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Attack of the geek director

Times Staff Writer

Standing at a chubby 5 feet 6 and emanating a manic, geeky charm, Nicolas Lopez is perhaps an unlikely lightning rod.

He has shaken Chile’s film industry by importing American-style marketing and publicity tactics to promote his films. He has popularized genre films in an industry more accustomed to sober dramas. His horror movies and teen comedies have been breakout hits at the box office, hitting a nerve among the country’s youth.

Only 22 and still living with his parents, Lopez is unabashed about his passion to “make movies not films.” To some, he is the personification of the new, youthful, democratic Chile, freed from the shackles of the country’s tragic history of coups and repression.

“He is the first of our filmmakers that does not have the weight of the military regime or the solemnity of our political transition in his genes,” said Hector Soto, an esteemed film critic and editor of the magazine Capital. “His films have blown fresh air into a film industry that is still anchored by the past.” To others he is the epitome of everything they loathe about globalization and the United States: instant gratification, cynicism, commercialism and vulgarity. His movies, his critics say, are all blood, gore and no substance.

“We should not be seduced by [Lopez’s] marketing abilities but rather watch the films and see if they have anything of merit to say,” critic Jorge Morales wrote in the magazine Mabuse.

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In any case, Lopez is on a trajectory that could place him as the youngest and most recent member of the talented Latin New Wave, joining Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who have been able to break out of their home countries to find international appeal for their films.

And whether you love him or hate him, Lopez is the youthful face of a new Latin America, said Chilean novelist and director Alberto Fuguet.

“He is a symbol of the Latin American of the future,” Fuguet said. “He is alienated, hip, ultra Internet savvy, raised on trashy culture and yet he is local.” Indeed, Lopez embraces the fact that he was weaned on MTV, “Saturday Night Live,” comic books, the Internet and fast food.

“I may have been born in Chile but I feel at home in McDonald’s,” he said, as he plowed through a pizza at a Los Angeles restaurant on a recent visit. “I am part of a generation that was born in a globalized world.” He proudly recounts how his moviemaking epiphany arrived not from watching Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” but from seeing “Back to the Future 2.” “I want to make auteur cinema -- MTV style,” he said.

He is single-minded in his goal: to find a global audience for his tales, comedies spun out of the torments he suffered as a self-described fat geek in high school.

“If you are fat, high school is hard,” he said. “If you are fat with [breasts] like me, it’s even harder.” His directorial debut, “Promedio Rojo,” loosely translated into “Flunking Grades,” is Lopez’s semiautobiographical tale of his years as a high school nerd obsessed with comic books and unattainable girls. A combination of “Sixteen Candles,” “American Pie” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” the film was a box-office smash in Chile last fall.

For the film’s debut in Chile, he deployed the tactics of a major studio out of his small production office, Sobras Films (Left Over Films) in Santiago. He signed cross-promotional partnerships with comic book stores, designed “Promedio Rojo” popcorn boxes, chose strategic theaters and pasted up the publicity posters himself.

His biggest idea, however, was partnering with Chile’s youth radio station Rock & Pop for the premiere. The gimmick: people with the most F grades on their report cards would receive free passes to the premiere. The radio station was inundated with teens brandishing their F grades like badges of honor. The premiere was sold out and the fire marshal was called in to control the crowds.

But Lopez wanted more.

He strategically entered “Promedio Rojo” in the South by South West Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where his two heroes reside: Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News and director Robert Rodriguez. He wrote a letter to Knowles, asking him to come see the film when it premiered. To his surprise, Knowles showed up. To his amazement, the bespectacled leader of Internet film geekdom loved the film, calling it “A geek masterpiece of comedic insanity.” Rodriguez and his wife and producing partner, Elizabeth Avellan, also received a letter. Avellan saw the film and invited the Chilean director to their production offices for a celebration.

One thing led to another, and now Lopez has signed with United Talent Agency and has a manager.

The movie, which made its California debut at the L.A. Film Festival and was scheduled to screen at the comic book industry’s Comic-Con gathering in San Diego on Friday, has been seen by executives at Focus Features, Paramount, Warner Independent and Lion’s Gate Films. So far no one has picked up the movie, fearing that its irreverent, crude humor in Spanish may not translate to American audiences.

Lopez is frustrated by Hollywood executives’ inability to see the film as a universal teen comedy. While the U.S. is the world’s leading exporter of culture, Americans are stunningly provincial, he said.

“Forget the Latin American and art house market,” he said. “This is a mainstream movie. According to their logic about subtitles, ‘Mr. And Mrs. Smith’ should be an art house movie everywhere else in the non-English speaking world.” He has a fan base among the self-described geeks of Hollywood. Instead of shedding his nerdy facade, he has expanded it into a brand. Geeks, he said, have an artistic advantage.

“This industry has been led by geeks,” he said gesticulating wildly over his pizza. “I mean, look at Spielberg -- he is the biggest geek. The people who have been on the outside have always been able to tell the best stories. We are the ones who have had problems with girls, wore glasses and are fat.”

Even though he is young, Lopez has been involved in filmmaking for more than a decade. At 10 he began his career as director, making short films (including a comedic take on masturbation he did when he was 15). By 12, he authored a weekly column for Chile’s largest newspaper, El Mercurio, recounting personal stories about the ugly side of junior high school. His columns were extremely controversial and resulted in his expulsion from school.

A framed letter from school officials to his parents explaining why he was no longer welcome hangs in his office.

“They said they could no longer guarantee my physical safety,” said the oft-bullied Lopez with a smile.

He finished high school through independent study and then moved onto his career. By 17 he founded a website, sobras.com, his production company and began producing feature films. Although his debut horror flick, “Angel Negro,” was a hit, he was not old enough to see the R-rated movie in theaters.

His next project is titled “Los Santos,” featuring geeky superheroes out to save the world. Lopez wants to turn the concept of strong superheroes on its head. In Lopez’s mind, being outside the mainstream is a cool thing.

“What if instead of Keanu Reeves, it was Jack Black who had to save the world?” he asked, pushing his black horn-rimmed glasses along the bridge of his nose. “It’s a geek power movie.” While he hopes to make a film in Hollywood, he said he is perfectly happy with his career in Chile. He has no interest in making remakes or retooling his work to satisfy American studio executives.

“In Chile I can do what I want,” he said. In the end, he said, he doesn’t want the riches and fame of Hollywood. He wants to make movies his way. “I can do without the limo. I can take a taxi or a subway.”


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