Hollywood made a deal with Mexico; it's time Screenwriters do, too!
Updated: May 18, 2020
Article 8 of our 10-part Screenwriting Staffing Industry Series explains why Hollywood has targeted Mexico and why screenwriters need to take heed. To stay current, join our mailing list.
Every filmmaker and writer has that one foreign film that changed how they looked at film and life forever. For me, it was in 2001. It was about 4 AM on a school night, and Y Tu Mamá También came on some channel in the 300’s. I had never seen anything like it. The film broke all the rules. The voice narration did not follow tradition. The use of sex and drugs was raw and authentic. The story took place mainly in a car, while road tripping through a part of the world I had never seen before. Seeing I was a young teenage boy, and the two main characters were teenage males, the film changed the way I viewed film and the world forever. The funny thing is, nearly 20 years later, I’m still infatuated by Mexican cinema. Not only their movies, but their people and country. Mexico has a very special place in my heart, which makes this published article my favorite out of the 8 so far . Which is exactly why I'm making the feature film De Gringo a la Tumba, based on my award-winning short film, From Gringo To Grave.
For a while, this love affair with Mexican films seemed taboo to anyone I spoke to North of the Border. It was hard to find anyone who shared a similar taste. Anytime you talk to film buffs, professors, and film historians, they will tell you if you want to study foreign indie films, look no further than France and Italy. Fair enough.
With 'Parasite' winning best movie at the Oscars this year, everyone has now jumped on the Korean bandwagon. It still amazes me how many people are still blinded by what is happening in the film world in Latin America, especially Mexico.
That's why I included this topic in our 10-part series.
Here are 2 recent script requests that came through our site:
"Mexican production for 1 million dollars. I am looking for a "coming of age" script, with a strong female protagonist, full of struggle and sexual content. The main theme its personal liberation."
"Feature length screenplay that focuses on immigration. Scripts that are set on the U.S./Mexican border preferred. Will also consider scripts set in Central America. Must be written in Spanish."
There is a growing demand for screenplays written in Spanish, which is why we launched our script translation service.
In 2019, NPR reported Netflix would make a considerable production push in Mexico in 2020. They were right. The online streaming giant set aside $200 million on in-country production this year, part of its significant expansion internationally.
Netflix has always pumped money into narco and food content, but Netflix has new plans moving forward. Netflix is giving Mexican filmmakers the green-light to break stereotypes. This will pay off brilliantly. Bela Bajaria is a name every screenwriter, showrunner, filmmaker, producer, and even a production assistant, needs to know.
She is shaping the future of Hollywood -- and none of it is taking place in Hollywood. She is in charge of international non-English TV originals on Netflix.
In an interview with NPR, here is what she had to say about Mexico’s Netflix content:
"What we want to do is really give a platform and an environment for these storytellers in these countries to be able to tell the story in the most authentic way - I mean, really having people on the ground in those countries who come from there to be able to do this."
My first article in this series started with The Future of Film is China. That was by no accident. China has been slowly and systematically shaping the future of film, and many estimate within 5 years it will be the global leader in cinema. But while China makes original content, they also work side-by-side with Hollywood studios to maximize profits. A good portion of the scripts come from Hollywood. Which means that most of the films are "Americanized".
Mexico, on the other hand, produces content written by Mexicans, that sometimes don't feature anyone in the States. The cast and crew are all from Mexico, yet they can still make a profit in the States and Canada. Why is this? Because we crave their storylines -- even if there's not a single word spoken in English.
From THE BORDER (1982), which stars Jack Nicholson, to SICARIO (2015, 2018), which stars Benicio Del Toro, Americans & Europeans have craved content on the border. But with immigration, asylum, & a wall making headlines daily, there has never been a better time to push content set on the border.
"Because of Los Angeles’ proximity to Mexico, movies have told stories about border disputes since nearly the dawn of cinema." - MEL MAGAZINE (2019)
I think as writers and filmmakers, we understand and appreciate that.
However, I feel many US and European writers and filmmakers have underestimated the power of Mexican cinema that doesn't take place on the border.
