Is It Safe to Film in Mexico?
These days, "shooting in Mexico" usually refers to drug-cartel violence -- there was even a gun battle during the recent Guadalajara Film Festival -- but insiders say there's plenty of upside to making movies south of the border.
Talk about a tough sell: Try promoting a nation as a filming destination while a brutal drug war is raging. Truth be told, Mexico's image problem hasn't improved much lately, but filmmakers nonetheless are finding enough reasons to shoot south of the border.
Still, there's no denying the news out of Mexico hasn't exactly been rosy in recent years. The nation's top annual industry event, the Guadalajara Film Festival, was disrupted in March when police captured a drug kingpin in a nearby municipality following a shootout. Cartel members subsequently took to the streets and burned vehicles, causing delays in festival transport.
Elsewhere, during the 2010 filming of Walter Salles' Cannes Film Festival entry On the Road, the dangers posed by drug dealers forced producer Rebecca Yeldham to move the production from outside Monterrey to Arizona.
The timing of the escalating drug war couldn't be worse. Until recently, Mexico had been experiencing a slight increase in lucrative offshore shoots. In 2010, the nation hosted six foreign productions (the most it had seen in four years), including On the Road and the Mel Gibson-produced actioner Get the Gringo. The uptick was driven by the new Pro Audiovisual program, known as ProAv, which allows for rebates of as much as 7.5 percent on expenses for projects that exceed about $6 million. Solid infrastructure also has helped draw productions from abroad. In addition to its proximity to Hollywood, Mexico offers full-service studio facilities and skilled English-speaking crews.
But Mexico hosted only two foreign productions in 2011: Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi feature Elysium and David Riker's immigrant-smuggling drama The Girl. An industry source attributed the downturn to "exaggerated news reports that probably spooked some producers." Alex Garcia, the Mexico-based film financier who helped produce the local hit Top Cat and the Brazilian blockbuster Elite Squad, agrees. "I just shot the latest Jennifer Lopez video on a main avenue in Acapulco, and we didn't have any problems," he says. "In general, I don't think the violence is affecting the industry."
That might be true, but local directors concede it's better to be safe than sorry. When Gerardo Naranjo was shooting Mexico's 2012 official Oscar submission, the crime drama Miss Bala, his team came up with a clever plan to divert attention. "If anyone asked, we said it was a romantic comedy called Maria Bonita," he says. Directors also recommend avoiding well-known cartel hotspots such as Ciudad Juarez and Culiacan, in northern Mexico. Luis Estrada, helmer of the 2010 hit narco-satire El Infierno, found the northern flavor he needed in quiet towns in the central state of San Luis Potosi. "After we decided the area was OK, we tried to stay alert while we were filming," he says. "But in the end, we had nothing to worry about."
Filmmakers have learned to approach shoots with more caution after a few reportedly received threats during production, including Paramount's 2009 thriller Backyard, which revolves around a spate of murders and abductions in Ciudad Juarez.
But the risks faced by drug-themed productions hardly define the bigger picture. One key point: Insurance premiums for film projects in Mexico have not increased in recent years. Eduardo Carrillo, CEO of insurance and completion bond provider LCI, says insurance in Mexico can cost about 3.5 percent of a production budget, slightly higher than U.S. premiums but on par with those of other Latin American nations. Only one production has been canceled during the past five years because of security concerns.
Says Carrillo: "One cancellation in five years is really nothing when you think about it. That could happen anywhere in the world."
MEXICO AT A GLANCE
- Contacts: The Mexican Film Commission (Comefilm) provides industry contacts and all necessary information for Mexico shoots (011-52-55-5448-5383, comefilm.gob.mx)
- Popular Shooting Destinations: Baja California, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Veracruz, Yucatan Peninsula
- Studio Facilities: Baja Studios, Estudios Churubusco, BoomDog Films, Ollin Studio
MEX APPEAL: 3 Recent Films Shot in Mexico
The Girl: After shooting 2011's Limitless in Puerto Vallarta, Abbie Cornish returned to Mexico to take the lead role in David Riker's immigrant-smuggling drama, shot on location in the southern state of Oaxaca. A competition entry at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, the U.S.-Mexico co-production centers on a young woman who agrees to transport illegal immigrants over the border, only to end up caring for a 9-year-old girl.
Elysium: Shot in and around Mexico City in 2011, director Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to 2009's District 9 stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Like the closely guarded plot of the sci-fi project, the production was kept under wraps. It made headlines, however, when Damon attended a bullfight, drawing the indignation of animal-rights activists. He explained that he does not support animal cruelty but simply wanted to gain an understanding of the controversial pastime.
For Greater Glory: With a budget of $10 million (some reports say it was twice as much), Glory is Mexico's most expensive local production to date. Shot in six northern and central states in 2011, the English-language production chronicles events surrounding Mexico's Cristero War during the 1920s, when government efforts to secularize the nation sparked fierce rebellion. With an all-star cast that includes Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria and Peter O'Toole, Glory hits U.S. theaters June 1.