Wealth of incentives drive film shoots to Mexico

Tiburòn Films

First came last year's swine flu outbreak and now the media frenzy surrounding the ongoing drug war here. Not exactly the kind of publicity one desires when promoting filming locations, yet all things considered, Mexico's cinema industry has proved remarkably resilient in the face of challenge.

The national film commission, known as Comefilm, estimates that Mexico will host six foreign productions this year, and while that may not sound like much when compared to popular shooting destinations like Canada and New Zealand, it's certainly an improvement on recent years.

"Curiously, I think we're going to have the most foreign productions that we've had in about four years," says Comefilm coordinator Carla Raygoza.

So it is that despite daily reports of escalating drug-related violence, producers still see Mexico as a viable locations option. That's not to say, of course, that the Mexican film industry hasn't felt the ripple effects of a drug war that has claimed more than 28,000 lives since 2006.

Crews working on the Jennifer Lopez starrer "Bordertown" and Paramount's "Backyard," for instance, reportedly received threats during production. Both movies centered on a spate of murders and abductions committed against women in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border city that has fallen under the sway of organized crime.

And months before "Backyard" hit Mexican theaters last year, production was canceled on the drug-themed drama "Queen of the South," which had Eva Mendes and Josh Hartnett attached. In this case, principal photography never even got off the ground because of death threats directed at helmer Jonathan Jakubowicz before the shoot. "Queen" was slated to film on location in the northern state of Sinaloa, home to one of Mexico's most fearsome cartels.

Although obviously frustrated by the intimidation tactic, Jakubowicz believes Mexico generally offers a safe working environment.

"There are many parts where you can shoot in Mexico," he says. "You wouldn't have a problem shooting in Mexico if you're not doing a film with a drug cartel theme. It has nothing to do with Mexico, it's just the subject matter."

Indeed, in each situation, all three of the productions touched on topics related to mob activities, and all were filmed (or scheduled to be shot) on cartel turf.

Nevertheless, Mexico expects to host several other high-profile projects this year, including "On the Road," a cinematic adaptation of beat writer Jack Kerouac's celebrated novel. Other notable features lensed on Mexican soil this year include Icon Prods.' "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," a prison drama starring Mel Gibson and directed by freshman helmer Adrian Grunberg.

In June director Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") and crew descended on the beach resort city of Puerto Vallarta to shoot scenes for "The Dark Fields," based on the Alan Glynn techno-thriller novel. Produced by Universal, the film stars Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks.

Additionally, three French productions are scheduled to shoot on location here, among them the U.S.-France revenge drama "Colombiana." Directed by "Transporter 3" helmer Olivier Megaton and co-written and produced by Luc Besson, actress Zoe Saldana of "Avatar" fame plays a hit woman seeking to avenge the death of her parents.

Offering proof that things are not nearly as unruly as recent headlines might suggest, Mexican producer-writer-director Luis Estrada tested the waters while filming his recently released narco-themed satire "Hell." The dark comedy revolves around a migrant worker who returns to Mexico after 20 years of laboring in the U.S., only to find that his small town is overrun with drug traffickers.

"It's a theme that has taken on a dimension that nobody had imagined three or four years ago," Estrada says. "Fortunately, we had no incidents on the set."

"Hell" has stirred up debate over the image it portrays of Mexico, namely for its depiction of entrenched corruption in all levels of government. Estrada sees the picture's adults-only "C" rating, a classification issued by the Radio, Television and Cinematography undersecretary, as an attempt at censorship. The government, in turn, dismisses the notion on grounds that "Hell" received state funding.

Despite his admission that he hasn't seen "Hell," President Felipe Calderon recently offered an opinion on the nature of the film's political commentary.

"What I ask, simply, is that we are all more careful with Mexico's name and image and we avoid demolishing national spirit," he said in an interview with a local news outlet.

Well aware of the negative effects that drug-related violence may have on luring runaway production, the government announced a $20 million annual fiscal incentive program in March. Spearheaded by state-run export agency ProMexico, the measure allows for tax rebates of 7.5% on projects that exceed the amount of 70 million pesos ($5.7 million), providing that foreign shingles contract local production services. The program clearly targets mid- to large-scale foreign shoots, as a typical Mexican budget rarely exceeds $5 million. Producers also can write off an additional 10% in expenses, thanks to a value-added tax exemption.

"The message is that there is a 17.5% rebate for foreign productions," says Manuel Sandoval, ProMexico's head of strategy and innovation.

Comefilm has received four applications for the incentives since the program's launch in July.

"Everyone outside the country talks about how dangerous Mexico is," says Comefilm's Raygoza. "But once we announced the filming incentives we began to get more interest from foreign producers."

In the meantime, Mexico continues to benefit from co-production treaties with such nations as Canada, France, and Spain. Mexico's Tiburon Films, for example, partnered with Barcelona-based Mediapro to secure theatrical releases in both nations for Rigoberto Perezcano's award-winning immigration dramedy "Northless."

