take the powerful but subdued documentary “Devil’s Freedom” by Everardo Gonzalez, which includes painful testimonies by both victims and perpetrators of Mexico’s violence. The twist is that all of those interviewed are wearing masks, giving an eerie sense that anyone in the country might be capable of being victimized or victimizing. Huezo’s 2016 film “Tempestad” employs a similar technique. While it’s focused on two women’s encounters with human trafficking, the camera lingers on scenes of the Mexican countryside and close-ups of random Mexican faces instead of showing actual violence.
“Sometimes Mexican audiences don’t want to go to the cinema to see a mirror of what they see in the streets,” said producer Nicolas Celis, who has helped make several of the country’s recent award-winning films, including “The Untamed.” Celis complained that movie theaters don’t expect audiences to go see Mexican films, so they are frequently shortchanged, often scheduling screenings in the middle of the day, if at all.
“I’m not used to presenting our films in a healthy market,” he said. “I’m used to having a film in just a few theaters, and then they suddenly change the release date.”
Filmmakers can apply for public subsidies for publicity and other support once their films are finished. But competition is fierce.
Many of the films being made in Mexico also struggle to find an audience internationally. In the U.S. there’s a scarcity of distribution companies focused on bringing Spanish-language films to U.S. audiences.
Even “Selena” producer Moctesuma Esparza, whose growing California theater chain Maya Cinemas programs the occasional Mexican film among first-run blockbusters, said he rarely sees modern Mexican movies. While two of his Central Valley locations are currently showing Marco Polo Constandse’s “La Boda de Valentina,” he’d like to screen more Mexican films. But few, he said, are being distributed. “I’m not that familiar with Mexican cinema anymore,” said Esparza, who grew up watching Mexican films from the first golden age. “If I don’t go to the film festivals, then I don’t get to see them.”
Although it’s still hard to make a profit on a film in Mexico, there are signs that is improving. Last year, four Mexican films grossed more than $5 million domestically each, according to the Mexican Institute for Cinematography.
But there need to be better avenues for films to reach audiences, Mexican officials say, including more support for independent theaters and public screenings.
“It’s crazy that a movie can win in Venice but not be screened here,” said Consuelo Saizar, who was president of Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts from 2009 to 2012.
For now, many moviegoers resort to other methods to see current Mexican films.
Ana Cristina Chavez, 27, a teacher who was waiting in line to buy tickets at a theater on the south side of Mexico City on a recent weekend, said she would like to watch more films made by her compatriots, but they just aren’t available in many theaters.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “I end up watching a lot online.”