Cinereach grantee film Aquí y Allá, written and directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza, is on the tail end of its theatrical release in select US and Canadian cities. Tim Hobbs, one of the film’s producers, takes a moment to reflects on his film’s unique set of creative and financial risks, and how he and his team are identifying and navigating the challenges and opportunities in their path.
A guest post by Tim Hobbs
We always knew we were taking significant risks with Aquí y Allá (Here and There). It’s our view that taking real risks is a requirement of trying to make a really good film. From a business perspective, the idea is to fit that within a realistic framework so it can make sense.
Descriptively speaking, Aquí y Allá is a narrative feature about an immigrant who returns home to a small mountain village in Guerrero, Mexico after years of working in the US, and fights to rebuild his family and follow his dream of starting a band. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it won the Critics Week Grand Prize, and has been fortunate to have screened in nearly 30 countries around the world to date. None of which is to say anything in the entire process has come easy, or that we can yet rest assured.
We took significant risks making a film in a language other than English, casting only non-professional actors, filming in a remote mountain region of Mexico, and in the filmmaking approach in general.
Antonio’s directorial vision for the film was risky, as anything striving for originality must be. Aquí y Allá is peaceful, observational, and very much focused on the casual little details that accumulate into, we believe, rich characterization and a powerful overall narrative. In our approach, we embraced what we saw as the poetry of the film, and tried to create pure moments of the kind that might forever live on in the characters’ memories of home, family, childhood, and fatherhood. To do this, it was essential to allow for enough space for the seemingly insignificant to gather weight, and to allow the audience to bear witness to what is not said as much as what is, to the truth that often lies just below appearances. Similarly, although the film never actually directly shows “Allá” (referring to the US, and meaning: “over there” or “beyond”, and recalling “the other side”), we have tried to express how the presence of “Allá”, along with the absence of family and friends who have emigrated to “Allá”, is so strongly felt at home that it is practically knocking at the door.
Although the film is calm and contemplative, it seems it resonates very emotionally for certain people. To see audiences, especially Mexican audiences, engage with subtleties and layers of the film has been thrilling, as it makes us confident the film has a richness and depth that could give it a long life, if given sufficient opportunity. Antonio believed that conveying the emotional quality of time, the weight of absence, the loss of what is left behind, and the naturally restrained emotions we observed from the local Mexicans who inspired the story, required an indirect and subtle approach to the narrative. A thoroughly risky approach that we wholeheartedly believed in and helped him to realize. We all also believed that some conventional filmmaking methods often used to impress or elicit emotion from the audience would detract from, not service, the vision for the film: e.g. overamplified emotions from the actors, an emotional music score, virtuosic camera movements that would contradict the idea of bearing witness to intimacy, and so forth. The risk of the filmmaking approach, in a real sense, is that it requires the audience to “look”. By that I mean, a seemingly insignificant but pure moment can be read as either pure or insignificant, but not really both. It’s only a question of looking and seeing: looking for the meaningfulness of the everyday, and seeing what for us is the poetry of the film.
I should also address the risk of producing and distributing a Spanish-language film. There are nearly 500 million Spanish-speakers worldwide, and 50 million in the US — more, in fact, than in Spain, and second only to Mexico. The Hispanic demographic in the US is also the strongest filmgoing audience per capita in the US.
All of this notwithstanding, the industry in the US is far behind the curve in creating and distributing quality content that will speak directly to the Hispanic audience. There are lots of reasons why, but they have little to do with supply and demand. For starters, there’s the mainstream approach in filmmaking and the wide-release mentality of distribution. This has been getting worse for some time, and is actually getting even worse now despite the promise of digital cinema, because of some thing called Virtual Print Fee (VPF) programs. Then there’s the star system, the celebrity system, that the industry operates on though various reputable studies have shown there may be no correlation between star participation and profitability. What is obvious is that most celebrities are white and speak English. They were elevated to service a mainstream system.
A lot of this quite clearly adds up to institutionalized discrimination; de facto discrimination but discrimination nonetheless. The institutionalized discrimination simply crowds most minority films and non-English films out of the marketplace, creating an initial problem of easy access. It can even flow all the way through to distribution output deals or licenses, which sometimes categorize all non-English content together as “foreign” and apply steep discounts to deal prices. It amounts to Spanish-language films all effectively being treated as “foreign” by the US industry, in more or less the same way as films in every other non-English language. This also brings me back to the point. Many of the powerful forces behind the status quo have more to do with the power structure than they do with markets optimizing according to supply and demand. This is one reason we ourselves have been building a business involved in production, sales, and distribution for the past five years, because we see this as an opportunity.
We believed some meaningful theatrical release of Aquí y Allá was necessary to generate press coverage and help build word of mouth, which could drive revenues going forward. Our theatrical release has focused in particular on the largest Mexican-American population centers (i.e. California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, and Colorado). One could argue that, although it’s becoming harder in the digital age for smaller films to get real access to the theatrical market, they are in greater need of access to it as a primary way of being marketed and elevated from the chaotic manifold of content online. There is demand for good films of diverse stripes. The problem is largely about enabling discovery, and getting audiences to look beyond what is being so heavily marketed to them by the mainstream system. It’s again a question of “looking”, not unlike with our film.
Time will tell how the dust settles for Aquí y Allá. What I can say for sure is that we’re in the middle of it all fighting for the film, fighting for the spirit of risk-taking, creativity, and imagination, and fighting for a better way forward.
Tim Hobbs founded Torch Films along with Ori Dov Gratch in 2008 to produce and distribute independent films. Torch was the only film company selected for New York City’s first entrepreneurship incubator initiative, created in 2009 by Mayor Bloomberg. Prior to Torch, Tim worked as an Associate at The Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles, and in general management in other industries. He was raised in Pittsburgh, and holds an MBA in Finance and Media from New York University and a BA from Emory University. His additional interests include poetry and philosophy, and he was fortunate enough to study with luminary philosophers Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel.