Canana Means Business

Scott Macaulay looks at how one film company is making a business out of keeping Mexican talent at home.

"I wouldn't consider that we have a 'new wave' of cinema in Mexico because nobody here talks to each other," laughs producer Pablo Cruz. "None of the filmmakers know each other like they would in a 'wave' like Denmark's Dogma '95. And they're not sleeping with each other, like the French New Wave!"

Cruz and actor/producers Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna founded their company Canana after thinking that Mexico could use an energetic and connected production entity capable of leveraging the country's great but isolated new film voices onto the world stage. "We're working on raising new filmmakers and making the films nobody wants to make," Cruz says of the Mexico City-based company. "We realized that the success of [Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonazalez Innaritu and Guillemo del Toro] was a special moment, but then there was nothing happening on the ground in Mexico. There was no grass-roots [activity]. So, Canana can use the power [Gael and Diego] have as stars and public figures and be useful to the industry."

And, yes, the three partners do talk. "The three of us run the company, and we talk almost every day," says Cruz. "We all decide which films we want to get involved with, and we all read scripts and get on the phone with filmmakers."

Canana works with an assortment of up-and-coming Mexican writing and directing talent, but the company also supports the directorial careers of its partners. Among Canana's productions are J.C. Chavez, a doc about Mexico's greatest boxer, Julia Cesar Chavez, directed by Luna, and Deficit, Bernal's directorial debut. Both films premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Other films include two from up-and-coming director Gerardo Naranjo — Drama/Mex, which premiered in Cannes at Critic's Week, and Voy-a-explotar, currently in post-production — as well as Cochochi, directed by Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman, which is about two young brothers from an indigenous group in Northern Mexico.

Documentaries are a special focus of the company. In Fall, 2007, Canana announced a special documentary initiative focusing on social justice issues at a $300-a-plate dinner in Mexico City benefiting Mexico's Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights as well as Peter Gabriel's Witness organization. "Documentaries show us the injustices in the country where we live, that this problem exists," Garcia Bernal said at the event's new conference.

Cruz says that most of Canana's films are "100 percent international," meaning that the company has foreign production partners and counts on film sales to international territories to cover its budgets. It also has a first-look deal with Focus Features and is a producing partner on Focus's first Spanish-language production, Sin Nombre, due out in 2009.

International partnerships are a necessity, explains Cruz, because the Mexican market is just not strong enough to support local art house and specialty film. "Mexican audiences are hypnotized by the U.S. studio films, the franchise movies," he sighs, "and this is something we have to fight against. There has to be space here for audiences to recognize better films."

Producing this cinema in Mexico is tough, though. "Film production is a disaster here because costs are high," Cruz says. "Film is a luxury item, and these [art house movies] don't make money at the box office. It's a duopoly — two chains control 70% of the theaters here, so there is no space for negotiation. They pay terrible rental fees. And because of piracy there's no home video market, and television never buys these films. So, we rely on international sales and box office. It's difficult to get our money back from the traditional windows."

What about government support? In Jason Wood's accompanying piece on Mexican cinema, the various government-sponsored funding organizations have played a key role in revitalizing the Mexican film industry. "The government is trying," Cruz admits, "but it doesn't exactly know what cinema's potential is as a business. Our new government tries to be more democratic, but it doesn't know what cinema could mean for our culture and image abroad. We do get help from the government [in the form of] tax incentives, but they are badly written and that makes it tough for companies who want to give us money."

Still, strong films continue to emerge from Mexico, and with these successes the local film organizations gain power. "The Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE) has had one of its best years ever," says Cruz. "They recognize that films and tequila are two things we can export!"

And as Mexican cinema grows, it's only natural that local producers like Canana attempt to fix some of the distribution system's structural imbalances. The company is currently producing the third edition of Ambulante, the first traveling documentary showcase in Mexico, a move that will enable it to expand into film distribution.