Recent Latino Movies Send Out Mixed Signals

Times Staff Writer

When Columbia Pictures released a Spanish-language version of "La Bamba" last summer, executives at nearby Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures were watching closely and, presumably, wishing Columbia the best.

Warner Bros. and Universal both had Spanish-themed films on their own schedules, and if "La Bamba" scored in Latino neighborhoods, it would bode well for them too.

Well, "La Bamba" was a hit in both its Spanish and English versions, grossing $54 million nationally, and taking in $2.6 million from its Spanish version alone. But neither Warner Bros.' "Stand and Deliver" nor Universal's "The Milagro Beanfield War" has enjoyed anything like the "La Bamba" success.

After opening impressively in a handful of theaters in mid-March, both of the critically praised films have wilted at the box office. Box office receipts for "Stand and Deliver," a "Rocky"-style story of the Latino classroom that stars Edward James Olmos, dropped from $13,730 per screen in 30 theaters in its first weekend to about $3,000 per screen in 444 theaters last weekend. The Warner Bros.-distributed film reportedly produced on a spartan budget of just more than $1 million has grossed $6.7 million since opening March 10.

"The Milagro Beanfield War," a fable of Latino villagers in their war of nerves against a big Anglo land developer, plummeted from a high of $20,300 in five theaters two weeks after opening on March 18, to about $3,800 per screen in 390 theaters last weekend.

These disappointing performances highlight a number of Latino marketing challenges that were momentarily obscured by "La Bamba." Regional differences, some industry observers say, do not guarantee the success of broad-appeal Latino films. Hollywood's tentative courtship of Latinos, they add, is further aggravated by an underdeveloped network of Spanish-language theaters.

Whatever the ultimate causes, studio executives acknowledge that both films, despite their Latino themes and actors, have played better in theaters patronized by upscale, white audiences. More perplexing to Warners Bros., however, was the unexpected reaction of heavily Cuban Miami to "Stand and Deliver."

Despite the high profile Olmos has in the city through his portrayal of Lt. Martin Castillo on NBC's "Miami Vice," the 18 Miami-area theaters featuring the film garnered less than one-third of the roughly $30,000 per screen "Stand" has grossed in 92 Los Angeles- and New York-area movie houses.

"I'm very disappointed," said Barry Reardon, Warner's president of distribution. "I wish I had something plausible (with which to explain this). The weird thing is that Olmos spent a lot of time in Miami promoting the film."

Ramon Menendez, the film's Cuban-born co-producer, ventured his own explanation. Menendez said "Stand," "Milagro" and "La Bamba" were distinctly Mexican-flavored films that take the perspective of the underdog. These themes, he said, run contrary to the mainstream self-perceptions of many Cubans:

"I don't think Cubans see themselves as downtrodden or dispossessed . . . as annexed. I think it has to do with their middle-class experience. They want to stand in relief to other Latinos . . . they want to be special Latinos, creme de la creme Latinos."

Warner Bros. officials marketed "Stand" to teachers and community groups through more than 70 free screenings. Two shows in Chicago for last week sponsored by Pepsi and Coca-Cola introduced the film to more than 2,000 Boys Club and Girls Club members. Such efforts, one studio official said, have boosted the film's Chicago ticket receipts by 5%.

Universal Pictures' "Milagro" hasn't had that kind of promotional drive. The film has grossed only $5 million, hardly enough to make a dent in recovering the more than $18 million Universal is reported to have spent on the movie.

William Soady, Universal's president of distribution, would not comment on "Milagro's" costs, but defended Universal's efforts to expose Latinos to the film through a limited number of benefit screenings and extensive media coverage.

"It looks like the picture is holding very well in the markets it has opened in," Soady said. But, he added, "It's too early to tell (whether "Milagro" will pay for itself). We have numerous markets to go, and it hasn't opened in Europe yet, where I understand there's tremendous interest in the film."

"Stand and Deliver's" overall financial picture, by comparison, is far rosier.

Luis Bouroncle, president of Hispanic Entertainment Specialist, which was hired to market the film to Latinos, said Warner Bros. paid less than $4 million for the distribution rights. Reardon would not discuss the estimate, but said the next two weekends should cover the studio's total investment in the film.

Both Warner Bros. and Universal acknowledged that their revenues from Spanish-language theaters have fallen far short of the more than $2.6 million Columbia's "La Bamba" raked in with a record 77 Spanish-language prints last year. ("Milagro" has so far grossed $185,000 from its 17 Spanish-dubbed or subtitled prints. No figures are yet available for "Stand," but Reardon said he didn't expect the film to surpass "La Bamba.") Both studios, however, intend to continue screening the films as long as possible.

Santiago Pozo, president of TheArenas Group, the firm hired to promote "Milagro" to Latinos, said that the Spanish-language market "represents only the tip of the Latino iceberg." Pozo said Universal's marketing studies show that as many as 25% of the Latinos who see "Milagro" in English theaters heard of the film through Spanish-language media.

But Bouroncle said low box-office figures nevertheless reflect the nightmarish distribution problems that hamper Hollywood's attempts to reach the nation's 20 million Latinos.

He said large Spanish-language theater chains in Los Angeles, Miami and New York are the professionally run exceptions to the shabbily maintained majority of movie houses subsisting on low-budget Mexican films. These mom-and-pop operations, he said, have resisted Hollywood's films because theater owners refuse to pay major studios 60% of the cost of a ticket.

Mexican film distributors typically receive only 30% of the cost of a ticket.

Spanish-language theater owners, according to Bouroncle, say that " 'the Americans are going to change our formula, they are going kill the Mexican movie industry.' "

Bouroncle predicted that the small-theater owners, who have seen their numbers decline from a high of 1,200 venues a decade ago to 350 this year, will become extinct if they don't find the capital to finance the exhibition of more Hollywood films, dubbed or not.

"They don't realize that their audience is hungry to assimilate American culture," he concluded. "What cheaper way than through Hollywood films?"

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