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ACCENT ON THE LATINO MARKET : Ritchie Valens Film Boosts Prospects of Dubbing, Subtitles

Times Staff Writer

Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Ritchie Valens in the saga of the ‘50s rock star’s mercurial career, poses a telling question more than halfway through “La Bamba.”

Valens, fresh from a roots rediscovery--he’s heard the folk tune that is the film’s namesake in a Tijuana brothel and sage truths from a Yaqui shaman--tries to sell his recording manager, Bob Keene, on a novel idea: A rock version of “La Bamba.”

“Si Nat King Cole tiene exito en espanol,. . . If Nat King Cole can have a hit in Spanish, why can’t I?” asks an enthusiastic Valens in the Spanish-dubbed version of the movie.

With the biggest simultaneous Spanish-English release campaign--64 Spanish-dubbed and 13 Spanish-subtitled prints deployed in about 30 major cities nationwide--Columbia Pictures becomes the latest in a growing list of major movie studios to ask the same question.

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With few exceptions, the major studios have historically treated the domestic Latino market as a stepchild to their international distribution efforts. Typically, this has meant that Latinos have had to wait weeks or months before Spanish-dubbed or subtitled prints produced for European or Latin American markets became available in the United States.

This first venture by Columbia Pictures into the national Latino movie marketplace, has raised expectations that Latino creative talent and subject matter may find a more visible place in the mainstream. Still, some experts worry that Columbia may have promoted “La Bamba” the wrong way and hampered cross-marketing of future Latino-themed films.

“I want ‘La Bamba’ to succeed,” said Santiago Pozo, special markets manager for Universal Pictures. “A success for a single Hispanic film is a success for all of us. If that movie makes money, then there’s something to show the executives when they make the next film. Of course, success depends on how effectively Columbia reaches the Hispanic market.”

Columbia Pictures President David Picker, a driving forces behind the Taylor Hackford-produced and Luis Valdez-directed film project, agrees.

“If we can establish it as an ongoing market, it will be a great asset to us,” Picker said in a recent phone interview. “One reason we are doing ‘La Bamba’ at all is that we have a market that has never been addressed with the care and attention it deserves.”

Picker said that regardless of how well the $6.5-million film succeeds with the Latino audience, he is convinced there is a lucrative Latino market for films that avoid the stereotypical views past movies have often promoted.

“There have been very few projects that have attempted to show the Hispanic culture in anything but its most cliched versions,” he said. “If ‘La Bamba’ succeeds, it will create new avenues” for Latino actors, writers and film makers.

But some who specialize in Latino film marketing privately fear that “La Bamba” will fall fatally short of the expectations it has stirred and thereby sour Hollywood against other films portraying Latino life on the screen.

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“When people see the film, they will like it,” said one executive who asked not to be identified. “The problem is, (Columbia’s) promotion campaign won’t motivate them to go to see it. I don’t think they have a marketing plan for the Hispanic community that will build an interest in the film.”

Particularly disturbing, these critics say, is Columbia’s decision to package the film for mainstream and Spanish-speaking audiences in the same way: a presentation that emphasizes Ritchie’s music, but downplays both his masculinity and the love interest with his girlfriend.

“It is conceivable that we made some mistakes, but we think we approached the marketing campaign (for La Bamba) as thoughtfully and conscientiously as we approach campaigns for the English-speaking community,” said Katherine Ann Moore, who is overseeing “La Bamba’s” promotional strategy.

The fact that “La Bamba” is set in a richly detailed Latino universe has provided Columbia with ". . . an extraordinary vehicle to educate ourselves,” Moore said.

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“We have this massive data base in market screening research,” she added. “We need in the same way to build a reliable data base in the Hispanic market and to cultivate a good relationship with the Hispanic exhibitor. It’s part of the process, and it’s a complex, massive undertaking.”

And an unprecedented effort it apparently is. Although Picker won’t disclose “La Bamba’s” promotional budget, some of Columbia’s competitors say the studio is conducting the most ambitious attempt yet to penetrate the Latino market.

