Culture & History

Experiences Past & Present: Going to the Movies in Mexico

Foreign Native reflects on the changing habits and habitats for film-watching in Mexico, and how the movie-going experience here has changed over the years

Movie Projector

Imperfect memory is the cause of much nostalgia, and one thing that brings this home is the movies.

Now that many old films are available in a number of digital formats, it’s relatively easy to get hold of them to watch on DVD player or, more commonly, via online streaming.  Films you remember having thoroughly enjoyed “back in the 70s” or whenever, turn out to be quite dull, or even ridiculous. Few films actually stand the test of time.

Mexicans love going to the movies

Movie-going in Mexico, along with live events, is as popular as ever, despite the country being among those where there is the most video piracy. Big box-office movies bring hoards to the theaters, and decent seats at the most convenient times are hard to come by for the first week or so after their release.

Like most of the films, most of the popular cinemas built in the middle of the 20th century have also been unable to stand the test of time. The multiplex cinema —with six or a dozen halls seating several hundred spectators— has replaced the grand theaters built to host several thousand people.

There are a handful of cinema brands in Mexico, although Cinemex and Cinepolis dominate the market with their extensive network of theater chains situated across the country.

Movie theaters present and past

Choosing where to go to see a film is now a combination of brand plus location. Many of the modern-day movie theaters are also located inside modern shopping malls, which emulates the popular and successful US model.

It wasn’t always so.

In decades past, Mexico City’s movie theaters were known by their name, and several were veritable landmarks—Cine Pedro Armendariz at Churubusco, Cine Manacar on Insurgentes, Cine Latino, Cine Diana, and El Roble on Reforma.

Moviegoers could choose a film and find out where it was playing, or choose a cinema they liked and find out what was on there. Quality and comfort varied considerably from one movie theater to another.

Films were often double-features, alternating so that you could watch first whichever one suited your timetable. These functions would include the concept of “permanencia voluntaria” where moviegoers could sit twice through the same film if they wished.  When a film was in particular demand, the ticket and advertisements would have to specify “no hay permanencia voluntaria” to let people know they would clear the theater when the credits went up.

Frequently, particularly popular films would be oversold and the last few stragglers could end up perched in the aisles, without anybody really minding or complaining. (Mexico still has a lot of people who aren’t particularly bothered about missing the start of a film.)

And in those pre-internet days, the place you went to find out what was playing was the cartelera, a full-page newspaper advertisement, or several full-page ads, sorted by films that were showing and where. The starting times were in very small print at the bottom. The film was usually in its original language with subtitles, or dubbed into Spanish if a children’s film. But there was no choice.

Some of the old cinemas were damaged in earthquakes; the buildings condemned, and later pulled down. Cine Regis, a small hall under a hotel on Juarez Avenue, was destroyed in the 1985 earthquake. Others, such as the Palacio Chino and Cine Diana, were converted into modern movie-theater complexes, and yet others just went out of business, and are either sitting derelict or have been demolished to make way for other buildings.

Dubbing and sub-titles at the movies in Mexico

In today’s modern Mexican cinemas, there are versions in English with subtitles, versions dubbed into Spanish, and even 3D and 4D in some places.

Specific seats can be booked online ahead of time. There’s an online cartelera, but it’s just not the same thing clicking “here” for the trailer. You can just go along and see one of any number of films. Popular films or new releases will often be showing in multiple halls, with various staggered starting times and other options.

On a practical note: If you want to see a film in English with Spanish subtitles, rather than the dubbed version, be careful that the time and hall you choose reads “sub” next to the film title. Where it reads “dob” the film will be dubbed into Spanish.

For those who take pleasure in (mis)remembering, this page has pictures of a number of Mexico City’s old cinemas with a brief history of each in Spanish.

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