Fighting corruption, stereotypes and creative lethargy, one production at a time.
Photograph by Lewis More O'Ferrall.
The Lift has grander aims than most production service companies. They don’t just want to service jobs. Managing Partner Avelino Rodríguez has been on a crusade for almost a decade to change how the filmmaking world sees Mexico.
Avelino’s life in production service began with a slowly dawning realisation while filmmaking in his native Mexico. An assistant director on commercials and a producer for feature films, he began to notice the potential Mexico had as a service destination. With its massive catalogue of locations, top talent and low costs, he knew it should be attracting way more foreign production than it was.
“Mexico was very specialised for features,” he says, “but for quick turnarounds and the timing of commercials, it wasn’t that developed. That was the gap.”
He started drawing up business models. Soon he heard about two Mexicans in Barcelona who ran a big production service company called The Lift. They were looking to expand to their home country. Avelino was the man to help them. This was 2005. Eventually The Lift would become a Mexico-only company and Avelino would take over as Managing Partner.
The immediate task at hand was building Mexico into a more attractive destination for international production. A priority was tackling the widespread corruption in Mexico City – something locals took for granted that Avelino felt deterred international producers.
“Our first projects were very difficult in that respect,” he says. “I remember one where the cost of the police was $7,000[US] a day.” They had no choice but to pay up if they wanted to shoot in the city. “For us [that] was very natural, but when you’re working with someone from abroad and they see you bribing the cops they feel it’s very unsafe.”
Because of the hierarchy within the police structure, it was very common to have two or three interventions from cops wanting a bribe to allow a shoot on location. There was no documented process for permitting or for what constituted a proper production that met all the criteria to be able to shoot on location, this was convenient for cops who could easily “sanction” productions on a subjective basis.
Avelino began working closely with the mayor, reporting every person paying bribes, how much and where the money was going. He helped local government set up a film commission to combat the corruption, tightening up regulations around permits and making sure they were issued quickly enough for producers to make use of them.
This was a huge step forward. “The film commission had authority over anyone else in the city because they had a direct mandate from the mayor,” he explains.
The Lift had a big shoot on the day the commission came into being. They wanted to start at 6am but the commission wouldn’t be active until noon. They’d resolved not to pay any bribes that day, so the police held them up all morning. Precisely at midday the cops received a command over the radio. “We started to shoot with no corruption from that day onwards,” says Avelino.
With the film commission came streamlined permitting processes and validation from a government entity that would decide whether to green-light a production prior to a shoot, not during. If a production met all the criteria (a comprehensive shooting schedule, logistics mapping etc.) the permit (a physical document) was given and cops no longer had authority to shut down or boycott a production.
It now takes a maximum of two days to turn around permits to shoot on the streets of Mexico City. “We’re really happy working on that,” he says, “preparing the city and sometimes other parts of the country to make it more friendly and less scary.”
That was nine years ago now, but the crusade to make Mexico a more attractive production destination continues. And it reaches much further than just rooting out corruption. The Lift work closely with another local government body called City Lab to develop the international image of Mexico City.
“When we started the image was very old,” says Avelino. “We were this big square in the middle of nowhere with some old buildings. We made a big effort as creative industries to start to change the Mexico City brand.”
There were several misconceptions that made people reluctant to choose it as a production destination. One by one Avelino and The Lift have been trying to combat the idea that Mexico is corrupt and dangerous to shoot in, that there are no professional crews there, or no professional equipment, that Mexico has a limited geographical variety or that it’s hard to cast international projects because Mexico has only one race of people.
There are a few cultural stereotypes to take on, as well. Avelino reels them off: “Mexico only has tacos and tequila. The culture is boring; there’s only pyramids and deserts. The only creative industry in Mexico is rudimentary arts and crafts.”
It’s come a long way. “Mexican chefs started to become more renowned internationally,” he says. “Now you have younger people in the creative community and it’s all going in parallel, so the city has become very cosmopolitan. The directors really love it. It has been a common effort to fight these misconceptions.”
Avelino’s keen to create international advocates for his country. He wants directors and producers to give Mexico a try because they so often go home and tell everyone how positive their experiences were.
