Analyzing the Controversy Over Mexico’s Proposal to Ban Dubbing Films

'Roma' Cast and Crew at the AMACC (Mexican Film Academy) Awards

WORLD CIRCUIT: ‘To Dub Or Not To Dub?’ that is the question. Or, at least, the question causing considerable debate in Mexican entertainment circles—with potential repercussions in Latin America and Hollywood. Two weeks ago, Mexico’s powerful film academy, the “AMACC” (initials for its Spanish name, “Mexican Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences”), proposed a legal reform that would prohibit most non-Mexican films from being dubbed before distribution in Mexican cinemas.

What Is AMACC & Why Does Dubbing Matter?

First, a bit of background. Dubbing became technologically feasible and culturally popular in the 1940s. This overlapped, not coincidentally, with the widespread expansion of American film products around the world. Not so in Mexico, where our Southern neighbor became a quick exception. Fueled by nationalistic forces and protections tendencies shielding a local robust film industry, the Mexican government outright banned the dubbing of films. Calculating, quite correctly, that this would limit their appeal. The overwhelming majority of audiences, film festival crowds notwithstanding, do not like reading subtitles. This is true the world over. So the state of movies persisted in Mexico until about twenty years ago, when it’s Supreme Court declared the proscription unconstitutional.

Enter the AMACC – the influence and power of the Mexican film academy cannot be overstated. They are responsible for selecting Mexico’s submissions to the Goya and Academy Awards and bestow their own yearly prizes. Mexico is the Latin American country with the largest number of entertainment-related exports. It may seem peculiar that at a time when our own Academy appears to become the target of political ire at home, its Mexican counterpart can exert such influence as to be a megaphone for changes in law.

AMACC Logo

AMACC’s Dubbing Ban

So what exactly is the AMACC proposal? Spokespeople for the AMACC have hedged, hemmed, and hawed since Mexican Film Twitter lit ablaze when news first broke of the proposal. At the bottom, AMACC wants a reinstitution of the prohibition against dubbing films into Spanish, and would instead require all but children’s movies and documentaries presented in their native language with Spanish subtitles.

Purists may deem this not a big deal and even a no-brainer. Why would one want to listen to a modified track of a film, as opposed to the original recording? There is much to be said, indeed, for listening to a film exactly how it was meant to be heard. Would those in Mexico opposing the AMACC’s proposal like to hear, say, Elizabeth Debicki’s voice-over Marina de Tavira’s in a dubbed presentation of “Roma?” Doubtful.

Dubbing & Hollywood’s Bottom Line

But, as with most things, there are two languages, or sides, to this story. The original impetus for the 1940s-era ban in Mexico was, as mentioned, protectionism. No one doubts that at a time when Hollywood-produced films constitute between a third and a half of the films shown in Mexico, the Mexican academy is weary of protecting its own product. American readers are familiar with the phenomenon. Remember AMPAS members proposing bars on Netflix films?

More fundamentally, those that view the AMACC proposal with suspicion point out that dubbing gives access to more films to broader swaths of the population—not just Hollywood productions, but those from other countries earn larger audiences thanks to dubbing. It is also not inconsequential that dubbing is, itself, a vast Mexican industry; the largest in the region, providing that service for a host of other Latin American countries.

Least pleased of all have to be certain Hollywood studios that make substantial amounts from Mexico. “Avengers: End Game,” for example, grossed nearly $80 million from the country, not chump change, while Disney’s other summer hit, “Toy Story 4,” did similarly well, around a $60 million gross. There is no serious debate that a ban on dubbing will decrease grosses for those films—precisely the result AMACC wants.

Is this a bad thing? Readers will make their own judgments. Cultural appropriation, assimilation and encroachment are all concerns likely to resonate with certain American readers. Is protection (i.e., a tariff) the answer? Is it more Cuarons and Del Toros? That is, of course, easier said than done.

It is not clear how this controversy will be resolved south of the border. But its potential for reverberations across the globe is real, particularly in this time when other countries, too, look with increasing suspicion at relentless Hollywood invasion of their markets.

It’s good to know, at least, that it is not only our own Academy that can step in it every once in a while.

What say you? Should films be dubbed into local languages or heard in their original soundtrack?

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