Academic journal article Estudios Interdisciplinarios de America Latina y el Caribe

Who Killed the Mexican Film Industry? the Decline of the Golden Age, 1946-1960

Academic journal article Estudios Interdisciplinarios de America Latina y el Caribe

Who Killed the Mexican Film Industry? the Decline of the Golden Age, 1946-1960

Article excerpt

Recent years have registered a boom in Mexican cinema, but comparisons to the Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s, when local films accounted for close to half of all tickets sold, fall significantly short. (1) In 2015, Mexico logged an output of 140 features, breaking a record that had stood since 1958, but as the majority of productions lacked adequate distribution and exhibition (and were produced on slim budgets), their share of national box-office revenue totaled a meager 6.5 percent. (2) Further, in another frequently touted yet misleading measure of Mexico's filmic health, the critical, commercial, and Oscar-winning success achieved in recent years by directors Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and Guillermo del Toro belies the fact that in the neoliberal era, filmmaking has largely been a matter not of large-scale, studio-based production but irregular artisanship, with successful directors quick to relocate to Hollywood. (3)

To the historian, the encouraging but economically limited revival--along with often specious comparisons to the Golden Age--prompts two big questions about the earlier era: What occurred in the 1940s and 50s that enabled Mexico to boast the world's third-largest film industry and prizewinners at prestigious European festivals? And what caused the Golden Age to fade out? This article concerns the latter question, which has received much less attention than the former from film historians; it looks into the multiple causes of a qualitative decline, which was somewhat masked by then-record output, but characterized by a proliferation of cheap formula pictures that catered to lower-income audiences (who paid less to see them), a consequent contraction in overseas market demand, and a general loss of domestic and foreign prestige.

Rather than offering a textual evaluation of films or genres, this approach takes the death of the Golden Age as a given, as attested to by multiple historians and critics, and dwells on the marginalized subject of film economics and its intersection with state policy. An industrial focus is merited because a comprehensive business history of Mexican cinema has yet to be written, either in English or in Spanish, nor does one appear to be in the pipeline. (4) The lacuna owes much to the traditional concern of film scholarship with textual analysis. Ana M. Lopez has noted that recent work on Mexican and South American film has paid more attention to historical and social context, long the special concern of Latin America's film historians. The business history of production, distribution, and exhibition remains largely uncharted territory. (5)

Two explanations for the decline of the Cine de Oro are commonly cited, both originating in works published in 1960. The year is significant because it saw the effective nationalization of the film industry, as the state took over the country's two leading movie theater operations, which were also key sources of film finance, in a bold but vain attempt to reverse the sector's decay. In El libro negro del cine mexicano, the disaffected producer-director Miguel Contreras Torres hurled the blame at William O. Jenkins, a US expatriate businessman. Along with two Mexican partners, Jenkins controlled both of the leading exhibition chains, and Contreras Torres claimed that the Jenkins Group had attained a de facto monopoly through all kinds of anti-competitive practices; worse, it granted greater screen access to Hollywood product and hindered the flow of credit to Mexican producers, insisting on a high volume of genre pictures produced on skimpy budgets. That same year, critic Emilio Garcia Riera attributed the demise in part to government censorship and in part to the conservatism of the financiers, but more so to another monopoly: an aging generation of complacent directors whose union refused new entrants. (6)

For half a century, histories of Mexican cinema have commonly--and for the most part unquestioningly--attributed the death of the Golden Age to a combination of Jenkins's alleged machinations and the industry's creative complacency. …

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