Mexico is to blame for this partially. Why? Because for the longest time, film and television were censored in Mexico. Televisa and TV Azteca created a duopoly that gave Mexican indie filmmakers very little wiggle room or leverage. Not anymore. With Netflix, Amazon, and Telemundo, Mexican filmmakers have the opportunity to produce larger-scale films without censorship. Not only are they given larger budgets, but they get to produce them (and cast and crew up) in Mexico. Most countries are not given this freedom.
I spoke about cities in New Mexico during my article Top 20 Cities to work as a Screenwriter. I think when we hear the word "Mexico" and "Hollywood" used together, we think of "New Mexico". Makes sense, since Netflix has offices in New Mexico, and most of our favorite television shows are shot there.
But did you know Netflix's regional headquarters is in Mexico City? They also have offices in São Paulo, Brazil.
Did you know Amazon Originals, Sony, Discovery, and WWE also have major offices in Mexico City?
Do you think it's just a coincidence that the NFL scheduled games in Mexico last year, and are secretly pushing for a team to be based there?
According to Variety, Netflix will be producing 50 television and film projects in Mexico this year. It is their largest international production slate.
To put that in perspective, according to WorldOMeter, Mexico is the 14th largest country. So take out the United States, and that means Netflix chose Mexico over 12 other more populated countries.
But they aren’t the only ones boarding this gravy train.
Just this year, Disney+ and HBO Max have put a good portion of their resources and energy into the Latin American film market.
What’s happening in Mexico is historic, yet when you talk about Mexico and their films here in the States and the UK, you hear the sound of crickets from most indie writers and filmmakers.
I worry about this. Will these writers/filmmakers be left behind if they refuse to embrace the power of Mexico's film and television market?
I believe so. As Bajaria alluded to in several interviews, she and her team want those at ground zero -- only those who “really” understand the culture and region.
In 2018, Guillermo del Toro became the 3rd Mexican filmmaker to win an Oscar for directing in 4 years. Streaming services began drooling over this.
Then, a year later, Mexican film ROMA’ made history as Netflix’s first Academy Award Best Picture Nomination.
According to Forbes and Statistica, the top 3 Netflix subscriber regions worldwide are North America, Western Europe, and Latin America.
While executives at major Hollywood studios placed their time and energy on the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, where they delegated most of their time promoting, hiring, and casting African American filmmakers and talent, many streaming services recognized that the hashtag transcended far past just one single race. So while major streaming services did incorporate more African American writers, filmmakers, and cast, they didn't just stop there.
While streaming services have struck gold as of late with the Latin American film industry boom, Lionsgate was one of the first (or, at least, most notable ones) to exploit this market 10 years ago.
They backed Pantelion Films, based in Los Angeles. Their focus is bringing large theatrical distribution geared to Latino audiences. They have strong relationships with major theaters, like AMC and Regal. Pantelion distributed the movie Instructions Not Included (No se Aceptan Devoluciones). The film was made for 5 million. It grossed 100 million. This was historical, because a majority of films in Latin America before the rise came from funding in Europe. The problem? Europe doesn't have the infrastructure, bankroll, or tax incentives that the United States has. So it made perfect sense for Hollywood to FINALLY strike a lucrative deal with our neighbor's just South of the Border.
It’s common for producers and agencies to follow the trade magazines daily.
Screenwriters, on the other hand, seem to think this doesn’t apply to them. Especially screenwriters who are indie and/or non-union.
Screenwriting is far more than storytelling. It is a business. And to be successful in any business, you must understand your industry and its trends.
When you sit down and write your next story, I challenge you to consider writing in a strong Hispanic character. Why?
The U.S. Hispanic population reached a record 59.9 million in 2018, up 1.2 million from 2017, and up from 47.8 million in 2008, according to newly released data by the U.S. Census Bureau.
I’ve talked about this over and over again through this series, but if you think for a moment Hollywood places art over business, you have been grossly misled. Hollywood has recognized the growing Hispanic population for a few years now, and plans to exploit it every which way. This fascination with the Latin American film market is slowly bleeding into the States. US-based screenwriters will not be able to ignore Mexican characters and storylines for much longer. If they do, they will not have a single reader or viewer. If you are still reading, it at least means you are intrigued.
