Hollywood Finally Gets Its Spanish Lesson

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

The movie poster for "Out of Sight" hangs in the windows of more than 2,000 shops in Latino neighborhoods around the nation. Specially tailored trailers for the film, which stars George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, have aired on Spanish-language television during the World Cup, which is a magnet for Latino viewers. And this weekend, Universal Pictures is advertising the sexy crime caper not only in mainstream newspapers, but in publications printed en espanol.

"Una pelicula con 'Girl Power,' " the ad boasts, quoting a review of the film from CNN Espanol. "Jennifer Lopez es fantastica."

Such niche marketing would not be surprising if "Out of Sight"--which opened Friday--were a Latino-themed movie such as last year's "Selena." It's not. Directed by one white guy (Steven Soderbergh), it's based on a book by another white guy (Elmore Leonard). Lopez plays a federal marshal who hunts down a third white guy (Clooney as an escaped convict), and the fact that she is Latina is never even mentioned.

So what's going on? Particularly since "Selena's" success--the $20-million picture about the slain Latina singing sensation has taken in $53 million in domestic ticket sales and video rentals--Hollywood is beginning to experiment with courting Latino moviegoers.

Not every movie studio is equally committed to the effort: Spanish-language newspapers complain, for example, that most only advertise movies in their pages on opening weekend. And some marketing experts say their attempts to advise the studios about the Latino market can still fall on deaf ears.

"Sometimes I go to pitch an account and they say no because the movie doesn't have a Latino theme or star," said Santiago Pozo, president of the Arenas Group, a movie-marketing firm that has made a specialty out of reaching Latinos. "I say, 'Are you going to open in Germany and Japan?' They say yes. I say, 'What's the point if you have no German or Japanese star?' "

But little by little--taking "baby steps," in the words of Bill Miller, president of actor-director Edward James Olmos' production company--movie studios are awakening to Latinos' box-office potential and acting to claim it.

Targeting Latinos is gradually becoming "part of the basic mix now of how you sell a film," said Jersey Films' Michael Shamberg, who produced "Out of Sight" and who has worked with Pozo to market it. "When you do a TV marketing campaign, you already do a female spot [aimed at women], you do an 'MTV' spot, you do a male spot, you do an urban spot. Now, we're adding this."

Statistics explain why. Latinos make up the fastest-growing ethnic group among domestic film audiences, with ticket sales up a whopping 22% from 1996 to 1997, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Every year since 1995, Latinos have outspent African Americans at the box office: Last year, they bought 15% of tickets (194 million) as compared with blacks' 13%.

Though just 10.7% of the total U.S. population, Latinos are concentrated in the top urban markets where the majority of movie tickets are sold. In Los Angeles, for example, 45% of the prime moviegoing audience (ages 12 to 34) is Latino, according to one recent Nielsen study. Another report by Simmons Research found that 47% of L.A.'s Latinos went to movies at least once a month and that they were more likely than non-Latinos to see a movie its opening weekend.

"Absolutely, this is a very heavy movie-consuming audience," said Michael A. Vorhaus, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a Burbank-based research firm.

Nevertheless, studios have been reluctant to invest in regular tracking studies that would chart Latino moviegoers' viewing habits--meaning that even when they set out to lure Latinos to the theater, they often are working without up-to-date information.

"My single greatest frustration has been trying to get Hollywood to pay serious constant attention to the Latino market," said Carlos Garcia, whose firm--Garcia Research Associates--has tried without success to sell the major studios on a weekly study of Latinos' movie awareness and decisions.

"We made a presentation to Fox and New Line, who said, 'If everybody else does it, we'll do it,' " Garcia said. "We couldn't even get in the door at the other studios."

For years, it has been commonplace for studios to make what one executive called a "nominal" nod to Latinos in the marketing of many movies, particularly for action pictures and for comedies that skew toward younger audiences.

For example, a print ad for Buena Vista's upcoming "Armageddon," Jerry Bruckheimer's asteroid-threatens-Earth saga that opens July 1, simply translates the copy featured in English-language ads into Spanish: "No more taxes . . . Ever." becomes "No mas impuestos . . . Jamas."

But in the coming months, a few studios will more aggressively seek to capture Latinos' imagination. Columbia TriStar has two summer films that it will be pitching hard to Latinos in radio, TV and print promotions: "The Mask of Zorro," starring Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas, and "Dance With Me," starring Vanessa L. Williams and Puerto Rican pop superstar Chayanne.

Already, the studio is promoting the films at Latino events around the country. At the recent Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City, for example, an actor dressed as Zorro and several Latin dancers carrying "Dance With Me" posters walked (and rumbaed) the whole route.

"We had a booth at the Cuban Festival in Echo Park a few weeks ago. Our trailer was running and I was there," said director Randa Haines of "Dance With Me," a love story set in the Latin dance world that opens Aug. 21.

Haines stresses that her film has a diverse cast and, she hopes, broad appeal. But she has paid particular attention to the marketing aimed at Latinos--the music videos of the soundtrack, for example--because she wants them to know that the film's depiction of the Cuban part of their community is authentic.

"If they say, 'Oh, another film that uses us as window dressing or has the usual stereotypical characters of gang members and drug dealers,' that'll turn people off," she said. "If they're turned off, why would they go?"

