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Mexico fetes Cuaron's Oscars, but filmmakers keep feet on ground

Alfonso Cuaron poses with the awards for best director and best film editing for "Gravity" at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Californ
Alfonso Cuaron poses with the awards for best director and best film editing for "Gravity" at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Californ

By Michael O'Boyle

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - As Mexico basks in the glow of its first best director Oscar for Alfonso Cuaron and his blockbuster film "Gravity," a new generation of homegrown filmmakers wonders if the magic of the golden statuette will rub off on them.

Cuaron's 3D space thriller scooped seven Oscars, the most of any film on Sunday, and was lauded for groundbreaking special effects conveying space and weightlessness, though it lost the best picture award to drama "12 Years a Slave.

The movie, which stars Sandra Bullock as an astronaut cut loose from her space shuttle, has already earned $700 million at the worldwide box office and Cuaron's win is the first best director Oscar for a Latin American.

However, the 52-year-old Cuaron has spent most of his career outside Mexico, after he struggled to raise financing for projects back home, and fellow leading directors Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu also both moved abroad.

Back in his homeland, a new generation of Mexican directors has been quick to point out Cuaron's work has had little to do with the domestic industry. "Gravity" was made for an estimated $100 million by Warner Bros. Pictures, while directors in Mexico have to scramble to drum up just $2 million for a film.

Many Mexican independent filmmakers have had more commercial success abroad than in their home country, where filmmakers complain they can't compete against the big budgets of Hollywood studios, whose films dominate screens at cinemas.

"The only place where you cannot see Mexican film is in Mexico," said Ivan Avila Duenas, who debuted his fourth feature film at the National Autonomous University of Mexico's International Film Festival, FICUNAM, on Sunday.

Though Cuaron cut his teeth in Mexico, most of his best known works have been Hollywood-backed projects.

In the 1990s, he left Mexico to work in the United States, then Britain, and became more known for his movie adaptations of British authors, including the third installment of J.K. Rowling's work, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," as well as P.D. James' dystopian "Children of Men."

Ironically, success abroad enabled Cuaron to direct with bigger budgets in Mexico, where his 2001 Spanish-language road trip film "Y Tu Mama Tambien," helped launch the international careers of actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

When Cuaron scored his first hit in the 1990s, Mexican film output was anemic, with only 10 or so films a year. Last year yielded over 100, aided by tax breaks for corporate sponsors and co-productions between Mexican and foreign companies.

NOT MADE IN MEXICO

Cuaron's fellow expatriates Del Toro and Inarritu, to whom he paid tribute in his Oscar acceptance speech, have also both been backed by big U.S. studios.

The fact is not lost on those still working in Mexico.

"These three do not make Mexican film. They do not make their film in the Mexican system and their themes do not result from living here in the society where the rest of us live," said Julian Hernandez, whose brooding, homoerotic films have won international awards and foreign distribution, but which have seen little commercial success in conservative Mexico.

"This makes us all happy, to see a Mexican recognized," Hernandez said. "But this doesn't mean that it will get any better for Mexican cinema."

Since the "three amigos" - Cuaron, Del Toro and Inarritu - rose to international fame, another generation of filmmakers has matured and won a string of international awards.

But the new crop have struggled to achieve the same level of box office success and support from Hollywood.

Mexico's art-scene directors have won honors at the world's top festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Venice, with gritty, personal visions that mix elements of fiction and documentary.

Mexican drama "Despues de Lucia", or After Lucia, by writer-director Michel Franco, took the top prize in Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard category in 2012.

And the minimalist films of festival favorites Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante, who won the best director award in Cannes last year, star non-actors in fictional tales. Last month, Alonso Ruizpalacios won Berlin's best first feature award with his debut "Gueros."

Meanwhile, other directors like Eugenio Polgovsky and Juan Carlos Rulfo have pushed the boundaries of documentaries.

"The challenge is getting more of these movies actually distributed and released," said Robert Koehler, a Los Angeles-based film critic with publication Cinema Scope, who argued that filmmakers should look at "Gravity" "as the Trojan horse for importing Mexican cinema into the United States."

After more than a decade of growing critical success, the local industry is finally scoring some big commercial hits.

Last year saw two box office records for local films, first with "Nosotros los Nobles" (We Are the Nobles) a comedy that lampoons Mexico's upper class, that made over $26 million.

It was followed by "Instructions Not Included," which starred TV comic Eugenio Derbez as an Acapulco playboy forced to raise a baby dumped on his doorstep.

"Instructions" nearly doubled "Nobles" domestic take and went on to become the top grossing Spanish-language film in the United States, with a worldwide take of over $85 million.

Speaking backstage after winning, Cuaron said he hoped his success would spur more interest in other Mexican filmmakers.

"I don't think there is enough attention paid to Mexican culture and what is happening in Mexico," he said.

(Reporting by Michael O'Boyle, Julia Symmes Cobb, Alexandra Alper and Liz Diaz; Editing by Simon Gardner and Eric Walsh)

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