3:43 pm Jun. 17, 2011
This week New York’s Museum of Modern Art kicks off “In Focus: IFC Films,” a two-week-long retrospective of films distributed by IFC Films. One of the featured titles stands out both as a major work unto itself and one whose release looked to herald big changes in the U.S. market for arthouse films: Y Tu Mamá También.
Y Tu Mamá También wasn’t just a breakthrough film for Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men). For a brief, shining moment, it looked to be a film that was going to change the way American filmgoers watched foreign and independent cinema.
It turned heads as soon as it came out. Like the button-pushing Emmanuelle and the I Am Curious trilogy before that, Y Tu Mamá También brought provocative imagery and ideas into the mainstream.
It did so artfully. It was a movie about (among other the things) the sexual adventures of Mexican adolescents, and it was explicit. But it wasn't crude, even by the relatively prudish standards of American audiences; it seemed natural, and not gratuitously transgressive.
The film's distributors seemed accutely aware of the delicate dynamic, part of the reason Y Tu Mamá También was released under its original Spanish-language title: “And Your Mother, Too,” was thought to be too confrontational for the film’s target audience. The story of two horny and willfully clueless Mexican teens (Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal) attempting to seduce a curious older woman (Ana López Mercado) was salacious enough, they figured, without its title pre-emptively scaring potential viewers away.
IFC feared that the MPAA would give Alfonso Cuarón’s debut film an NC-17, the most dreaded rating of them all now that the “X” rating is no longer being used. So to get around that, they released the film without submitting it to the MPAA as an “unrated” film. A comparatively tamer R-rated version of the film also screened but in the end, the film’s minor scandalousness became a major selling point. Y Tu Mamá También was the first contemporary high-profile title (the film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) to be released on US DVD both in its unrated and R-rated forms.
For an independent foreign film, Y Tu Mamá También made a meaningful impact at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, the film opened across the country in a total of 286 theaters. During its opening weekend, the film had a per screen average of $10,202 and a total domestic gross of $13,839,658. This may not seem like a big draw but the film remains IFC’s second most financially lucrative domestic release.
For the sake of context, Y Tu Mamá También came out on March 15, 2002 and stayed in theaters for a total of 20 weeks. On April 19, the IFC-distributed My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened in limited release. While Nia Vardalos’s turgid ethnic comedy would later expand its release in August to a total of 2,016 movie theaters nation-wide, it drew $5,531 per screen, roughly half of Y Tu Mamá También’s average. In August, My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened on 657 screens. For its second opening week, Vardalos’s film had a similarly small per screen average of $4,569. But it would go on to domestically gross an unrivaled $241, 438, 208, the most of any independent film in the U.S. The margin between My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s gross and Y Tu Mamá También’s box office take is pretty vast but they are, respectively, IFC’s first- and second-highest grossing films of all time.
At the same time, there’s a reason Y Tu Mamá También is featured at MoMA’s retrospective and My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t: one is a stirring and yes, provocative piece of art and the other is a dowdy comedy about ethnic stereotypes. The latter film’s release was treated like a cultural happening whereas Vardalos’s film was a consumerist triumph for its producers and distributors.
Y Tu Mamá También was received as something of an artistic revelation: When it screened at the New York Film Festival, Elvis Mitchell marveled in The New York Times that the film is “fast, funny, unafraid of sexuality and finally devastating.” He concluded his piece by saying that, like the film’s teenage protagonists, “…[by film’s end,] the audience will have seen something unforgettable, too.”
Unfortunately, Y Tu Mamá También did not have as large an impact on the way independent and foreign films were distributed in America as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which was the better business story of the two. The latter film’s success was big enough to motivate major Hollywood studios to start independent film lines. For example, Warner Brothers started Warner Independent Pictures, a now defunct offshoot of the massive studio that from 2003-2008 was mostly dedicated to the distribution of English-language independent films. Only two films of the 28 that they released earned a domestic gross that surpassed Y Tu Mamá También’s, and those two films were the Oscar-winning historical drama Good Night and Good Luck and the American version of the French documentary March of the Penguins.
In 2006, Warner Independent teamed with Esperanto Pictures, a company headed by Cuarón that was dedicated to distributing Spanish-language cinema in America. Esperanto’s first and only release was Mexican filmmaker Fernando Eimbcke’s Duck Season, a winsome deadpan comedy that only grossed $147, 551. Esperanto Pictures disappeared shortly after Duck Season was released, just two years before Warner Independent Pictures’ distributed its last title.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Y Tu Mamá También never became the game-changer that its impressive box-office showing suggested it could have been. The film may have been at the forefront of the momentary financial boom that American arthouse cinema experienced in 2002. But its success is impossible to replicate. The lesson independent film distributors took from it is that their time would be better spent looking for more Big Fat Greek Weddings.