"Once a Mexican film becomes a Spanish [co-production] it gets much better treatment," says Tiburon producer Edgar San Juan.

The pan-regional Ibermedia co-production fund also has made important contributions to Mexican cinema during the past decade. Established in 1997, funding for the program comes from annual contributions made by film institutes of member nations in Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal. With each country making a yearly commitment of at least $100,000, part of the funding goes toward loans for co-productions.

Among some of Mexico's recent recipients receiving Ibermedia support are "El Baile de San Juan," a story of forbidden love co-produced with Spain, France and Germany; and "Jean Gentil," a drama that turns on a day in the life of a middle-aged Haitian immigrant living in neighboring Santo Domingo. Billed as the first co-production between Mexico and Santo Domingo, "Jean Gentil" won special jury mention at the recent edition of the Venice film fest.

On the local scene, a big game-changer here in recent years has been a fiscal stimulus known as Eficine, aka Article 226, which allows private companies or individuals to receive tax credits of up to $1.6 million based on their contributions made to a film project. Foreign co-producers are required to team up with Mexican partners to qualify for Eficine, however, the program primarily has served the interests of domestic financiers.

One such project reaping the benefits of Eficine is the Rio Negro Producciones-Warner Bros. Mexico romantic comedy "No Eres Tu, Soy Yo," which had grossed about $8.5 million after six weeks in theaters as of early October. Produced for $2.5 million, and with investors receiving tax breaks totaling more than $1 million, the film has emerged as one of the year's biggest commercial success stories.

"The main thing is that [Eficine] helps to recoup your investment," says Rio Negro producer Matthias Ehrenberg. "So it's very good for everyone involved."

In quantitative terms, Mexican cinema entered into a production boom after the program went into effect in 2006. Since 2005, the number of locally produced releases has doubled, with Mexico now screening about 50 homegrown features a year.

Bottom line: 2010 is shaping up as a commendable year for the Mexican film industry when it comes to both local and foreign production.

Sure, it hasn't always come easy under the circumstances, yet as the well-worn industry adage goes, the show must go on.
All the Mexican studios and production services you need to know

Baja Studios
Contact: Luisa Gomez de Silva
Phone: +52-611 614-0110
E-mail: info@bajastudios.com

An oceanside facility built for the filming of James Cameron's "Titanic," the Baja California studio has hosted numerous water-related shoots, including such major Hollywood productions as "Pearl Harbor" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." On offer at the studio are exterior and interior tanks with a combined volume of more than 20 million gallons. Baja Studios also provides stages for dry shoots, which have been used to film commercials, music videos and television programs.

Mexican Film Commission (Comefilm)
Contact: Carla Raygoza
Phone: +52-55 5448 5383
E-mail: locaciones.mexico@imcine.gob.mx

The Comefilm website features a directory that lists contacts for studios, postproduction facilities, state film commissions, unions and an array of film services. It also includes information to learn more about Mexico's filming incentives and co-production treaties.

Estudios Churubusco
Contact: Jose Luis Garcia Agraz
Phone: +52-55 5549-0812
E-mail: jlgarcia@estudios-churubusco.com

This full-service Mexico City studio is among the largest of its kind in Latin America. Churubusco has 10 stages ranging in size from 3,600-5,400 square feet, and it also offers top-notch production and postproduction services. Among the Hollywood projects that have been filmed on the lot are "Man on Fire," "The Air I Breathe" and "Resident Evil 3." Additionally, Churubusco co-produces feature films, meaning that both domestic and foreign producers are eligible to contract services at reduced rates with the studio on board as a production partner.

Estudios Interlomas (aka Boomdog Films)
Contact: Jesus Manuel Barrera
Phone: +52-55 1667-7554
E-mail: manuel.barrera@boomdogfilms.com

The new kid on the block in Mexico City, this studio opened it doors a year ago under an association between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Mexican indie producer Boomdog Films. Sony produced "Mexico's Next Top Model" at the upstart complex and the facilities were also used for the filming of the Mexican feature "Cristiada." Interlomas has two adjoining stages measuring 3,400 square feet each, which can be opened up to create a space double in size. The studio's mobile production unit comes supplied with full HD equipment.

New Art
Contact: Eloy Gutierrez
Phone: +52-55 9116-4500
E-mail: eloynad@gmail.com, ventas@newartdigital.com.mx

With operations in Mexico City and Miami, New Art Group runs four postproduction divisions: digital, sound, dubbing and laboratory. The services include visual effects, subtitle overlays, sound design, tape to film and color correction. Last year, New Art's digital unit upgraded its Quantel iQ finishing system, making it the first Mexican company to offer a complete set of services for Stereo3D projects. New Art clients include Fox and Lionsgate.

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