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How The Fenix Awards Became Mexico’s Secret Weapon at the Oscars

The powerful new Fenix Awards reaches 300 million people across Latin America — and, members of the Academy.

Gael Garcia Bernal as he presents the award for best film at the Fenix Film Awards.

Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP/REX/Shutterstock

So here’s a Cinderella story: Last year, Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra directed Embrace of the Serpent,”  a trippy black-and-white voyage into the Amazon. His own country didn’t pay much attention, but the rest of the world felt otherwise: It played Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight, and went on to win four prizes at the Fenix Ibero-American Film Awards in Mexico City. That was November 25, 2015 — two months before it landed an unexpected Oscar nomination.

"Embrace of the Serpent"

“Embrace of the Serpent”

That’s the Fenix Awards. Launched in 2014, it’s a cleverly designed platform that celebrates the cinemas and talents across Latin America, Spain and Portugal, all while keeping its eye on the prize: The Academy Awards.

Last year’s show was telecast live to more than 40 countries by E! Entertainment, Studio Universal, and Cinelatino channels, with a total reach to some 300 million viewers who speak Spanish or Portuguese.

At Morelia, Fenix founder Ricardo Giraldo told IndieWire that it’s only getting started. “We use TV as a way to reach out to a general audience,” he said. “The Fenix awards is a really young project. It’s not a national awards. It’s a regional version, which means it can coexist with other local academies. That brings the potential of letting others know what you’re doing in your country and neighboring countries.”

Fenix already has a promising track record. Last year “The Club,” from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, won best picture, actor (Alfredo Castro), screenplay and director (a prize shared with Guerra). From there, Music Box picked up “The Club” for North America, while at Cannes 2016 The Orchard nabbed the director’s next film, “Neruda,” which was later named the Chilean entry for the Oscars. Last Friday, that movie opened the Morelia International Film Festival with star Gael García Bernal eloquently reading Neruda’s famous poem about Mexico to the packed house.

"Neruda"

“Neruda”

The Orchard and Participant Media

Larraín, however, was missing; he was promoting his first English-language feature, “Jackie,” for its December 2 Fox Searchlight release. The well-reviewed festival hit is expected to factor in the Oscar race, especially for star Natalie Portman as the widow of John F. Kennedy.

READ MORE: Why Pablo Larraín’s Films Deserve Your Attention

These are the kinds of success stories that Giraldo wants to see. Fenix is an outgrowth of Cinema23, a platform to promote film culture of Latin America, Spain and Portugal. It represents 750 film professionals, including festival programmers, administrators, academics, and critics.

“We have to engage people, spread the message,” said Giraldo, who also serves as Cinema23’s director. “It’s like selling Bibles. We need to convince everyone that this is for a common good. It’s not only cinema, it’s a cultural proposal that has the power to bring together 850 million people in the region who speak Spanish and Portuguese.”

 

Cinema23 at the Morelia International Film estival.

Cinema23 at the Morelia International Film Festival.

Giraldo wants to build on the success of the so-called Three Amigos of Latin America: Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”), who won the Best Director Oscar two years in a row, LACMA exhibition star Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”), and Alfonso Cuarón (Oscar-winner for “Gravity”) — along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has won three Oscars running.

Another recent Latin American crossover is Argentina writer-director Damián Szifron, whose “Wild Tales” won the Fenix Exhibitors Award, and went on to win the BAFTA and an Oscar nomination. Now he’s directing “The Six Billion Dollar Man” with Mark Wahlberg.

Director Gregory Nava, a Morelia juror and a member of the Academy Board of Governors, is excited by the power of the Fenix Awards. “Look, the entire Latin American world is exploding on the international scene,” he said. “Our world is full of life and energy. Fenix is recognizing this Ibero-American world in a way that’s very important. Like the Oscars, these kinds of prizes help to promote and bring attention to and develop the art form.”

Ciro Guerra receives the best director award for his film "The Embrace of the Serpent."

Ciro Guerra receives the best director award for his film “The Embrace of the Serpent.”

Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Eligible films (the calendar year is Cannes to Cannes, May to May) that received at least one national or international premiere are culled for a long list; last year there were 790 films. “Those dates help for the films to go around to other festivals and also to give them the chance to live in the commercial world,” Giraldo said. “Once ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ was nominated for the Oscar it had a second run that gave it a boost.”

Out of the final list, a smaller group of 170 film professionals select 85. “Out of those, we invite another 150 from each area to give quality votes, 1-5,” said Giraldo. “Over 335 people subscribe to vote for the films.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Daniel Bergeron

At last weekend’s festival, Cinema23 announced three special prizes in advance of the third Fenix Awards ceremony on December 7. The exhibitor’s prize went to Patricia Riggens’ “The 33,” the Chilean miner story starring Antonio Banderas, a $28-million global hit, the critic’s prize to Spanish critic Miguel Marías, and Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky received the life achievement award. (Jodorowsky’s son Brontis was on hand; he starred in three films at Morelia.)

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