As the global film industry faced dire circumstances in recent months, Mexican filmmakers contended with a more specific threat. In early April, the country’s president attempted to eliminate critical funding that has supported generations of acclaimed Mexican filmmakers. The pushback culminated in a dramatic confrontation, with filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro G. Iñarritu, and Alfonso Cuarón taking a stand to salvage these resources. Their successful efforts — for now, at least — cast light on a community reliant on national support.
Mexico’s film industry has seen astounding growth over the last two decades, in quantity and quality. The defining catalyst remains the creation of two government funds, Forprocine and Fidecine, in the late ‘90s. For several decades prior to these funds, Mexican cinema stagnated, producing less than 10 films per year. Last year, 200 completed features set a new record.
The success of these financing mechanisms is undeniable. Not only have they provided the avenue for the diversification of the country’s stories by giving access to underrepresented groups and unconventional concepts, but they’ve also been instrumental in creating thousands of below-the-line jobs as a result of increased production. Foprocine and Fidecine have become so significant it’s impossible to imagine a functional industry without them.
All of that means that, on April 2, when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced a series of austerity measures in response to COVID-19, alarms bells went off. The order sought to slash significant cultural funds including FONCA, which supports artists in disciplines including film at the screenplay stage, and Foprocine.
This attack on the country’s cultural fiber was immediately met with harsh criticism from the filmmaking community, who protested through social media and hosted virtual meetings to discuss their response. Many of them, having endured multiple corrupt administrations, have long-feared the programs’ futures.
The major difference between Foprocine and Fidecine is the projects they support. Created by the federal government in 1998, the Foprocine fund, for production and/or post-production, supports emerging voices through programs targeting first features, as well as documentaries, auteur projects, and experimental works, which all struggle to find support from private investors.
Foprocine has helped finance over 400 features, including most Mexican films with international festival play. A long list of renowned directors have received the fund, some more than once: Carlos Reygadas (“Silent Light”), Amat Escalante (“Heli”), Ernesto Contreras (“I Dream in Another Language), Carlos Carrera (“The Crime of Father Amaro”), and Alonso Ruizpalacios (“Güeros”), among hundreds more.
Meanwhile, Fidecine, which arose as part of the Federal Cinema Law in 2002, acts as a counterpart of Foprocine, backing more mass-appeal productions — with a few exceptions, like Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season.” The kinds of films within Fidecine’s reach include larger budget projects, and many features distributed by Pantelion in the U.S.: romantic comedies and family fare with bankable stars.
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Administered by IMCINE, Mexico’s Film Institute, both funds have been praised for their transparency as to what resources go where.
The Mexican government also offers a fiscal stimulus known as Eficine, which allows individuals and companies to invest in productions and receive a tax incentive. It’s meant to encourage third parties to support the industry so it’s not entirely reliant on the funds. The investment, however, can’t exceed 20 million pesos (around $900,000).
Thanks to Foprocine, directors are given more creative independence, and with government support, the country’s financing system is not money-driven. The result? No subject, no matter how controversial, is off-limits.
Foprocine was instrumental for Nicolás Celis, the Oscar-nominated producer of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma.” The fund helped him produce Jorge Michel Grau’s family cannibal drama “We Are What We Are” (later remade in the U.S.) and Tatiana Huezo’s powerful El Salvador-set documentary “The Tiniest Place.” Both projects were challenging for their themes and logistical intricacies, but were possible because even if they seemed financially risky, IMCINE and the jury comprised of active filmmakers trusted the creators.
“To an extent, all funds provided by the state understand they are supporting cultural projects. Even if you do believe your movie has commercial viability, it doesn’t necessary have to,” Celis told IndieWire. “Foprocine is a safe place where you can express yourself without your story being judged, without it having to run 90 minutes, where you don’t need a well-known cast, where you can explore.”
Also singular to the Mexican film industry within Latin America is the opportunity for co-productions. Foprocine and Eficine, unlike Fidecine, permit projects from non-Mexican directors to access funds and stimuli. Celis benefited from this clause when he produced Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Colombian epic “Birds of Passage.” Upcoming features by international masters like Leos Carax (“Annette”) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Memoria”) are also Mexican co-productions taking advantage of such financial openness.
