Hispanics at the Movies: Hollywood Misses una Oportunidad

Latinos go to the movies in larger numbers than any other Americans, but studios haven’t figured out how to reach them.

Last Updated: March 4, 2011 @ 11:01 AM

As Jennifer Lopez's career-resurrecting new judging gig on "American Idol" shows, Hollywood does a great job reaching the Hispanic demographic — except when it tries to.

Take "From Prada to Nada," the first release from Pantelion Films, a new venture from Lionsgate and the Mexican media conglomerate Televisa formed to tap into the Hispanic market. The movie has done an underwhelming $2.9 million since its Jan. 28 debut, although the company remains sanguine about the movie's — and the new company's — prospects.

But so far, when Hollywood has tailored movies to the nation’s largest ethnic minority — and one with a proven history of intense moviegoing — it has failed.

"It's the ‘Chasing Papi’ syndrome,” Kathryn Galan, executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, told TheWrap, referring to a 2003 attempt at reaching the Hispanic audience. 

"Papi," with a mostly Hispanic cast, “is one of the first Hispanic films a studio has done that hasn’t been for the art-house crowd," then-Fox EVP and executive sales manager Rick Myerson told USA Today. "We think there will be a market for these films.”

A market, yes. Success in reaching it, not so much. 

Here’s why Hollywood wants the market: The Hispanic demographic is enormous. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are 48.4 million Hispanics in the United States, compared to about 37.2 million African Americans.

Most important for the studios, Hispanics go to the movies more than any other ethnic group. A recent Motion Picture Association of America report showed that in 2009, Hispanic moviegoers bought 300 million tickets — seeing more than eight movies per year on average. 

On top of that, Latinos are nearly twice as likely as the total adult population to see a movie on opening weekend and are, on average, 10 years younger than the population as a whole, making them prime movie consumers.

In one sense,” Galan said, “Hollywood is not missing the Latino audience because, in fact, the Latino audience overindexes in moviegoing and broadband and mobile consumption, in disposable entertainment income. It’s very young, it’s upwardly mobile and whole families go to things — the families are large and they bring their grandmother and bring the kids – and they like going to the movies.”

Universal's "Fast & Furious," back in 2009, shows what Hollywood can do in the community with just the minimal effort.

The Vin Diesel movie was a giant hit, pulling in $360 million at the box office worldwide. The reason? It had a Latino sensibility. It had some Spanish language dialogue and accents, a soundtrack that included Tego Calderon and Tasha.

It had plenty of action and it was filmed in the Dominican Republic, Panama and Mexico, along with the U.S.

And it was marketed to Hispanics. Michelle Rodriguez and Diesel publicized it in Latino markets, and filmmakers used Spanish-language social networking to hype it.

The result: an opening weekend propelled by Hispanics, who made up 46 percent of its audience. Caucasians made up just 28 percent.

It's hard to believe the studios don't push for that to happen more often.

Jeff Valdez, co-chairman of the Latino media content company Maya Entertainment, told TheWrap he is "laser-focused" on the U.S. Hispanic market, which he said is "even more overwhelming than anybody thinks."

"A large percentage of any movie's gross comes out of the top 10 media markets because the majority of the population is in those markets," Valdez said. "Those are all heavily Latino markets, and when you look at the top markets, the 18-to-34 demographic, Latinos are often more than 50 percent of that demographic."

One of the reasons the demographic is difficult to reach is, it's too big to be a monolithic group. Venezuelans, Cubans and Mexicans, for example, don't necesarilly have anything other than a language in common.

Julio Caro, a former business partner of Jennifer Lopez and producer of 2006's "El Cantante," told TheWrap that U.S. Hispanics — second, third and fourth generation Americans — are untapped as a niche market.

And the niche is not the big Hollywood blockbuster, he insisted. "Latinos go to those anyway. You don't need to make a Spanish 'Spider-Man.' But there is a huge opportunity to essentially mirror what Miramax and New Line did in the '70s, '80s and '90s but for the Latino market."

That does not mean Spanish-language pictures, however. Spanish-language television does extremely well – 2010 marked the fifth consecutive year that the Spanish-language Univision was the top-rated network on Friday nights among adults between 18 and 34, and beat at least one of the four English-language networks on 306 out of 365 nights.

Also read: Univision Chief: We'll Be the Top U.S. TV Network Within 5 Years in Any Language

But two of every three Hispanics are U.S. born, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Second-generation Latinos tend to be bilingual, and third-generation Latinos tend to speak more English than Spanish, said Mark Hugo Lopez, the center's associate director.

Remembering Myerson’s 2003 prediction that movies targeted at Latinos will have an audience, some companies are trying.

Back in 2008,  "Nothing LIke the Holidays" cast the British-born Alfred Molina, the Cuban-American Elizabeth Pena, the Colombian-born John Leguizamo, the New York born and of Italian descent Vanessa Ferlito as members of a large Puerto Rican family. Freddy Rodriguez and Luis Guzman, who are of Puerto Rican descent, also play members of the family.

As with "Chasing Papi," the movie flopped.

Enter Lionsgate.

Last fall, the studio — which found great success marketing the Tyler Perry movies for an African American audience — partnered with Televisa, a Mexican media conglomerate, to form Pantelion. The company plans to release between eight and 10 movies a year.

The $2.9 million its first movie, “From Prada to Nada,” grossed is peanuts — but about what the company’s chairman, Jim McNamara, figured it would make.

“Nobody is crying,” he told TheWrap. “We had decent international sales and I think we are all coming away saying we learned a lot. It’s our first picture as this new sort of specialty company and we did learn a lot and we were surprised at how well some of the theaters did.”

The movie, a contemporary, Latina take on Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," was not well-reviewed, and it did not feature especially well-known stars.

In April, Pantelion plans to release, "No Eres Tu Soy Yo," a Spanish-language film with a name that translates to, "It's Not You, It's Me." After that, it plans to release "Go For It!" a dance movie about underground clubs in Chicago.

Like Galan and others, McNamara, the former CEO of television giant Telemundo, said that one big issue in Hollywood is that with the exception of people like Universal’s new vice president of multicultural marketing Fabian Castro, “you don't find too many Latinos. You look at the studios, you don't see one Latino.”

The point of having Latinos in positions of authority, he and others explained, is having such people will help the studios make movies that speak to the Hispanic audience – and will thus make money.

The other problem, he said, is that big studios "have gigantic overheads, they have gigantic production commitments, deals with big producers and big stars, and it's all geared around finding blockbusters."

He said that sometimes, movies and audiences need to be nurtured.

And he noted that the feeling is, when a movie tailored to Hispanics fails, studios worry that all “Hispanic movies” will faill.

The national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild agrees.

David White told TheWrap that "something will come out and the numbers won't look good, and that will be a reinforcement of the tape — that 'Hispanic' movies don't do well. But the truth is, a lot of movies don't do well, and the studios don't stop making movies."