By Mark London WilliamsOn the morning that the Mexico-U.S. Bilateral Film Industry Committee gathered at the Hotel Miramar’s Veranda Room, located on the last block of L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard before the continent slips into the ocean, to announce its “Santa Monica Declaration,” events in the non-film world were already proving unpredictable.Ruben Beltran, Mexico’s Consul General in L.A., was supposed to be on hand, along with new MPAA head Dan Glickman and Jean Prewitt, president and CEO of the Independent Film and Television Alliance (formerly the AFMA, umbrella organization of the recently-concluded AFM market, to which this gathering and announcement were an adjunct). Their directive: to reveal the extent of filmically inclined bilateral initiatives contained in the declaration.But Beltran was otherwise engaged, dealing with police, press and a gunman, who, that very morning, was prowling the consulate grounds near MacArthur Park. No one knew if this was an act of terrorism, political protest, a robbery gone awry, or what.Meanwhile, various attachÃ©s filled in ably for Beltran, and Glickman and Prewitt were there to annotate the declaration, which was read out loud—in Spanish and English—to a roomful of trade and industry representatives, all seated around a large, square table that bespoke seriousness and business-at-hand.The brass-tacks atmosphere was no accident: Glickman, the Jack Valenti-replacement who once served as agriculture secretary for Bill Clinton, talked of his success in opening the U.S. market to Mexican avocados. He then compared—somewhat sheepishly, to his credit—films to avocados, in the sense that both were “products.”But while guacamole is a sensual experience, and Y Tu Mama Tambien is, too, they’re not quite the same.The declaration stated that “urgent action” was needed, since Mexican film production had fallen “dramatically.” It stated that the U.S. and Mexico would work together to secure “private and public sector funds” to increase Spanish-language filmmaking that could reach Hispanic audiences in the U.S., and bolster production and facilities in Mexico; the U.S.’ neighbor to the south would, in turn, take additional steps to protect “audio visual works” from presumed piracy.Prewitt added her comments that “we [i.e. independent film production] can only exist… in cooperation with the national industry,” and that her organization hoped to “make sure the independent film community can survive around the world.”One model talked about to bolster chances for such survival was the Brazilian tax incentive program, which includes not only the expected tax rollbacks for production incentives, but more aggressive measures like giving MPAA member companies—who distribute in Brazil—the choice to pay either additional taxes, or invest in local Brazilian productions.These MPAA companies usually choose the latter, and it’s no accident that domestic film production in Brazil is booming. Mexico is likewise used to a strong public sector presence in industrial and cultural initiatives—which can be good or bad, depending on the government.But when Glickman followed up his avocado observation by noting that “in our country, these initiatives don’t come from our government,” he may have consigned the “Santa Monica Declaration” to little more than wishful thinking.At least, as a two-country partnership. Mexico is free to pursue VAT exemption and income-tax waivers for production expenses, training funds and film investors, but in the U.S., it took years for a paltry rider to be added to a corporate tax package that allowed only partial tax credits on low-budget films.In other words, short of providing a large, Spanish-language market for films, there’s not a hell of a lot the U.S. can, or will, do by way of reciprocation. Well, short of farming more large studio productions south of the border to those newly trained film workers.All of which will hopefully benefit the Mexican film industry. After all, any film business that once provided a home to a director like Luis Bunuel is the type of show business you want to root for.But in the U.S., Glickman is right: Culture is one industry not subsidized to any discernible degree by our government. In fact, culture, in particular, is the one industry towards which the current U.S. government shows barely restrained contempt. All of which makes one wonder how far they will go in securing “public” funds to rescue any film industry anywhere.The conservative government of Mexican President Vicente Fox, meanwhile, may have to swallow hard to emulate the reforms in Brazil—currently spearheaded by the unabashedly left-leaning administration of Workers’ Party head Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.Embracing culture, it turns out, is a little different than embracing the importing and exporting of oil, weapons—or avocados.All of which gets us back to events at the consulate: As the declaration was being read, the hapless gunman had managed to kidnap a female file clerk, and then get himself mortally wounded by a police sharpshooter, while exiting the building. The man, brandishing a sign that quoted the philosopher Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) turned out not to be a terrorist—not this time, anyway—but someone coming unhinged, who was carrying a starter pistol.Which brings us to the final way that films are unlike avocados: People still need to eat, regardless of the state of the world. But unpredictable events shape—quite dramatically—the degree to which culture is “consumed,” and also, what sorts of culture—what types of stories and images—people want in times of upheaval.So the prospects of film workers on either side of the U.S./Mexico border may be no surer despite all the good intentions in the air. And it remains to be seen whether even a “declaration” named for a patron saint renowned for arguing with God can change that.
Written by Mark London Williams