Guadalajara International Film Festival



The Guadalajara International Film Festival has good reason to break out the tequila this week in celebration of its silver anniversary. Since its modest beginnings as a tiny university-sponsored showcase for Mexican cinema, the event has morphed into a monster on the Latin American fest circuit.

It all began in 1986 with a small group of local filmmakers and critics who felt it was high time to create a platform for Mexican movies that were getting little or no exposure. Back then Mexico was producing about 70 features a year, but many were of the low-budget variety and the industry sorely needed an event to shine a light on emerging talent.

Co-founder and veteran helmer Jaime Humberto Hermosillo took the reins as festival director for the first edition. Among the three-dozen screenings that year were Paul Leduc's award-winning biopic "Frida," Hermosillo's gay-themed dramedy "Dona Herlinda and Her Son" and the short film "Dona Lupe" from a newcomer on the Guadalajara filmmaking scene by the name of Guillermo del Toro.

Del Toro played an important role in the early stages of the festival. Even now, despite juggling a slew of Hollywood projects, he returns to his native city to give workshops and participate in festival-related activities when time permits.

In 1994, Guadalajara introduced its first Ibero-American lineup in a move to strengthen ties with Spain, Portugal and film-producing nations throughout Latin America. A crucial makeover came 11 years later when the fest was transformed from a "showcase" into an international festival with official sections for Mexican and Ibero-American films.

"The turning point was when the festival opened up to Ibero-American films," says Jorge Sanchez, the fest's director since 2006.

Thanks in large part to support from the University of Guadalajara, the fest has consolidated itself as the oldest, biggest and most business-friendly cinema event in Mexico. Last year it drew 130,000 in admissions, about 1,600 industry professionals and had more than 600 films registered in its burgeoning film market.

Sales agent Guido Rud, head of Buenos Aires-based Film Sharks International, considers Guadalajara one of his preferred stops among the the multitude of Latin American film gatherings.

"I'd rank Guadalajara among the top three Latin American (events) along with (Argentina's) Ventana Sur and Rio de Janeiro," he says. "Lately I've had more success at medium-size festivals like Guadalajara than at some of the larger festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice."

Recent Film Sharks acquisitions in Guadalajara include the Mexican period piece "The Desert Within" and the Mexico-Chile co-production "All Inclusive," which Lionsgate picked up for U.S. distribution. On the sales side, Film Sharks closes about five deals a year out of Guadalajara.

Mexico boasts more than a dozen film fests annually, but Guadalajara and Morelia are the creme-de-la-creme. The younger Morelia International Film Festival rivals Guadalajara in terms of programming, organization and star power, but it has no market, making it a smaller, more intimate affair. The Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival, once a promising third option, has lost its luster since 2008 and this year's edition was canceled because of "insufficient funds."

As Guadalajara makes final preparations for this year's edition, which runs March 12-19, Mexican cinema finds itself in a perplexing situation. On the one hand, the industry has seen an upswing in production lately. After decades of producing about two-dozen features a year, Mexico now churns out about 60 pictures annually, thanks in large part to a film incentive law that allows financiers to write off up to 10% of their tax obligation.

On the other hand, despite all the hoopla about Mexico's new generation of filmmakers, only two domestic releases ranked among the top 50 grossers last year. Overall, Mexican productions captured a mere 5% of boxoffice revenues here in 2009, according to Rentrak.

Mantarraya producer Jaime Romandia, who works with award-winning director Carlos Reygadas, says Hollywood fare has such a dominating presence in Mexico that even with all the new production, Mexican cinema is hard-pressed to surpass a 10% market share.

Most Latin American markets face the same problem, making pan-regional industry powwows like Guadalajara all the more attractive for those seeking financing and international sales deals. Between the Producers Network, film market, co-production meetings and the nonstop schmooze fest in the festival hotel's lobby bar, Guadalajara has produced its fair share of success stories.

