Hollywood has worked hard to invite Hispanics to see its movies, but it has had little success putting them on screen.
Less than five percent of characters in hit movies are Hispanic, according to a recent study of 500 movies between 2007 and 2012 by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication. Hispanics fare worse than any other ethnic group, never making up five percent of the roles in any year. In 2009, they secured just 2.8 percent.
Those numbers contradict trends in movie attendance, as Hispanics go to the movies more than any other ethnic group, according to the MPAA. (For more on Hispanics’ growing clout at the box office, take a look at this.)
“That’s absurd,” CAA’s Christy Haubegger, an expert on multicultural audiences who advises on the marketing of films, television, music, and comedy tours, told TheWrap about the results of the USC study. “Imagine what will happen when you tell our stories.”
There are a few movies Hollywood can cite as successes, none bigger than the “Fast & Furious” franchise.
From stars Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel to music from co-star Ludacris and reggaeton artist Don Omar, the movie is engineered to appeal to a Hispanic audience already enthused about all the action and speedy cars. Haubegger said the musical touches were a way to “wink at the Hispanic audience so they feel proprietary ownership.”
The sixth movie, set in Brazil, grossed $117 million over its opening weekend, and 32 percent of that audience was Hispanic, according to its distributor Universal.
Yet that is more the exception than the rule, despite Hollywood’s increased attempts to market movies to the growing Hispanic moviegoing audience.
“A review of the top movies and television programs reveals that there is a narrower range of stories and roles, and fewer Latino lead actors in the entertainment industry today, than there were 70 years ago,” according to a recent study by Columbia U.’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
The problem is multi-pronged: Casting departments do not cast a wide enough net; they round up the usual suspects. Executives making the decision tend to be non-Hispanic, as diversity in the executive ranks remains a major problem.
There are also not enough established stars. When director Robert Rodriguez cast actors for “El Mariachi” and “Desperado,” he could not find many Hispanic stars, so he made his own. (“Desperado” introduced Salma Hayek to the masses.) Hollywood studios have a long history of casting white actors as Hispanic characters, be it Ben Affleck in “Argo,” John Turturro in “The Big Lebowski” or Anthony Hopkins as Antonio Banderas’ father in “The Mask of Zorro.”
Diversity behind the camera helps create diversity in front of it, but the Columbia report indicates that less than five percent of directors and producers are Hispanic.
Some studios have created programs to identify up-and-coming talent. Warner Bros. partnered with the Black List screenwriting service to find screenwriters from underserved demographics, while Fox recently launched a Global Directors Initiative to champion ” diverse voices and perspectives spanning film, broadcast, cable and digital.”
“You have to begin at the point of gestation, at the top of the funnel,” Haubegger said “As you are thinking about putting films together, you have to think about things that disproportionately appeal to that audience.”
Whereas Rodriguez began by making movies set in a Spanish-speaking world, writer-producer Roberto Orci is getting his first crack at representing that milieu with “Matador,” a show for Rodriguez’ new cable channel, El Rey. The show is about a Hispanic spy who must pretend to be a soccer player, though he neither speaks Spanish nor likes soccer.
“The point of that is to represent the Latin market in a way that some people are unaware of,” Orci, the Mexico-born writer and producer of “Star Trek” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” told TheWrap.
“Tony Bravo is born in L.A. and he doesn’t speak Spanish very well; that’s not a groundbreaking invention. They are Americans just as much as they are Latino.”
Orci will soon direct his first movie, the third “Star Trek,” and he sees parallels between two of the movies characters — Spock and Captain Kirk — and his friendship with long-time partner Alex Kurtzman.
As Orci’s affinity for Spock reveals, appealing to the Hispanic market is more complex than attaching a Hispanic actress or filmmaker. Prominent filmmakers and marketers believe studios need to tailor elements of the plot to include more faith and family, two subjects important to the Hispanic community.
And when studios do cast a Hispanic actor or actress, they should not devote the story to ethnicity. Just as a marketing campaign targeting Hispanics is part of a broader publicity push, a character’s ethnicity is just one part of the story.
“Now you read a lot of scripts where it gives the option for diversity, but it doesn’t demand diversity,” Orci said. “That’s the next step. Scripts, producers, networks and studios have to go, ‘I don’t want to wait around and see who the character will be. I want to know you’ll have diversity embedded into a character and a story.'”
TheWrap series will next explore ways theater chains are targeting Hispanics.
Read more of TheWrap’s ‘Hispanics at the Movies’ Series