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Mexifilms vs. Mickey Mouse

Like other lands, Mexico makes laws to repel cultural invaders -while loving 'em too.

Scene 1: In an opulent reception hall at the Mexican presidential palace, President Ernesto Zedillo decorates Hollywood moviemaker James Cameron - a Canadian - for making the global blockbuster "Titanic" on location in Rosarito, Baja California.

Mr. Zedillo's point is clear: Hollywood is good for Mexico.

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Scene 2: Across town in the Mexican Congress, legislators whoop for joy upon passing a new law reserving theater screen time for Mexican movies - an echo of measures that seek to protect domestic film production in countries from Canada to France to South Korea. Booms one Mexican senator: "The fundamental problem is that cinema owners don't want to show national pictures but prefer this load of ideology, violence, and drugs that is imposed by the cinematic industry of the United States!"

The point is clear: Hollywood is bad for Mexico.

Both recent scenes feed the Mexican Congress's heated debate over an American cultural invasion - ironically, some observers say, just as Hollywood is seeing a small but notable reverse invasion by Hispanic directors and stars, including Mexican actress Salma Hayek (working on a sequel to "Men in Black") and director Alfonso Arau ("A Walk in the Clouds"). Mr. Arau's "Like Water for Chocolate" is one of the Mexican films that have won international success.

The controversy bubbled last month at the same time Cuban President Fidel Castro took the unusual step of publicly ribbing neighbor Mexico, saying its children probably know Mickey Mouse better than their own national heroes. He later apologized for the remarks in a 12-page letter to the Mexican people.

Earlier in December Mexico's National Congress passed the law designed to revive its national film industry and shut the floodgates on Hollywood - if only slightly. But the law may be beside the point, and not just because the Mexican public has long since voted with its pesos for the cinema it prefers.

With Hollywood itself going global, Mexico is benefiting from a diversification and "offshoring" of the movie business. Two recent "Hollywood" hits - "The Mask of Zorro" and the already mentioned "Titanic" - were made in Mexico. US moviemakers are attracted to what some call Baja (Lower) Hollywood not just by Mexico's proximity and varied locations but by a skilled workforce that costs much less than in California or elsewhere in the US.

Mexico's new "cinema law" is designed to revive a movie industry that lived its glory days in the 1940s and '50s, once producing up to 100 movies a year after World War II. Local production plummeted in the 1990s: After making 13 movies in 1996 and again in 1997, Mexican producers last year cut back to just six, according to the National Chamber of Cinematographic Industry (CANACINE).

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To reverse the slide, the new law requires Mexican theaters to reserve 10 percent of screen time for Mexican productions. It also creates a new "cinefund" of about $14 million in federal money to stimulate local productions.

"This is going to give Mexican cinema a chance," says Alfredo Nava, president of CANACINE. "With fresh funding and assured screen time, 1999 can be the year of a cinematic rediscovery."

Producers, actors, and university cinema students echo Mr. Nava's words, but not everyone is so sure. Film distributors, cinema theater owners, and other industry leaders say that earlier laws - reserving up to 50 percent of screen time for Mexican movies - only promoted a churning out of low-quality films shown in seedy theaters. They also say that an existing fund of public money to stimulate movie production has done little to save the industry.

Since previous laws reserving screen time and holding down ticket prices were dropped in 1992, Mexico has seen a boom in theater screens - to 2,150 in state-of-the-art cinemas across the country. But most of those new screens show Hollywood productions.

The top-drawing Mexican film last year - "La Primera Noche" - pulled in more than 439,000 viewers. But more than 4 million tickets were sold for "Titanic," and four other US releases topped 1 million.

SOME critics argue that the new cinema law is too weak to make a difference. An earlier version left theater owners outraged because it called for 30 percent of screen space to be reserved for Mexican movies. But even the final 10 percent provision was approved only after an amendment was attached making the requirement enforceable only if it does not violate various free-trade agreements Mexico has already signed.

That amendment was a concession to big Hollywood movie distributors, and it considerably weakens the law, says Congressman Javier Corral, member of the opposition National Action Party.

But even adamant fans of Mexican movies say a growing trend toward US movie productions heading south of the border is good for Mexico and could prove a boon to the local film industry.

Like joint ventures that lead to new spinoff industries, productions like "Titanic" help workers hone skills that can then be used in strengthening Mexican movie productions, some observers say.

"We should be proud that internationally acclaimed movies like 'Titanic' are being made in Mexico," says CANACINE'S Nava. "This is a trend that is going to continue, that is good for Mexico's economy, and that can be good for Mexican cinema."

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