A Big Trumpet for ‘El Mariachi’ : Columbia Budgets $1 Million to Sell $7,000 Spanish-Language Film

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Films by minority directors are riding a wave of popularity in Hollywood, thanks to modestly budgeted hits such as “Boyz n the Hood” and “Passenger 57.” But Columbia Pictures will push the trend to new extremes when it releases “El Mariachi” next month.

The Spanish-language movie was made on a frayed shoestring budget of $7,000--about $26.9 million less than the average studio production--and features actors known only to their relatives and a few close friends.

Yet Columbia believes that it’s got something special in “El Mariachi,” a brooding action-adventure story set in Mexico that has won high praise at film festivals. The studio will spend nearly $1 million peddling the 84-minute curiosity to a wide audience.


“This has required us to change our style quite a bit,” said Columbia marketing chief Sid Ganis. “But we view this as a grand experiment, and we think it’s going to work.”

While major studio releases usually premiere nationwide, Columbia will open “El Mariachi” in just seven major cities on Feb. 26, then branch out if moviegoers respond favorably. The marketing campaign touts the movie as a groundbreaking effort in the tradition of “Boyz n the Hood,” director John Singleton’s acclaimed study of gang life in South-Central Los Angeles.

If it succeeds in capturing a mass audience, “El Mariachi” will continue the pattern set by “Boyz n the Hood” and, before that, the early films of director Spike Lee.

The movie, a mistaken-identity tale about a musician and a hit man, is shown without dialogue in previews. Ganis said critics and test audiences have responded so positively to the visually adventurous film that Columbia scotched the idea of dubbing it in English in favor of subtitles. Initially, however, it’s going out to areas with large Latino populations, including Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio and San Jose.

Columbia stands to reap some positive publicity for backing a serious film by a minority director, even if “El Mariachi” bombs commercially. But the studio’s financial risk is minimal by mainstream movie standards. Columbia is bypassing the national advertising market in favor of less expensive venues, such as local cable television. It’s also counting on significant free publicity being generated by a press tour featuring director Robert Rodriguez, 24.

Rodriguez, who lives in Austin, Tex., still seems dazzled by the unlikely path his film has taken. In a tale that’s been oft-repeated in Hollywood, Rodriguez partly financed “El Mariachi” by serving as a human guinea pig at an Austin drug research center.


He then succeeded in getting the film to International Creative Management agent Robert Newman, who took Rodriguez on as a client and secured him a two-year deal at Columbia, which gives the studio first rights to subsequent films.

Columbia initially planned to remake “El Mariachi” in English, with Rodriguez again directing, but then something unexpected happened. The original became a hit on the film festival circuit when the studio blew up the print from 16 to 35 millimeter and augmented the soundtrack.

The Chicago Tribune called it “a spectacular success story.” At the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last September, two extra screenings were added when the first three sold out.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic, was a bit more restrained, saying the film’s “rough charm” reminded him of “Sergio Leone on the cheap, with elements of Japanese samurai series.”

But sources close to Columbia say studio Chairman Mark Canton became so enamored of “El Mariachi” that he openly bragged that he would turn Rodriguez into “the next John Singleton.” Not coincidentally, Rodriguez was put under the stewardship of Stephanie Allian, the Columbia executive who oversees Singleton.

“Any time you can find a talent this fresh and this young who had the nerve to do something like this, it’s very exciting,” Canton said.


For Columbia’s marketing team, the final affirmation of “El Mariachi’s” potential commercial appeal came when it scored big with a test audience last year. While major studios usually are best skilled at marketing mainstream, star-driven movies, Columbia already has a track record of selling more specialized fare such as “Boyz n the Hood” and “A River Runs Through It.”

Ganis conceded that “El Mariachi’s” most likely audience is made up of Latinos and upscale filmgoers who frequent art houses. But he insisted that the crossover potential exists.

“I’m enthusiastic because the upside is really fantastic,” he said, referring to the studio’s profit potential.

Rodriguez, who said Columbia initially believed in the film’s potential more than he did, is already working on the sequel to “El Mariachi.” “When you watch it you really get the sense that this film was made on a whim,” he said. “People seem to enjoy that.”