As soon as the technology of cinema reached Mexico City in 1896, Mexican entrepreneurs were shooting their own versions of the Lumière brothers' "documentary views" and exhibiting them in theatrical venues to upper-class audiences and in hastily erected tents in isolated villages spread out around the vast rural expanse of Mexico. Mexican film historians have remarked on the itinerant nature of these first film entrepreneurs who traveled across the nation to bring this new cinema of attractions to the Mexican people.

By the end of 1899, there were over twenty-two venues in Mexico City where films were exhibited, and new theaters devoted exclusively to film projection were being constructed. In 1911 the number of motion picture theaters in the capital had jumped to forty. Although the nonfiction genre dominated Mexican cinema during these first two decades, a significant number of fiction films were also produced. The production of narrative films ceased during the Mexican Revolution, but documentaries about strategic encounters between Revolutionary factions and government forces proved very popular with Mexican audiences.

Feature filmmaking resumed after the end of the military phase of the Revolution. In 1917 the actress Mimí Derba (1888–1953) and the producer Enrique Rosas (1877–1920) established Azteca Films and produced five films in that one year. Two years later, Azteca Films released the film—based on a famous public incident—that was to go down in history as the first feature-length "specifically Mexican" narrative film, Rosas's El automovil gris ( The Grey Automobile , 1919). But while Mexican filmmakers produced over one hundred silent features and documentaries between 1898 and 1928, the combination of American control over distribution and lack of state support threatened the future of the Mexican film industry. By 1928, 90 percent of all films exhibited throughout Mexico (as well as the rest of Latin America) were produced in the United States.

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