Director Astrid Rondero said she wouldn’t have a career without these resources. Her debut feature, “The Darkest Days of Us,” was financed through Foprocine. “Their trust made me believe there was a space for someone from my working-class background in cinema,” she told IndieWire.
Rondero also highlighted the importance of Foprocine in achieving gender parity in the Mexican film industry, and opening doors for the LGBTQ+ and indigenous communities. According to her, those in the federal government opposed to the funds claim a lack of transparency in the management of their resources, which Rondero says is false.
“The uncertainty behind the government’s motivations increases our community’s suspicions that the changes they wanted to make are politically driven rather than for the administrative improvements they claim,” said Rondero. “We all want these support mechanisms to be perfected, but what we don’t want is to lose decades of hard-earned cultural rights in a matter of weeks.”
Rondero most recently served a co-writer on “Identifying Features,” the first feature by Fernanda Valadez — produced through Foprocine — which won two prizes at Sundance 2020. In turn, Valadez believes what’s at stake is greater than the resources to make movies, and instead involves the citizen’s right to be involved in the decision-making process. “The disappearance of these funds would represent a massive loss for Mexico, not only for its cultural life, but to its incipient democracy,” she said.
To address concerns brewing since the presidential announcement in early April, Maria Novaro — president of IMCINE and a filmmaker — participated in a public conversation on May 19 with director Natalia Beristáin, who served as representative for multiple segments of the filmmaking community to voice their specific concerns.
Novaro provided a detailed timeline of the last two months, explaining steps being taken by IMCINE to preserve the funds. Once the executive order was issued, IMCINE was allowed 10 days to present a legal argument to the SAT (Mexico’s IRS) demonstrating why Foprocine and Fidecine were essential.
As Novaro and her team at IMCINE worked behind the scenes, an alarmed community took to social media to denounce the federal government’s decision. On April 17, the Secretary of Culture and SAT representatives met to analyze the appeal and decide which funds would remain. That afternoon, Novaro was informed IMCINE could integrate Foprocine and Fidecine into a unique fund, preserving the programs each supports, and their budgets.
Fidecine has stronger legislative status because it was created through the Federal Cinema Law, so IMCINE decided the best way to unite the funds was to fold Foprocine into Fidecine. The merger would protect these resources under the law. As Foprocine has never been protected by any legislation, every five years, IMCINE secures a new federal agreement to keep it alive. Now, as part of a larger fund, this wouldn’t be the case.
IMCINE’s immediate concern was how to fulfill its 2020 commitment while transitioning both funds into a single entity. To deal with this, the institute obtained an extension from the federal government enabling Foprocine to remain functional for the rest of the year, maintaining its budget of 170.6 million pesos. Throughout the ordeal, the distribution of resources was delayed, causing creators to wonder if they would still receive the money awarded for their projects via Foprocine. Everything froze until the extension was granted.
Additionally, because of the Mexican government’s response to COVID-19, on April 23, institutions like IMCINE were asked to return 75% of their budget for operations. Since IMCINE has already used most of its annual allowance, they will only be returning 12 percent (6 million pesos). This money is independent from funds for Foprocine. However, the cuts will impact their day-to-day operations in terms of transportation and will prevent them from launching new initiatives, like an upcoming experimental cinema contest.
Novaro said operations had returned to normal, and that IMCINE was working to present a draft of the new unified fund to lawmakers to be approved over the next few months and begin functioning in 2021. Some changes already being considered include closer support for artists in the screenwriting and development stages.
To keep the best aspects of both Foprocine and Fidecine, Novaro noted IMCINE’s desire to continue using Foprocine’s ethical system for the evaluation and selection of projects. In terms of exhibition, the new unified fund would also help Mexican cinema gain more visibility by offering theaters monetary incentives in exchange for screening local productions.