A case in point is Panamanian director Abner Benaim, who visited Guadalajara four years ago in search of a production partner for his freshman feature "Chance," a comedy about two live-in housekeepers who take their employers' families hostage.

At that time, Benaim was seeking an experienced co-producer who could help sell the film outside the tiny Panamanian market. It was in Guadalajara where he met Matthias Ehrenberg of the Mexico-Colombia shingle Rio Negro Produccciones. Ehrenberg later agreed to board the project and he played a pivotal role in lining up a multiterritory distribution deal with UIP in Panama, Colombia and several Central American and Caribbean markets.

"It all started from sitting down in a hotel in Guadalajara and saying, 'Hey, let's make this happen,' " Benaim recalls.

"Chance" debuted in January in Panama and did the unthinkable -- it actually held its own for several weeks against James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar." In February, Shoreline Entertainment acquired worldwide rights to the film.

Benaim describes his one-week stay in Guadalajara as an eye-opening experience.

"In Guadalajara I basically met all the key players in Latin America," he says. "I remember it was a really steep learning curve, listening to everyone, hearing how it all happens, and getting more concrete ideas. And a great part is that you meet people who are decision makers, not people who have to go back and report to their bosses."

"Chance" may well have set a precedent in Panama, where film production has been nearly nonexistent. Now, Benaim says, there are signs that the government and private sector are more willing to get involved in developing a local industry.

Guadalajara's Ibero-American Co-production Meeting and work-in-progress program have opened many doors as well. During the past five years, 36 features have come to fruition as a result of their participation. Two such titles, Mariana Chenillo's Jewish dramedy "Five Days Without Nora" and Alberto Cortes' drama "Heart of Time," recently grabbed noms for best picture and director for the upcoming Ariel Awards, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscars. This time, 30 projects from 14 countries have been selected for the co-production encounter.

Guadalajara's 25th edition features a lineup heavy on Latin American features and documentaries. Twelve films will compete in the Ibero-American fiction section, including the Rotterdam Tiger Award winner "Cold Water of the Sea" from Costa Rican filmmaker Paz Fabrega and the Argentine dramedy "Puzzle" from newcomer Natalia Smirnoff. The latter premiered in Berlin and IFC Films picked up North American rights to the picture shortly thereafter.

The Mexican fiction competition comprises eight entries crossing a broad range of genres, from minimalist art house fare to sci-fi. Among some of the premieres are Nicolas Pereda's drama "Perpetuum Mobile" and Ruben Imaz's sophomore work "Cefalopodo," which was produced by Canana Films, the shingle of Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. Also making its worldwide premiere is Carlos Carrera's ghost story "Childhood." Carrera directed the Garcia Bernal-starrer "The Crime of Father Amaro," Mexico's highest-grossing film.

Rounding out the competition program are more than 30 documentaries from Mexico and Ibero-America. Additionally, Guadalajara will have a music-themed documentary sidebar, dubbed Son de Cine. Barry Gifford, co-writer of David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and "Wild at Heart," will present the short documentary "Waiting for a Train" and British helmer Julien Temple will be on hand with "Oil City Confidential."

Guadalajara programmers were flooded with submissions this year, a sign for festival director Sanchez that the event is getting bigger and better with age.

"We've received 925 submissions," he says. "We were really surprised by how many submissions we got for the Mexican competition section, and the volume, quality and variety of documentaries has grown substantially."

Delegations from France and Andalusia will descend on the Mariachi capital as this year's special guests. Government and industry representatives from Mexico and France will meet to discuss a possible revision of an existing co-production agreement between the two nations. Additionally, for the first time public TV networks associated with the pan-regional funding program Ibermedia will be present in the market.

Looking back, Guadalajara has come a long way. Not even the festival creators imagined it would become the glitzy international affair that it is today.

"Seeing the magnitude of the festival (now) is exciting," says festival co-founder Annemarie Meier. "I feel a sense of pride combined with a strong dose of nostalgia."