How to target Latino moviegoers--or whether to even bother--has long confounded Hollywood.
Walt Disney Pictures this weekend is taking that question more seriously with side-by-side English and dubbed Spanish releases of its new animated movie "The Emperor's New Groove" in 16 multiplexes across the Southland.
For years, Disney and other studios have offered dubbed or subtitled prints of their movies to select theaters that requested them in heavily Latino markets around the country. But the bilingual release in major theater complexes--and the promotional effort to draw Spanish-speaking audiences--represents a newfound resolve to tap this elusive audience.
Nearly half of the prime moviegoing audience in Los Angeles is Latino, according to a recent Nielsen study, drawn to the same English-language hits as the general population.
But the Disney experiment could broaden that base, attracting Spanish-dominant parents and their small children, who tend to speak Spanish in the home even if they are U.S.-born.
The other studios are watching the experiment with deep skepticism. While they acknowledge that Latinos are the fastest-growing moviegoing ethnic group in the country, they are skeptical that there is a separate and viable Spanish-language business.
"If there's a growing non-English-speaking audience in L.A., we certainly don't want to leave that audience out," said Nikki Rocco, head of domestic distribution for Universal Pictures. "But we have found, as a general rule, that most kids today speak English."
No one really knows how audiences will respond. There has never been a concerted effort to study the moviegoing habits of Latinos. The demographics of Southern California clearly show plenty of Spanish speakers, but it remains to be seen whether that translates into an audience with enough box office muscle to justify a major commitment by Hollywood studios.
Disney chose to test the market with "Emperor" in part because of its pre-Columbian theme and Latin American flavor. The movie is a tale of a self-absorbed young emperor in ancient Peru who is turned into a whiny llama by a conniving woman, and his plot to regain the throne.
"Obviously, there's a tremendous population not being served in Spanish," said Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group Chairman Richard Cook. "We think it'll turn out to be bigger than any of us [anticipated]."
Cook said Disney will spend about $250,000 to promote the Spanish-language release in newspapers, radio and television with a targeted campaign. While Disney has never put any real effort into Spanish-language advertising before, the expenditure is a tiny fraction of what studios routinely spend on English-language marketing.
Many of the studios have discovered that marketing, advertising and promoting their movies in Spanish--with culturally relevant creative campaigns--is crucial. But the studios have found that Spanish-language versions of the movies are not. The audience is increasingly assimilated and bilingual.
Latino purchasing power nationwide is expected to top $452 billion next year, and a wide range of industries are eager to cash in. But a vitriolic debate has raged among marketers, advertising agencies and broadcasters over how important Spanish is to those efforts.
Santiago Pozo, president of the Arenas Group, a movie marketing firm that specializes in reaching Latinos, said that when it comes to Hollywood, Spanish promotions are key, but Spanish prints are not.
"Dubbed prints do not necessarily increase the total box office of the picture," said Pozo, whose clients have included Universal Pictures, DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. "What increases the total box office is to address the Latino market with a full-blown [creative] campaign in TV, print and radio. Translations don't work."
Most recently, Pozo led creative efforts in Spanish for Universal's smash hit, "Dr. Seuss' the Grinch Who Stole Christmas." American-born audiences had to be swayed to see a film whose story was familiar, whereas many Latino moviegoers had to be introduced to the children's classic for the first time. A Spanish campaign did that, but its aim was to draw audiences to the English release, even though select theaters received subtitled copies.
By Pozo's account, it worked: About a fifth of "Grinch" audiences have been Latino.
Pozo has worked with Universal on dual-language campaigns as far back as the mid-1980s, for such films as Steven Spielberg's animated "An American Tail." He said no new audience was tapped. Rather, the audiences came as long as the movies were shown in heavily Latino neighborhoods and were promoted in both languages.
"You have two theaters in La Puente. Are you splitting your gross, or are you getting into a new market?" he asked.
Hollywood has made spotty attempts for decades to cater to Spanish-speaking moviegoers, with largely poor results.
In 1997, for example, Warner Bros. paired a Spanish subtitled print of "Selena"--the story of the slain Tejano superstar--alongside the English-language version in 17 theaters across the country--including 12 in the Los Angeles area.
The subtitled prints grossed only about 25% of their English counterparts in the same multiplexes, according to Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman.
Subtitles generally do not play well with mainstream audiences of any ethnicity. Furthermore, Warner Bros. learned that young Selena fans were largely acculturated English-speakers and preferred the non-subtitled version.
In fact, several studio executives said, the largest moviegoing audience overall is ages 12 to 24, and the Latinos among that group are watching English movies.
DreamWorks, like other studios, has released family movies dubbed in Spanish simultaneously with their national release, including its 1999 animated feature "The Road to El Dorado."
"We came to the conclusion that in specific theaters it was worth doing two versions," said DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp. "We found it successful enough that we would continue to do it when the exhibitors request it."
Tharp said that when he was a film buyer for General Cinema a decade ago, that circuit tried a similar experiment in one Hialeah, Fla., theater and found the Spanish print grossed a quarter of the English counterpart's take.
"The research we found was that parents did not want their kids going to the Spanish-language version. They wanted to expose them to English" so they would learn the language, he said.
For Disney, the experiment is a first and comes at little cost. Disney already dubs its animated features for international markets. The demographics Disney targets--families with small children--may be the Spanish-language niche that has eluded other efforts.
"The children of immigrants, even if ultimately they will be bilingual or English-dominant, tend to be Spanish-dominant before they start to go to school at age 5," said Carl Kravitz, president of cruz/kravetz: Ideas, a Los Angeles Latino advertising agency. "A vast number of families in the Southern California marketplace are going to do better sharing the experience in Spanish than in English."
The chains that agreed to participate--including AMC, Edwards, Pacific and Mann in cities such as Ontario, Orange, Covina, Commerce, Burbank and Van Nuys--did so with trepidation, according to a source close to the deal. They will yank the Spanish-language prints after 10 days if they fail to attract substantial audiences.
Hollywood is closely watching Disney's test. If it succeeds, it could tap a fresh audience base when overall moviegoing attendance is slightly down and has been relatively flat for many years.
Rod Rodriguez, senior vice president of distribution at Disney, said a strong showing may convince the studio to follow the strategy in major Latino markets across the country with next year's animated "Atlantis" and "Monsters, Inc."