More shows and films are made in Mexico, where costs are low and unions are few
Updated May 23, 2023 at 3:47 PM ET
MEXICO CITY — Through director Fiona McGee's monitor, this commercial evokes a typical middle-class American scene: Mom walks into a neat kitchen, overloaded with groceries. Dad sits at the table smiling and spoon-feeding their baby.
"OK, look at baby," says McGee softly. "Now look at your phone. Now pick it up."
But if you take a step back, something else entirely appears: a lush, semitropical garden behind an art deco home in Mexico City's Condesa neighborhood. While dozens of Mexican crew members hover around the kitchen, others ferry cables and lights across the purple jacaranda tree-lined street, just steps from cafés and restaurants popular with American tourists and remote workers.
It's an increasingly familiar sight on the streets of Mexico City, as American and European companies send TV and film shoots south of the border, taking advantage of lower costs and experienced Mexican crews.
The Lift, the Mexican production services company running this shoot, has made commercials for brands like Apple, Dr. Pepper, Doritos and Turbotax. Six of their 35 commercials aired during the 2023 Super Bowl were produced in Mexico.
After McGee calls "Cut" to change the shot, Mexican production designer Mónica Bidault steps in with her art team to rearrange some details around the kitchen. Her job on this commercial (they asked not want to divulge what it was for) and many others, is to make Mexico City look like Anywhere, U.S.A. But the team has also depicted places far beyond that.
"I don't want to say there's nothing we can't do but we've done pretty wild things to make it match," she says. They've recreated the Ganges River on Mexico City's Xochimilco canals. They've transformed an orchard, taping almond flowers onto the end of hundreds of pear branches.
With more foreign investment coming in, the Mexico City Film Commission approved 1,289 productions in 2022, an all-time high, for commercials, TV, films and documentaries.
The Mexican crews say they aren't intimidated by Hollywood standards.
"We're hoping to deliver a better quality [than in the U.S.]," says Helena Medina, the line producer on this shoot for The Lift. "We are chasing that level and now we're constantly trying to bring more to the table."
The Mexican crew members — 115 of 119 people on this set — working around the director of photography, Academy Award-nominated Rachel Morrison, and director McGee were beating their expectations, despite anticipated stumbling blocks.
"The language barrier for me, being Australian and not speaking Spanish although I wish I did, was a challenge," says McGee. "But the support is pretty amazing here. ... There's a youthful energy to the crews."
Hovering near McGee is Rodrigo Urbano, the Mexican first assistant director. As McGee guides the actor in precise movements in English, Urbano seamlessly translates into Spanish.
"Putting the spoon down a bit," McGee says.
"Lo bajas," Urbano whispers.
"Now stay in that position,"
"Quédate en esa posición."
"Now hold the spoon."
Once they wrap this scene, Urbano directs set designers to prepare the next location: a bedroom upstairs staged like a suburban American home.
McGee has been delighted by some of the advantages of filming in Mexico.
"Here we have rolling sets so if we're shooting multiple days, you're walking into sets that are already dressed and already lit, which is unheard of in other places," she says. It allows her more time to focus solely on directing without delays.
Behind the boom
Whether a foreign company is producing couches, televisions, electric vehicles or, in this case, a television commercial in Mexico, lower cost is a primary driver.
"We tend to be a third of the cost of a comparable L.A. production, union or nonunion," says Avelino Rodríguez, the CEO of The Lift and president of Mexico's National Film Commission.
But cheaper production isn't enough. Rodríguez, who co-founded The Lift in 2005 and has since built it into the largest production services company in Mexico, said the key was training Mexican producers like Medina to understand how American and European crews like to work.
"We made a concerted effort to train up the talent and it paid off for the company and also for other companies where they have gone on to work," he says.
Mexico benefits from a rich history and culture of film. Since its golden age of cinema in the mid-20th century, it's been churning out talented artists, most visibly Academy Award-winning directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. But behind the scenes are thousands of experienced camera operators, production designers, gaffers and grips.
"The story of film production is also the story of Mexico City," Rodríguez says.
When Rodríguez was getting his start as a producer in the 1990s, Mexico City had a reputation as grimy and dangerous, as portrayed in González Iñárritu's 2000 directorial breakthrough movie, Amores Perros. Visitors were warned to stick to the food at their hotel. Film shoots had to budget in bribes for police and city officials.
"[Mexico City] has become the capital of audiovisual production in Latin America and one of the most important in the world," Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum declared in March, after meeting with executives from companies including Netflix, Amazon and Disney.
The city's film commission is now known for quick, easy permitting and Rodríguez says his company hasn't paid a bribe on a shoot in more than a decade. Mexico City now has cachet as a culinary beacon, with Rosetta chef Elena Reygadas crowned the world's best female chef of 2023 by The World's 50 Best Restaurants. Since Mexico never closed its borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, artists from across the world came here to ride out the pandemic, says Rodríguez, and many now call it a second home.
"Mexico has become more and more attractive for foreign film investment in recent years," says Luis García from the Mexican Filmmakers Association. In 2019, 15% of its members' work came from production services for foreign companies. In 2022, it was 36% and is expected to keep growing.
With the Writers Guild of America strike currently bringing Hollywood to a halt, the union disparities between Mexico and the U.S. have come into focus. U.S. film workers have some of the highest unionization rates in any industry, while unions in the Mexican industry are almost nonexistent. Unions in the U.S. negotiate crew size, work hours, day rates and more. Their absence in Mexico allows for more robust film productions at a much lower cost. NPR contacted several U.S. film unions about the implications but did not receive a response.
Production designer Bidault says that, though rare, she is aware of some exploitative foreign companies.
"You hear about foreign productions that come because they know they can shoot longer hours here," she says. "We're lucky to work with people from around the globe but we should know what we have and what we're worth and protect our industry."
Rodríguez says the National Film Commission is currently developing industry standards in collaboration with U.S. counterparts, including unions. But there are not unionization efforts in Mexico underway at the moment.
Either way, more of what appears on American television in the future is likely to be Made In Mexico.
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