“All these efforts are paying off,” he says. “For some people it’s even better than shooting in Los Angeles. But it’s still a growing thing. I don’t think you can compare LA to Mexico City in terms of equipment or technology, but in terms of crews and attitudes they really love it.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Donald Trump could be helping Mexico become the filmmaking destination Avelino hopes it will be. Since 2015, The Lift have had more than double the projects coming in from the US. Due to Trump’s election, Mexico is better value for money than ever.
Mexico has also been experiencing a boom of foreign production since 2015. “The James Bond film had a lot to do with that,” says Avelino. “It sort of put Mexico back on the map as a solid production destination. We have been part of this boom by providing top-of-the-line production experiences for our foreign clients. If they have a good experience, they go back to their countries and share those experiences with other people in the business. This is very good for us and for the country. It’s also a very solid way to fight those misconceptions.”
Since they made Audi Warm Up in 2006 together, London production powerhouse Blink would become instrumental in putting The Lift and Mexico on the map for UK production companies. Later in 2008 came another big opportunity from Blink in a project for Cadbury directed by Juan Cabral.
Other breakthrough projects from the UK are the first projects they produced for Academy Films in 2011 directed by Martin de Thurah, a couple of music videos for Feist, and their first two projects for Rattling Stick directed by Sara Dunlop. During 2016 and 2017 they produced two large-scale projects for Academy Films and Nike directed by FKA Twigs. “UK projects have always made our company better,” says Avelino. “They’ve always made us step up our game and challenged us on every level.”
You can forgive Avelino for waxing lyrical about his home country when you hear what it has to offer. A tri-coastal nation, Mexico offers staggering diversity of locations. “The Pacific has the rolling sands, the Caribbean has the turquoise waters and the Gulf [of Mexico] is more industrial, with ports and spectacular highways,” he says.
Then there’s the capital itself, which never ceases to surprise: “For example, Mexico City is the biggest producer of broccoli in Mexico. We export broccoli, cactus, flowers, so within the city there is agriculture.”
Then there’s the diverse architecture that comes from over 700 years of history. “You have Indians trying to tear down a cathedral that was built on top of a pyramid,” he says. “A cycle ride I really like is from there going all the way up into the hills, passing all the stages of the city until you get to the very modern part. You can see right from the Aztecs until now.”
Mexico’s not quite the filmmaking utopia he hopes for yet, though.
Casting is a particular challenge. Mexico’s population doesn’t have the ethnic diversity of somewhere like London, so getting a broad range of people together can be tricky. “We always pull it off and there are always possibilities,” he says, “but if you want a big diverse, international vignette commercial then you’ll struggle.”
The Lift are trying to combat this, too. They’ve rented out extra office space to host their own casting facilities and are talking to managers, agents, street casting and casting directors to make sure they have enough talent at their fingertips. Also the city is becoming more cosmopolitan every second so new and diverse cultures are populating the city each year.
The local advertising industry is a disappointment for Avelino. Mexico’s advertising market is worth around $110 million (US) a year, but he estimates that around 80 per cent of that is spent on product-focused, demonstrational ads with low production values. “You only have 10 to 15 projects a year which are over a million dollar investments,” he says. Naturally, The Lift focus on these scripts, where they can encourage an international director to come and make the most of that budget. But they’re too few and far between.
Mexican agencies aren’t strong enough to confidently sell the best ideas to clients, he theorises. “There’s a lot of work to do because they get very scared. It’s a market where clients are pitching accounts out to 20 different agencies.”
One reason for this is that agencies in Mexico have never managed to organise into one association to protect the quality of the work they do. “It’s an absolutely client-controlled industry. Creative is secondary and not so well regarded,” says Avelino.
And clients aren’t secure enough to show creative courage either. “Once clients start to work with a director that really delivers they don’t want anyone else,” he says. “They’re under a lot of pressure for their KPIs. They don’t want new ideas because they’re scared they might lose part of the market they already won with their previous commercials. There’s a lot of fear of losing their jobs. They live under that pressure.”
All of these complaints just make Avelino more convinced of production service as the solution. “I believe that in order to change, we need new international players to come. That brings you a new perspective and new ideas.”
Avelino and The Lift are doing what they can to elevate the quality of Mexican advertising craft. They’re introducing international best practice where possible. He thinks they’re making progress. “As long as we’re able to get the best projects we can bring the best producers and directors to Mexico. The good work always inspires people. They see they can do it better and then they make better films.”