So let's talk about how to write for the Mexican film market, or, at the very least, incorporating a strong Mexican character into your story.
HERE ARE 5 TIPS/THOUGHTS:
1) MEXICAN SOAP OPERAS ARE DEAD.
When I spend time around 3rd and 4th generation Mexicans across the U.S. (mainly in Los Angeles), they are still under the notion that Mexico lives and dies by the soap opera. Maybe it's because their grandmother or great grandmother watched it when they visited Mexico 20 years ago, but I can assure you these melodramas are a dying breed in Mexico, mainly due to the rise of original and compelling content from streaming services.
I get my haircut in a small border town in Mexico. I have been asked before if they have soap operas on at the barbershop. NO, NEVER. So, please, when writing for the Mexican market, try to avoid soap opera clichés.
2) WRITING ABOUT NARCO CULTURE.
What films have stood the test of time? Gangster films. Anything containing the Mafia. Older films like GODFATHER, SCARFACE, and GOODFELLAS, to newer films like IRISHMAN and CAPONE. What makes these films among other gangster films so successful? Authenticity. Most are based around true events.
What type of gangster films have failed miserably? GOTTI, GANGSTER SQUAD, and SMOKIN ACES.
Gangster-type films, with big guns and big names, have the potential to gross hundreds of millions, but if done poorly, go belly up (bankrupt).
Tread lightly and cautiously when writing about the drug world. Know your facts. I spent nearly 10 years researching, interviewing, and traveling before writing DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA.
There's a reason why streaming services are obsessed with drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar, Joaquín Guzmán, Miguel Felix, Amado Fuentes, and Griselda Blanco. These drug lords started from nothing. They hustled their way to the top. They were more powerful than their government. The CIA and DEA cut deals with many of them. But writing about these characters requires inside information. It requires a lot of reading and research. When done correctly, Americans and Europeans binge-watch anything with these "names" attached.
In fact, Narco culture will surpass anything mafia-related when it comes to storytelling.
Why? Because the drug trade nets $435 billion a year. Hollywood has always exploited the stories of rich people and organizations, because people are fascinated by wealth and entrepreneurship (even if it's illegal and bloody). Content like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, WOLF OF WALL STREET, THE QUEEN, STEVE JOBS, and VICE are just some examples.
Streaming services are pouring millions of dollars into Mexican films and shows that are shot in Mexico, directed by Mexican directors, with an entire Mexican cast, all in Spanish. Here's the catch: they are still slaves to these streaming giants. And these streaming giants still have to market their product to 160+ countries. Do you think Mexicans want to sit and watch how their government is corrupt, how they are in the midst of the largest drug war in history, that machismo is the same now as it was 100 years ago, that hundreds upon hundreds of women are being murdered, or that a wall is being built in their back yard? Of course not. But the rest of the world does. That alone is why you will continue to see this content pushed -- it sells. And that will never change.
So, if you want to tackle narco culture, do your research before jumping into an already over-saturated market.
3) MEXICO IS SO MUCH MORE.
Ever heard of shows like Club de Cuervos, The House of Flowers, Luis Miguel: The Series? How about movies like No One Will Ever Know, El Club de los Insomnes, or Como caído del cielo?
What makes these MEXICAN shows/films (which are currently streaming) so unique? The story does not revolve around narco culture. Believe it or not, there is so much more to Mexico.
Mexican filmmakers have, and will continue to make stories about their beautiful people, their beautiful land, and their beautiful traditions. And it's totally possible to do this without having a single narco in the film. As this industry continues to grow and grow, more and more films will illuminate all that is good about Mexico, and not what is bad. So consider this when writing for this market. If you want to set yourself apart, consider writing a script that completely steers clear of the corruption (I mean, hell, we have corruption here in the States). I mentioned this Mexican movie already, but INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED was a masterpiece. Guess how many times "drugs" were referenced? Zero.
4) MAKING THE CROSSOVER & UNDERSTANDING YOUR LIMITATIONS.
As I said before, I started with the rise and dominance of the Chinese film industry for a reason: to be controversial and rub people the wrong way. I'm tired of people ignoring what's really happening in the film world. 40% of the producers who post through my site consider English as their 2nd language.