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DreamWorks SKG is unusual in that it makes Spanish-subtitled versions of all its movies--not just family or action films--available to exhibitors. Subtitled versions of "Paulie," its recent film about a talking parrot, opened in six Los Angeles-area theaters. The studio also advertises in Latino media outlets at both the national and local level for every film, not just those with Latino stars or themes.

"Specifically including the Hispanic audience was once the marketing exception. For us at DreamWorks, it is the rule," said head of publicity Vivian Mayer, who also prints press kits in Spanish as well as English for every film. "Our marketing campaigns not only reflect but respond to this diverse moviegoing audience. It makes both cultural and fiscal sense."

Marcy Granata, Miramax's executive vice president of marketing and publicity, agreed, noting that Miramax/Dimension will target Latinos, among others, with two of its wide-release summer films: the horror sequel "Halloween H2O" and "54," the disco flick that includes Latina actress Salma Hayek in its ensemble cast.

"It's just smart business," Granata said.

A growing awareness of the Latino audience's size also appears to be changing the way movies are cast. One need only look at Columbia TriStar's 1997 film "Anaconda"--which starred not only a big snake, but also a Latina documentary-film producer (Lopez), her black cameraman (Ice Cube) and a creepy white villain (Jon Voight)--to see that diverse ensemble casting can work at the box office. (The film, which was marketed to each of those groups, grossed a solid $66 million domestically).

A similarly diverse crowd populates DreamWorks' animated feature "Antz," a romantic comedy set in an ant colony that is due out in October. Woody Allen and Sharon Stone provide the voices for the central characters, but the ever-present Lopez is also there (playing a Latina character named Azteca), not to mention Danny Glover.

Trimark is currently casting "Inconvenienced," a comedy starring black actor Jamie Foxx, and executives are determined to team him with a Latino actor.

"This new sense that there is a large [Latino] community out there that we can market to is certainly affecting how the movie comes together," said worldwide marketing chief Adam Fogelson. "It's a coup for us to have Jamie Foxx, and we could easily go forward with only him and a strong supporting cast. But given that we have a wonderfully written role for a Hispanic male, we want to see what we can do to expand our horizons."

Mitch Goldman, New Line Cinema's president of marketing and distribution, was more blunt.

"I predict there are going to be many, many more Latino actors working in movies. Not because they're necessarily any more talented than others, but because they are Latino," said Goldman, who is considering a Latino-targeted campaign for "Rush Hour," a martial arts comedy starring Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker and Elizabeth Pena that opens in August. The reason: "It gets you more box office."

Don't expect, however, to see a spate of new films about the Latino experience any time soon. Though they aren't eager to say so on the record, studio executives say privately that Latino-themed films can't be counted upon to turn a large profit. While conceding that Columbia Pictures' "La Bamba" (1987) and Miramax's "Like Water for Chocolate" (1993) did respectable business, they say they'd prefer to try to lure the Latino audience to mainstream movies.

"I'll tell you the problem: There's no guarantee that if you make a film about a Latino subject that it's going to do well--despite the numbers," said one longtime studio executive. Unlike black audiences, which have shown great loyalty to so-called urban films, he said, "Latinos are not going to go see a movie [just] because it's about a Latino subject. You go do the Frida Kahlo story, and I would bet dollars to doughnuts that that movie doesn't find an audience among Latinos, even though she's Latina."

There is, in fact, a movie in development at Trimark about the life of Kahlo, the renowned artist. Trimark executives say they hope that the film will succeed much as last year's "Eve's Bayou" did--by luring both the art-house crowd and an ethnic audience--and they plan an aggressive marketing campaign in Latino communities. Warner Bros., meanwhile, is developing a film about the life of Cesar Chavez. Both these projects have been in the works for years, but neither has a start date for production.

Moctesuma Esparza, who produced two Latino-themed films last year ("Selena" and "Lorca," starring Andy Garcia) and who is developing the Chavez biography and several other projects, says that part of the reason the studios make so few Latino-themed films is that there are so few Latino executives.

"You want as a studio executive to feel comfortable with the material and understand it and see that it's universal," he said. "The problem has been one of perception of what the studios think is a commercial project."

But even when the studios express enthusiasm for a Latino-themed project, Esparza says he runs into another problem: finding a director.

"There are only three Latino directors that the studios feel comfortable with at this moment: Gregory Nava, Robert Rodriguez and Luis Valdez," he said, listing the men who made "Selena," "From Dusk Till Dawn" and "La Bamba," among other films. While he says he is open to hiring non-Latinos, if he wants someone with an American Latino sensibility, "the list of who I can talk to is extremely short. We need to have a deeper bench."

A recent study conducted by the Hollywood Reporter proves his point. It found that of 1,384 films produced and distributed by the nine biggest film companies during the last 10 years, just 2.2% (30 films) were directed by Latinos, as compared with 4.2% by blacks, 1.2% by Asians and none by Native Americans.

"That's not because the directors aren't out there," Esparza said, ticking off names of several who have done music videos and television specials, but who can't find the financing to prove themselves with a first low-budget film. "There's no ready support for them. . . . Generally speaking, this group didn't grow up in money. You grow up in East L.A., you go to all your uncles and cousins and you're not going to get half a million dollars."

To help remedy this, Esparza and his partner, Bob Katz, have decided to try to produce 10 Latino-oriented films with unproven directors, each one budgeted at about $5 million or less. They will be aimed at Latino audiences (though it is hoped some will cross over), and Esparza believes they can be profitable.

"We are out to show that this is a viable market," he said.

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