Friday September 11, renowned producer, director, and actor Gael Garcia Bernal opened the 12th Annual Hola Mexico Film Festival with a screening of his latest film, “Chicuarotes.” Bernal & members of the cast & crew also spoke about the film during a Q&A segment. There was one huge twist to all of this, however: it all occurred virtually. The film screened online and the Q&A was pre-recorded on Zoom.
Based in Los Angeles, Hola Mexico is the largest film festival of Mexican cinema outside of Mexico. Because of the pandemic, it moved its entire operation online for 2020, opening new opportunities for the festival. Now, Hola Mexico will screen its participating films online through its website via a partnership with Pantaya. In all, 20 feature films, 20 short films, and their corresponding Q&As will all be available to watch for $4.99 until September 20.
“Pantaya has been one of our sponsors for many years now and they're an amazing platform,” says Samuel Douek, the festival’s Founder and Director. “It's like Netflix but pretty much tailored to the Hispanic audience in the USA. I was really digging and trying to figure out the best way to present our festival online and then I spoke with Pantaya and we both decided this would be a fantastic idea.”
Douek founded Hola Mexico in Australia in 2006 where he was studying for a master’s degree in event management. He attended Italian and French film festivals while there, which influenced his decision to launch his own festival.
“I wondered if there was a Mexican Film Festival, but there wasn't any,” he recalls, “so I just decided to do my own.”
Douek returned to the US in 2008 and brought Hola Mexico with him, launching it in New York as a traveling film festival before settling it in L.A. as its permanent home. He believed that the best place for a film festival dedicated to Mexican cinema to grow would be the city with the largest population of the Mexican diaspora in the US, as well as the region that is home to Hollywood and filmmaking. His gamble turned out true and, since then, the festival has featured dozens of small, independent and large, box office films from Mexico at venues such as Arclight Cinemas, the Ricardo Montalban Theater and Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live.
Besides the move to online screenings only, the pandemic also pushed the original dates for the festival back to September from its usual slot in May and/or June. Douek postponed the festival but tested the waters with online screenings of films through the Hola Mexico Virtual Theater. The Virtual Theater offered 24-hour screenings on select dates from May through July of Mexican films that were either unreleased in the US or were available only as a limited release.
The limited screenings were hosted via Xerb.tv and gave Douek the opportunity to test the waters with virtual screenings and how to include Q&As via Zoom with select screenings. During this time, he continued speaking with the creatives at Pantaya on how to reshape Hola Mexico into a virtual film festival.
“May was pandemic season,” recalls Douex. “It was very fresh. Nobody knew what was going to happen then, so we just started doing some online screenings. I think we realized things are not gonna be better in the next year, so we just need to do it online because, at some point, I thought, oh, by September, we can do the festival.”
The changes forced by the pandemic required lots of innovative thinking and creative solutions along with an acceptance that many of the norms in the industry will remain upended for an unforeseeable amount of time.
“This is a shock to the entire film industry,” explains Douek, “because a film has a lifespan, right? You add it to the film festival, then sell the movie hoping to, first, have a theatrical window, then move into…ways to sell the film, and then DVDs, then streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon or Pantaya and then, finally, television. Now everything is shaped for a festival to say, ‘we're going to go straight to streaming.’ It's not easy.”
Douek usually doesn’t have an issue screening a film at Hola Mexico. He personally selects some of the films, often after watching them at festivals such as Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia and Festival Internacional de Cine de Guadalajara. He also confides in his festival programmer Carlos Aguilar with film selections. Unfortunately, the pandemic’s shock to the system caused a few filmmakers to refuse screening their films via an online platform.
“Some of the filmmakers were already in the middle of their film festival area so they understand that, now, all the film festivals in the world are online,” explains Douek, “so they want to participate in that. Other ones were just like, ‘Yeah, I want to be supportive of what you've done for the last 11 years, and this is my chance to support it.’ Other people, they said ‘Sorry, we just can't do it.’ So it was a bit of everything.”
Still, there are plenty of positives to take from the shift to online despite the many pandemic-related setbacks. One of the Q&As Douek recorded features 20 members of the cast and crew, a feat typically impossible in person due to the impracticality of flying out so many people from one film. Their partnership with Pantaya will also allow the films to have a larger national audience at a non-festival price, which can jump into the hundreds for a festival pass, and, in a way, allow the festival to travel the country as it did years ago. Depending on how it all works out, future iterations of Hola Mexico may incorporate an online, streaming aspect, whether live or recorded.
“That's the good thing about it,” agrees Douek. “Hopefully in the next few years, we can receive a normal festival at the cinemas and also have an online version of it and have both of them married together.”
Top Image: Two skeletons. One holding a bullhorn and phone, another is holding a video camera. A detail of the Hola Mexico film festival poster for 2020 by Mauricio Groenewold González | Courtesy of Hola Mexico