But I do understand how it can be a bit daunting for a writer to write about a world that's very unfamiliar to most.
There are some conflicting differences between China and the U.S., I'm not going to lie: censorship, politics, religion, even food. But that doesn't mean the Chinese film market should be ignored.
I do not carry the same sympathy when writing for the Mexican film market. Our religions are practically the same. We enjoy the same types of sports. Our music is quite similar. Did you watch the SUPER BOWL HALF TIME SHOW this year? The bar scene is nearly identical. Even certain judicial laws are relevantly the same. But, most importantly, we border each other, for God's sake!
A good portion of the US population is Hispanic. This crossover, as a writer, should not be intimidating to you. Unless you flat out disagree with me about the Mexican/Latin American film industry, there is no reason you can't incorporate Hispanic characters into your script. It won't compromise your story.
Embrace your limitations. While I think the crossover is easier than some may think, there is a language barrier. If you are not from Mexico or don't speak Spanish, try partnering with someone who does. Professional actors in Mexico have little patience for stereotypical and generic dialogue, especially from English-speaking directors. It's the same thing I see on Facebook groups all the time. Someone from Nigeria or India will post their script on an American screenwriting group, and everyone and their mother rip into the young writer because it's in broken English. While I'm against social media bullying, I understand why people get frustrated. If you want to write for the Hollywood market, your script better be in "understandable" English. But the same theory goes for those writing for the Latin American film market. Your Spanish better be pristine.
TVOM had this to say about Paulina Gaitán (which, by the way, is my favorite actress):
Most young actors are so happy to land high profile parts that they are willing to perform whatever the script demands. Others, like Gaitan, value their performances so much that they contribute to the characters. She has stated that she is happy to give her opinion on the words and actions of her characters if needed. Often, this is the case when English directors misunderstand how dialogue sounds in Spanish.
I try to tell writers and producers all the time that before they take their screenplay to international casting directors and A-list talent, you MUST have a translated script. If anything, the dialogue needs to be translated into the language being spoken.
I had to do this myself recently with a couple of my scripts.
When we are asked about our translation service, the 2 languages that always come up are Mandarin Chinese and Mexican Spanish.
Additionally, avoid stereotypes or characters that appease U.S. audiences.
THE MULE, by Clint Eastwood, had the potential to be an Oscar-winning film. It's based on a true story. Why did the film fail? The two leads (Clint Eastwood and Bradly Cooper) were flat and pitiful. But where the film really failed was with its stereotypes. Andy Garcia played a handsome, charismatic, happy-go-lucky, best-buddy type of fellow, even though he was supposed to be the most feared drug lord in Mexico.
The low-level narcos in the film were all tatted from head to toe. They used slang words that haven't been spoken in nearly 3 decades. They cast your typical low-level narco actors, like Noel Gugliemi, who has played the same role in films such as TRAINING DAY, FAST AND THE FURIOUS, and STREET KINGS. I like Gugliemi, but it's time for filmmakers to expand their mind and network. Once you see a character play the same role so many times, it loses its power and allure. I understand Middle America wants to believe that every drug mule is some tatted, bad-ass "DANNY TREJO" type, but the truth: most drug mules look like you and me. If you can't visit the border, watch reality shows like BORDERFORCE OR BORDER WARS. Most of the people they apprehend smuggling drugs are younger Caucasian males and females (some even pregnant), Mexican grandmothers in their late 60's, or professional businessmen who travel in the "fast lane" for work.
It's time Hollywood grows up. Don't fall into their trap.
If you truly want to learn from Hollywood's mistakes, so you don't fall into the same trap, watch the FX show from 2013 (which was a rip off of the Danish/Swedish show) called THE BRIDGES. The show is set between El Paso and Juárez, although my understanding is camera never touched down in Mexico (go figure). When they pretended to shoot in Juárez, they kept the frame tight so you wouldn't see they were filming in Texas. They placed empty beer and coke cans sporadically on the streets. They always had the camera shaking while in Mexico to show uneasiness and bumpy roads. They wanted to limit subtitles, so they used the "Spanglish" hybrid-language for Mexican characters. It was a disaster and ultimately canceled.