The 74 prints Columbia has prepared for simultaneous release for the nation’s Latino moviegoers exceeds all previous Hollywood attempts to crack the Latino market. Universal’s 1986 “An American Tail,” Steven Speilberg’s animated epic about an immigrant mouse, marked the industry’s largest simultaneous English-Spanish film versions with 25 Spanish-dubbed prints distributed nationwide.

Locally, in addition to the 24 dubbed and subtitled prints of “La Bamba” ordered by Los Angeles theaters, Columbia has launched an aggressive Spanish-language promotional campaign with radio, print and billboard ads, movie and television trailers, free community screenings and giveaway contests--win a $50,000 consumer sweepstakes or the kind of Fender guitar that Phillips plays in the movie.

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“Everything, in other words, that you would expect of a mainstream campaign,” Moore said. Beyond the campaign’s broad scope, however, there is also attention to detail.

The Spanish-dubbed version produced for Columbia by Intersound Inc. goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain the film’s authenticity, said spokeswoman Sophia Grama.

In the English-language version, Ritchie’s brother, Bob, played by Esai Morales, in one scene translates for his brother what a curandero (shaman) says in Spanish. This wouldn’t have worked in the Spanish-dubbed version, Grama said. Therefore, in a ploy to preserve Bob’s role as translator to the hero in the underworld, the shaman, played by Felipe Cantu, instead speaks Yaqui in the Spanish-dubbed version.

Columbia, however, didn’t discover the Latino market. With varying degrees of investment, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM/UA have tried to take advantage of Latino interest in films created by English-language advertising. With a relatively modest investment in Spanish-language media advertising and Spanish-dubbed or subtitled movie prints, a studio can theoretically expand its audience for a first-run film.

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In the last decade, the simultaneous distribution of movie prints in English and Spanish, referred to as day-and-date release, has emerged as the cornerstone of a coordinated marketing and distribution approach to the Latino market.

Hollywood has begun to discover that, aside from sheer numbers, Latinos can make a strategic difference in an industry that is losing box-office patrons to the videocassette boom.

“The Latino population is concentrated in major urban cities where films make money,” Universal’s Pozo said. “If a film works well in one of the big cities, this becomes its passport to the rest of the nation.”

He claimed that many Latinos go to the movies more frequently than do other segments of the market because they are not able to afford more expensive forms of entertainment.

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“So the Latino population has to be seen as more than a particular percentage, but a key market in trend-setting cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Miami,” he concluded. In Los Angeles alone, he estimated that the Latino market represents a potential added audience of 2.5 million moviegoers.

Universal has led the field with the largest and most comprehensive marketing research program and day-and-date release distribution strategy.

William Soady, vice president of distribution for Universal, estimated that 12 of the 14 films Universal plans to make this year will be simultaneously distributed with Spanish prints. So far, Universal has already released “Harry and the Hendersons” and “Jaws of Revenge” in this fashion, and plans to do the same for “Born in East L.A.,” a Richard (Cheech) Marin comedy scheduled for an Aug. 3 release date.

Looming over the horizon for early next year is “The Milagro Beanfield War,” Universal’s answer to “La Bamba.” The Robert Redford and Moctesuma Esparza co-produced epic of a Latino farmer’s struggle for land and water represents Universal’s most recent Latino-inspired story since its release of Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” in 1981.

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In some cases, such as Warner Bros.’ “Over the Top” this year and MGM’s “Running Scared” last year, day-and date releases have paid off with unexpected box-office dividends in the Latino market.

MGM has reported that the Spanish-language versions of “Running Scared” grossed more than $500,000 nationally. The Metropolitan Theatres chain reported that the Spanish-subtitled versions of “Over the Top” grossed $71,288 in two its downtown Los Angeles theaters, or about 12% of what the film grossed in seven days throughout Southern California.

Most studios, however, approach day-and-date releases on a film-by-film basis and have tended to assign marketing such films to outside consulting firms or in-house international distribution departments.

But today, attitudes and conditions have changed, Pozo said. “It’s no longer an issue of proving whether (the Hispanic market) exists or not,” he explained. “Now it’s a question of how to get the optimum profit.”

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