Just a day after Novaro reassured the filmmaking community the funds would endure, legislators from MORENA, the leftist political party currently in power, introduced a proposal to eliminate Fidecine. Since IMCINE’s plan is to fold Foprocine into Fidecine, this move would effectively do away with both of them. Filmmakers were up in arms again.
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Several directors and institutions like IMCINE and the Mexican Film Academy (AMACC) demanded an emergency virtual meeting with representatives from MORENA, and Sergio Mayer Bretón, a former soap-opera actor who now serves as President of the Culture Commission. The private gathering was later made public on Mayer Bretón’s YouTube channel.
During the May 21 conversation, Monica Lozano, president of AMACC and producer of landmark films like “Amores Perros,” advocated for a frank dialogue between the federal government and Mexico’s filmmaking community. “Cinema is what gives us a name, a voice, and a face and we cannot lose it,” she said, reiterating that the banishment of Fidecine (and in turn Foprocine) would affect countless families who depend on the growing industry.
Enter the Three Amigos. The gravity of the circumstances compelled the trio of Mexican cinema titans — Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro G. Iñarritu — to join the discussion and advocate for the vital funds. Visibly upset, del Toro argued that MORENA’s actions create a rupture in trust between artists and the government.
“Since I was 15, I’ve believed in Mexican cinema. Careers come and go, kidnappings come and go, but we are still here. I believe it’s very important that we demand transparency,” the Oscar winner said, recalling his father’s kidnapping in the late ‘90s, an event that pushed him to move to the U.S. but hasn’t impeded his involvement in his homeland’s cinematic progress. The Guadalajara native added that authorities had dismissed the very people affected by the initiative. “We are film people,” he said. “If you are going to fix your refrigerator, you don’t call the car mechanic or the otorhinolaryngologist.”
That same day, del Toro tweeted similar thoughts to his 1.9 million followers. “Cutting these funds — or changing them permanently and without getting the agreement or consulting the community — it’s not only unilateral and profoundly blind,” he wrote. “It also forever suffocates the few avenues that exist for the survival of our cinema. Cinema is memory, and without memory it’s impossible to exist.”
Cuarón was also present, arguing that Mexican cinema is “one of the few successful industries” in Mexico, and that these stimuli are fundamental for the development of a community that has made the industry what it is today. Cuarón also warned about the danger of Mexico falling behind other countries in the region, who’ve gotten behind cinema more aggressively.
“There are countries like Colombia that are giving large fiscal stimuli, and if our country doesn’t start providing stimuli of that kind, there will be an exodus of projects, and our country, currently the industrial center for film in Latin America, will be replaced by Colombia,” he said.
Iñárritu later shared that while he’s been fortunate to not need the funds himself, he’s seen what they’ve done for his colleagues. He asserted that Mexico’s film community is not willing to negotiate cuts, and proposed reinforcing and doubling resources.
“When I was making ‘Amores Perros’ in 1999, there were only seven or eight films being produced a year in Mexico,” he said. “Today, 200 films are made per year. That’s an almost 2000% growth, and I think the industry has earned that.” Improvements to the funds are necessary, he added, but they won’t be achieved if the funds themselves are repeatedly questioned.
Fortunately, Fidecine is safe for now. Thanks to the meeting and its high-profile attendees, MORENA retracted its initiative to dismantle the funds. But while this came as a relief to a community on high alert for weeks, they’re all aware nothing is certain until the new fund is legislated. On May 25, AMACC issued a release detailing the outcome of the emergency meeting: They’re working with IMCINE to closely monitor next steps.
While the final outcome remains to be seen, what’s been proven is the ability of the Mexican film community to rally for the greater good. This new threat served as a reminder that safeguarding these resources remains imperative for everyone involved.
The conversation also provided a platform for Mexico’s greatest filmmakers to reassert the value of their country’s industry. “We love Mexico, we love all that we represent, and we understand that cinema is an art form and it’s also an industry,” Iñarritu said. “Cinema is the memory of who we are. It’s the documentation of a culture; it reinforces our identity with a great diversity of voices.”