Although SICARIO is one of my favorite films, the scene when they get ambushed on Bridge of the Americas was not believable. I know American audiences want to believe that's what happens on the bridges. And I also know the media likes to paint a similar picture. But ask anyone who lives in Juárez or El Paso if anything like that would ever happen? The answer is NO. They built a fake bridge in New Mexico to shoot that scene. And in my opinion, it shows.
If you are genuine when writing your characters and setting, you will be just fine.
5) DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE.
Just because you vacationed once in Acapulco or Cancún, doesn't make you an expert. Just because you drove 2 hours south from Los Angeles to Tijuana when you were younger to party (trust me, I get it. I did the same thing), doesn't make you an expert.
There's more to Mexico than beaches and borders.
That would be like a filmmaker from Puebla, Mexico, who was only traveling to New York City and Los Angeles, then attempted to write the great American novel about the "American Way." If anything, those 2 cities are out of touch with what's really happening in this country. The same can be said about writing for the Mexican film market. Visit and explore other parts of Mexico. If you find yourself in places where everyone speaks English, you aren't in the right spot. If traveling is not feasible, read as much Mexican literature (both fictional and nonfictional) as you can. Watch documentaries. Attend local Hispanic/Latin-run film festivals. Watch films set in Mexico, made by Mexican filmmakers. Interview those who have emigrated from Middle Mexico. Follow Mexican publications.
I'll close with this.
Because of my love for Mexican cinema, I moved to a small border town in Arizona a little under a year ago (right across from Sonora, Mexico, where I cross several times a week), nestled in the mountains in a tiny arts community. While only a temporary move, it opened my eyes to a lot of things. Parlay that with shooting a film this past summer in another border town (Ciudad Juárez), I feel like being privy to what's "really" happening on the border has improved my writing. But I don't expect every writer and filmmaker to move near the border or to Mexico. I also don't expect every writer or filmmaker to have the same passion as I do for the Mexican film market. But similar to my opinions on the Chinese film market, if you are going to stay relevant in this industry, you have to know where money and production are moving... and it's not here in the States. Hollywood is so over-saturated with content. Everyone is competing for new subscribers. U.S. and Canada are maxed out. So what's left in North America? Mexico.
"Latinos buy a fifth of all movie tickets but star in just 3 percent of all movies!" -- The SACRAMENTO Bee (2019)
I'm trying to change that. If you'd like to be a part of my timely feature film, set predominantly in Mexico, with a majority of Mexican actors, you can learn more here: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo
If you are looking to network with Mexican film enthusiasts and movie makers, I'd recommend checking out these film festivals in Mexico: www.tripsavvy.com/film-festivals-in-mexico-1588779
If you are wanting to watch Mexican films, both old and new, here is a great list to start (all on Netflix): www.secondhalftravels.com/mexican-movies-netflix-streaming
Finally, while it may not be for everyone, one of my favorite Mexican Amazon Originals right now is Diablo Guardián. The 1st season is set between Mexico and the United States, in both English and Spanish. The 2nd season is all in Spanish and set in Mexico. Based on the 2003 novel by Xavier Velasco. Learn more here: www.amazon.com/Diablo-Guardian-Season-1/dp/B07C26P33F
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Article was written by Jacob N. Stuart.
Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenwriters and screenplays with film and television entertainment professionals. Since 2013, Jacob has helped facilitate over 250 success stories (sales, options, hires, and representation), most notably a Christmas movie produced by Hallmark in 2017. Here is a small list: www.imdb.com/search/title/?companies=co0524287
Jacob is also an award-winning and produced screenwriter, with over a decade of film experience. His films have been screened at theaters across the globe, as well as distributed traditionally through dvd/blu-ray. He currently has 3 films (2 features, 1 short) on VOD, including the award-winning film AN ADDICTING PICTURE. He holds a Bachelors in both Film and Entertainment Business from The Los Angeles Film School. He has also written for other top industry publications, including Final Draft, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and MovieMaker Magazine. He currently teaches film ethics/theory at Westinghouse Arts Academy online part-time.
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