'Freedom,' 'confidence' key Uni's Mexico plans

Amigos prep all-star first offering

When Universal Pictures and its specialty division Focus Features International signed an ambitious five-film deal with Cha Cha Cha, the upstart shingle of helmers Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the groundbreaking venture al-lowed the partners to form a dream team of Mexican talent.

An expected payoff is already evident with the company's first project, "Rudo y Cursi." Currently in production on Mexico's Pacific coast, the film's credits read like a who's who of contemporary Mexican cinema.

Cuaron, del Toro and Inarritu, the so-called Three Amigos of a new wave of Mexican crossover hits, are co-producing the picture, which reunites Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, the stars of Cuaron's hit road movie "Y Tu Mama Tambien."

"Y Tu Mama" scribe Carlos Cuaron, brother of Alfonso, wrote the script and is directing the film. Academy Award winner Eugenio Caballero is on board as production designer.

Carlos Cuaron describes the story as a love-hate relationship between two brothers who play professional soccer.

With a combined budget of about $100 million, the slate of five pictures is to include directorial efforts from del Toro, Inarritu and Cuaron as well as a new movie from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, son of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

David Linde, co-chairman of Universal Pictures, said it's not every day that a U.S. studio is prepared to enter into this kind of deal. The unique partnership, he added, gives his company the opportunity to boost international production and distribution with the type of creative filmmaking that audiences are thirsting for.

"You can't sustain our business creatively and financially by only making American movies. It has become a global business," he pointed out during a visit here.

At a recent "Rudo y Cursi" production party near the Mexican resort town of Manzanillo, the cast, crew and production partners were buzzing with excitement. Some see the venture's first offering as part of a much larger package that may well mark a defining moment in the history of Mexican cinema.

The fact that Universal Pictures has given Cha Cha Cha complete creative control speaks volumes of the trust that has been established over the years between the trio of Mexican helmers and Linde.

"This is a big vote of confidence from David (Linde)," Alfonso Cuaron said.

Linde executive produced Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama" when he was at Good Machine. Years later, Linde and Good Machine partner James Schamus formed Focus Features, the company that released Inarritu's "21 Grams." Now, as co-chairman of Universal Pictures, Linde is working with del Toro on "Hellboy 2."

"The creative freedom comes from a long-term relationship," Inarritu said.

In addition to Universal's production partnership with Cha Cha Cha, Focus has a deal in place with Canana Films, the Mexico City-based production company owned by actors Garcia Bernal, Luna and producer Pablo Cruz. The two deals give Universal and Focus a distinct edge in the Mexican market.

Focus is confident enough in Canana that it is paying the shingle's overhead, even though it has never made a movie with the company.

"It's a good investment because these are three guys who have great ideas," Linde said.