Searching for Movies That Speak to Latinos

Times Staff Writer

Latinos in the U.S. spend billions of dollars and countless hours consuming Spanish-language music, radio and TV.

So will movies en espanol be coming soon to a theater near you?

Conventional wisdom has said no. But a former TV executive and a maverick studio are betting millions of dollars that the answer is, Si se puede (yes, it can be done).

Jim McNamara, who ran Telemundo Network for six years, and indie studio Lionsgate are poised to test how deep the Spanish-language movie market runs in the U.S.

On April 14, they will roll the dice with “La Mujer de Mi Hermano” (“My Brother’s Wife”), the first in a slate of movies made in Latin America. Opening in 200 theaters nationwide, the movie stars telenovela superstar Barbara Mori as the bored wife of a wealthy Mexico City industrialist who has an affair with her repressed husband’s free-spirited brother.


“The audience is there,” said McNamara, who oversaw the creation of “Betty La Fea,” Telemundo’s biggest soap opera ever. “Let the games begin.”

However, the game that Lionsgate and McNamara are playing has long been a losing one for studios.

For years, Hollywood has been frustrated trying to reach the massive bilingual and Spanish-speaking audience with such “Latino” films as “The Crime of Father Amaro” and “Chasing Papi.”

Telenovela fans may eat up titillating stories about sexual desire and betrayal on television every night. But they have been hesitant to plunk down $10 to see them on the big screen.

It wasn’t always that way. Beginning in the 1940s, Spanish speakers flocked to watch such stars as Cantinflas and Maria Felix. But by the late 1970s, Mexico’s film industry had collapsed.

Now, as the Latino population continues to grow, there’s reason to try again. Creative Artists Agency is packaging low-budget English-language movies with Latino themes.


“Hollywood has not cracked that code yet,” acknowledged Christy Haubegger, founder of Latina magazine and now an executive at CAA. “The first studio swinging will be the first to hit the ball. And a few are starting to swing.”

Lionsgate’s upcoming effort takes a different approach.

Instead of aiming at young, English-speaking males, Hollywood’s frequent target audience, the studio plans to market to bilingual telenovela and soccer fans. Lionsgate wants to release six to eight Spanish-language movies a year.

The studio also is bulking up its video library to cushion against theatrical flops. It hopes eventually to collect several hundred Spanish-language movies to be sold at retail giants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to provide a stream of rental and sales revenue.

Jon Feltheimer, chief executive of Lionsgate, hired Panama-born McNamara in 1999 to run Telemundo Network, then co-owned by Sony Corp., where Feltheimer worked. Sony sold its stake in Telemundo to NBC in 2005.

Over dinner last spring, the two negotiated for McNamara’s company, Panamax Films, to acquire and produce Latin American films.

Feltheimer says he hopes Latinos will become as loyal to Lionsgate as they are to the Univision television network. “We would like them to think of us in cinema and video as a first stop,” Feltheimer said. “I don’t want to release just one movie. I want to build and feed this audience.”

The effort coincides with the ascension of critically acclaimed Latin American filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro. These successful directors in turn are helping to develop the careers of fledgling Spanish-language filmmakers.


An expanding Latino middle class also has triggered more entertainment spending.

Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the moviegoing audience, averaging 7.6 films annually, compared with 6.5 for non-Latino whites and 6.4 for African Americans, according to a recent Nielsen Ratings Group study. In home video, Latinos buy on average 30% more DVDs than other households, according to Centris, a media consumer tracking service.

The power of Latino consumers shows up in the numbers of Univision, the country’s dominant Spanish-language TV network. About 64% of Univision’s prime-time audience (approximately 5 million viewers a night) are bilingual and ages 18 to 34 -- a coveted demographic group.

However, the predominantly female telenovela viewers are not big moviegoers.

“You have this incredibly untapped audience who has not had much incentive to go to the theater,” CAA’s Haubegger said.

At the same time, young males shun Spanish-language television, she said.

“They are watching ‘Pimp My Ride’ on MTV,” she said.

