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Congresswoman Seeks to Light Up Future of Mexican Cinema

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When she was growing up, Maria Rojo was a prisoner of the big screen. Twice a week, she lost herself in the dark theater, mesmerized by Mexican beauties, mariachi music, the busybody aunts so typical of a big Latin family. “I wanted to be an actress because of Mexican cinema,” she recalls.

Rojo did become a movie star. But the industry that was once the powerhouse of Latin America has crumbled. Rojo, now a congresswoman, intends to change that.

In what is shaping up as Mexico’s cultural fight of the year, Rojo has introduced a bill to help domestic cinema regain some of its luster by going after a favorite villain: Hollywood.

As in countries such as France, film has come to symbolize something much larger than entertainment here. In ad campaigns and public debates, the Mexican cinema bill has become a battle of free trade versus national culture.

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“Cinema is a very nationalist question in Mexico,” said Alejandro Ramirez of the country’s biggest theater chain, Organizacion Ramirez. “After the flag and the national anthem, [the late actors] Pedro Infante and Cantinflas are the idols we Mexicans love most profoundly.”

As the debate has fueled nationalism, he said, “this has become a war between Americans and Mexicans, between Hollywood and Mexico.”

Debate Flares Over Government Subsidies

On one side are Mexico’s cultural heavyweights, from writer Carlos Fuentes to cross-border star Salma Hayek. On the other are movie distributors, television and the booming Mexican theater industry, which are fighting back furiously, publishing ads and leafleting moviegoers.

Rojo’s bill would require theaters--which currently show mainly U.S. films--to set aside 30% of screen time for Mexican movies. It also would slap a 5% tax on tickets, to go into a fund to support Mexican filmmaking. The bill could be voted on as early as this week.

The once-glorious movie industry, Rojo argues, is dying. In fact, as government subsidies have dried up in recent years, the number of Mexican films has plummeted from 120 in 1988 to only half a dozen this year.

U.S. studios could be hurt by the legislation. Mexico is between No. 10 and No. 15 on the list of top Hollywood export markets, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which won’t give an exact breakdown.

More important, argue opponents, the bill would damage one of the great success stories of Mexico’s free-market reforms: movie chains.

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To get a glimpse of the chains’ remarkable dynamism, consider Cinemex, a start-up by two young Mexicans and an American who met at Harvard Business School. In 1992, for a class project, they studied the Mexican movie industry, which was on the verge of being deregulated.

They found a disaster. Government price controls had kept Mexican ticket prices artificially low. With little profit, many government-owned theaters had closed; others were dingy. Half of the movies shown had to be Mexican, but many were terrible. Movie attendance, at 450 million in 1985, had plunged to 134 million in 1992 and was falling fast.

“The Mexican market was virgin. There were no screens, no public,” recalled Miguel Angel Davila, a fast-talking 33-year-old from Mexico City who resembles another wunderkind, George Stephanopoulos.

Working with the other students--Mexican Adolfo Fastlicht and Matthew Heyman of Marina del Rey, who had worked at the Cineplex Odeon theater chain in the U.S. and Canada--Davila raised $21 million from foreign investors in 1993 to found Cinemex.

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Today, it is a $60-million business, the country’s No. 2 movie chain.

Like Cinemex, other chains have flourished since deregulation. They have poured money into multiplexes featuring digital sound, new seats, even cappuccino counters. Since 1995, the number of Mexican screens has soared, from 1,400 to more than 2,000.

“The Mexican public came back to the theaters immediately,” boasted Davila.

But such expansion can’t continue, argue theater owners, if they have to add a tax to ticket prices. Their objections go further than the bottom line, however, to the principles of a free-market economy.

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Why, they ask, should one part of the industry have to subsidize another? Will this mark a return to the past, when government-financed directors made bad movies because they were under no pressure to turn a profit?

“We don’t believe in subsidies and paternalism, which have been the flaws of Mexico for many years,” Davila said.

Many directors, producers and actors see the issue differently. In newspaper interviews and at conferences--such as a recent symposium titled “We Who Are Not From Hollywood"--they have argued that Mexican cinema is a cultural treasure that will disappear without government support.

Rojo made her point by waving the Mexico City movie listings at a reporter.

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She read the offerings: “The Mask of Zorro.” “Dark City.” “Saving Private Ryan.” “A Perfect Murder.” “There’s Something About Mary.”

“Here’s one Mexican film! One!” she declared, jabbing at “Canoa,” from 1979.

“What possibility do we have to choose [what to see] with listings like you just heard--120 showings of ‘There’s Something About Mary’?”

Rojo argues that a vicious circle is at work: Hollywood advertising budgets overwhelm anything a Mexican producer can afford. Mexicans, therefore, are eager to see Hollywood output. So that’s what theaters show.

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As Mexican movies die, however, so does an important reflection of Mexican reality, Rojo said. She recalled as a girl idolizing the local star, Blanca Estela Pavon. What Mexican, she asked, can hope to become Sharon Stone?

“We Mexicans want to see ourselves reflected on the screen, as we are,” she declared.

Producers say there’s little chance of that happening. They describe a grim scenario: A successful Mexican movie might draw 400,000 viewers. However, in this economically battered country, ticket prices average $2. Even with the addition of television and video rights, many films can’t recoup their $1-million budgets. And distribution channels have dried up in Latin America in recent years.

“This brings us to a notion that’s not popular in today’s free-market schemes. We have to seek help for all sectors of the industry,” said Jorge Sanchez, a producer. “This requires a policy of [government] support.”

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The high costs of filmmaking, he said, set it apart from television and music, areas in which Mexico has competed admirably against U.S. imports.

A Shortage of Money, Not Talent

Even supporters of the cinema bill acknowledge that Mexican directors have produced many clunkers, alienating the public. But they maintain that the country still has an abundance of talent, as illustrated by the Mexican actors and directors who have succeeded in the United States.

Some of those Mexicans, like Hayek, have joined the fight to pass the bill.

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“It’s important that we promote and support the Mexican talent--because we have a financial crisis, but we do not have a talent crisis,” the film star said in an interview.

“Most of us [Mexicans in Hollywood] have dreams of going back and doing some quality stuff down there,” she said, adding quickly: “It doesn’t mean we’ll quit our day jobs here.”

Executives of the Mexican movie chains say they are in favor of more national cinema. They just don’t believe that they should foot the bill. The movie tax, they say, would drive away cash-strapped customers. That would limit the ability to invest in new theaters.

As it is, the chains have promised to show every new Mexican movie. And, say the executives, with a growing number of eight- or 10-screen multiplexes, it is easier to set aside a space for a Mexican film.

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“The first step is, Mexicans have to decide they like going to the movies again,” Davila said. That is occurring: Since a low point in 1995, when 62 million tickets were sold, attendance has climbed steadily and is expected to hit 110 million this year.

“If you kill the movie theaters, all you’ll do is close your own windows” for showing Mexican films, Davila added.

Whether or not the movie bill passes, proponents and opponents agree that Mexico won’t return to the “golden era” of the 1940s and 1950s, when domestic films far outsold imports. With the country’s fragile economy and the Mexican industry’s limited distribution possibilities, directors can spend on films only a tiny fraction of what their Hollywood counterparts can. No one expects a Mexican “Titanic.”

“It’s absurd to think Mexican cinema will compete against American cinema,” Rojo said. “We just want to continue existing.”

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