For Lionsgate and McNamara, the challenge is to lure young Latinos who might instead prefer “Scary Movie 4” in English to “La Mujer” in Spanish, and families who may opt for Walt Disney Co.’s animated “The Wild” instead of the R-rated drama.

Most efforts at luring Hispanic audiences into the Nuevo Latino new wave of films have been unsuccessful.

In 2003, Universal Pictures pulled the plug on a distribution deal with Arenas Entertainment, a Latino film label that saw only one hit, the English-language gangster drama “Empire.” Also that year, Venezuelan media conglomerate Venevision International pulled the plug on its movie distribution arm.

Earlier, two Los Angeles companies, New Latin Pictures and Latin Universe, went under after their movies “Luminarias” and “Santitos,” respectively, died at the box office in the U.S.


Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, thought his 2001 release, “The Crime of Father Amaro,” had all the elements of a hit. The film, hugely popular in its native Mexico, featured Gael Garcia Bernal as an amoral priest who impregnates a young girl and leaves her to die after a botched abortion.

Despite its star power and headline-grabbing criticism from some Catholic leaders, the film was seen mainly by nonLatino cinephiles.

Gottlieb, who was also disappointed by the returns of his studio’s English-language Latino movie, “Tortilla Soup,” says Latinos just want to assimilate.

“When it comes to filmed entertainment, they don’t view themselves as Latinos,” the Goldwyn executive said. “They want to see it because everybody else wants to see it.”

Studio executives are also bedeviled by the all-encompassing category “Latino”: What may appeal to a Mexican native in Los Angeles will not necessarily interest a Cuban in Miami or a Puerto Rican in New Jersey.

“To glob everybody together is impossible to do,” said Elizabeth Gabler, head of Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox Film Corp., which released the hugely disappointing “Chasing Papi,” with an all-Latino cast.


Bob Berney, head of Picturehouse, a division of Time Warner Inc.’s HBO Films and New Line Cinema Corp., oversaw the successful campaign for Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” The film grossed more than $13 million.

But with his upcoming Spanish-language horror fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth,” directed by Del Toro (“Hellboy” and “Blade II”), Berney is going after the sci-fi and horror genre crowd, which includes a substantial number of young Latinos.

“I will probably focus more on the horror angle than the Latino angle,” he said.

Lionsgate, the studio behind Oscar winner “Crash,” is undaunted and banking on Mori to deliver fans from both sexes. The curvaceous 28-year-old actress burned up the television screen in 2004 as the heroine of one of Univision’s most popular soap operas ever, “Rubi.”

In “La Mujer de Mi Hermano,” she stars opposite two male telenovela heartthrobs, Colombian Manolo Cardona and Peruvian Christian Meier.

The movie has been released in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela to solid business. The studio plans to publicize the U.S. release in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela, hoping fans will tell relatives in the U.S.

McNamara and Feltheimer say they see great potential in movies with simple narratives and top-notch production values, starring popular Latin American actors.

“A lot of this has to do with casting and how you tell a story: One woman, two men equals trouble,” McNamara said. “What we are trying to do is make commercial movies.”


If Latin American filmmakers “cast movies with familiar faces ... and tell familiar stories, then I believe people will come,” he said.



By the numbers

Here are recent feature films that have Latino themes or are aimed at the Latino market, studio, year of release and U.S. box-office gross.

*--* (In millions) “Frida,” Miramax (2002) $25.8 “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Focus Features (2004) 16.8 “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” IFC Films (2002) 14.0 “Maria Full of Grace,” HBO Films/Fine Line Features 6.5 (2004) “Chasing Papi,” Fox 2000 (2003) 6.1 “The Crime of Father Amaro,” Samuel Goldwyn Films 5.7 (2002) “Amores Perros,” Lionsgate (2001) 5.4 “Tortilla Soup,” Samuel Goldwyn Films (2001) 4.5 “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” Sony Pictures Classics (2005) 4.4* “Luminarias,” New Latin Pictures (2000) 0.4


*Still in theaters

Source: Exhibitor Relations