At Walt Disney Co., Chief Executive Robert Iger has made the mandate clear: Reaching the expanding Latino audience is a top priority for the Burbank-based entertainment giant.
The company’s theme park, cable and broadcast groups each have made inroads, creating Spanish-language sports channels through ESPN, TV shows starring Latinos for the ABC network and bicultural “Cinderella"-themed contests for Latina teens. But the company’s movie studio has come up empty after a yearlong attempt to make films based on the Latino American experience.
It is a theme playing out across Hollywood these days. Although major studios are eager to court Latinos -- a group that sees more English-language movies than any other ethnic or racial group -- they have been hard-pressed to find Latino executives who can spearhead their efforts.
An equally rare commodity: screenwriters, directors and producers who are successful at pitching movies about Latinos.
For more than three years, Universal Pictures has been searching for someone to run a Latino film label. Warner Bros. is in a hunt for a seasoned bicultural executive to launch the studio’s own unit, Hispanic Independent Pictures. Movie executives say they are bumping up against a reality of their own making.
“When you are looking around to hire an experienced Hispanic executive, there are very few people there,” said Jason Reed, executive vice president of production at Disney’s Buena Vista Motion Picture Group. “We are not starting minorities in the mailroom or as assistants so they can grow into that next generation of executives and agents. It’s a question of access.”
Reed said many in Hollywood view diversity as a philanthropic effort instead of a strategic necessity. It’s a wrongheaded approach if the studios want to broaden their reach to an ever-growing audience with an avid appetite for entertainment, he said.
Latinos watched an average of 9.8 movies in 2005, compared with 7.8 for African Americans and 7 for whites, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. In the 2000 census, Latinos made up 12.6% of the U.S. population.
Yet there are no Latino managing partners or board members among the industry’s top five talent agencies. Latinos are also largely missing from major studios’ creative executive ranks, where scripts are read and movies are hatched.
Out of 100 top-grossing movies last year, only two films were directed by an American-born Latino: Robert Rodriguez’s “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl” and “Sin City,” which he co-directed, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., a box office tracking firm.
A study by the Writers Guild of America, West, found that all minority groups combined accounted for just 6% of film writers in 2004, a statistic that has been virtually unchanged since 1998.
Vance Van Petten, executive director of the Producers Guild of America, said he had little luck enlisting studio executives to participate in the guild’s mentoring program, which teaches young minorities skills such as pitching a project and shepherding a film or television series through production.
Van Petten said that in the two years since the founding of the diversity workshop, only two studios had sent representatives: 20th Century Fox and Disney.
“When I reach out to the networks and the studios, I can get very few, if any, creative executives to come,” he said. “All we are asking for is one evening and they won’t even come.”
Universal declined to comment for this article. Warner Bros. said it was working on its approach to the Latino market.
“We understand the English-speaking Hispanic market is very important and are currently in the process of figuring out the best way for our company to enter into it,” said Richard Fox, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Entertainment’s international division, who is spearheading the studio’s efforts.
Hollywood is not alone in underrepresenting Latinos in the executive ranks. Of the chief executives running Fortune 500 companies, only three are Latinos, according to Hispanic Business magazine. Latinos accounted for only 4.5% of the nation’s newsrooms in 2006, according to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. At the Los Angeles Times, that number was 6.4%, the survey said.
But Hollywood is lagging behind most other major industries in its hiring practices, according to Anna Park, head attorney for the L.A. office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Park is the lead attorney on the commission’s first discrimination lawsuit filed against a major studio. The case, brought against Universal on behalf of an assistant director who says he was fired because he is black, is set to go to trial by the end of this year.
“Any organization that wants to develop its leadership has to develop a plan,” she said. “You need to have a feeder pool to bring up people through the ranks. In Hollywood, hiring and promotions are based on who you know -- not even what your education level is or what you bring to the table. It’s an industry that is so unchecked, it’s just maddening.”
The dearth of American-born Latinos in Hollywood is all the more perplexing considering a recent surge of critically acclaimed films by directors and writers from Latin America.
Directors such as Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”) and writers such as Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel”) have segued seamlessly into Hollywood.
But most of these filmmakers come from privileged backgrounds, giving them opportunities not available to many Latino Americans -- especially immigrants and the children of immigrants. There isn’t yet a strong industry network of Latinos that could help in their hiring and promotion.
“We are a good 10 to 15 years behind African Americans in the industry,” said Deborah Franco, a Latino screenwriter who has unsuccessfully pitched projects to Fox Searchlight, Paramount Pictures Corp. and ABC.
Franco said there was a need to break stereotypes about what constituted a “Latino story.”
“For any new writer it’s always an uphill battle,” said Franco, a former recording artist whose single, “Open My Heart,” hit the top-20 chart in 2000. “But layered on top of that is that a lot of development executives and producers are used to seeing Latinos depicted in a segregated fashion. Our stories should be included in the snapshot of American society. “
Access is hard to come by in an industry that in part is based on family connections or relationships established at the country’s top universities.
David Ortiz is at best one of a handful of Latino creative executives at the major studios. A junior creative executive at Universal, Ortiz’s entry into Hollywood was through Paul Weitz, director of “American Pie.”
Weitz’s father, fashion magnate John Weitz, sponsored Ortiz’s private education in New York. Ortiz’s father was John Weitz’s chauffeur.
After graduating from college, Ortiz worked briefly at an investment bank and an advertising agency, but he grew bored. On a visit to Los Angeles, he called Paul Weitz, who helped Ortiz secure a job in 1999 in the mailroom at William Morris Agency.
Ortiz quickly jumped to Universal as an assistant in the production division, then worked briefly as an executive trainee at Warner Bros. Less than two years later, he was lured back to Universal by his former boss to work as a junior creative executive helping to shepherd films through production as well as identifying projects for acquisition.
Ortiz said he thought many Latinos could not afford to take low-paying jobs in agencies or as assistants right out of college. In addition, there are few role models to follow into Hollywood.
“There really isn’t that mentorship,” Ortiz said. “I have been really fortunate with that.”
But even Latinos who have made their way into mainstream Hollywood often have a hard time getting their stories to the big screen.
David Valdes, a veteran producer who received an Oscar nomination in 2000 for “The Green Mile,” said that every time he proposed a Latino project to the studios he was met with polite silence.
Valdes has pitched a rags-to-riches story about 1950s Mexican American tennis great Pancho Gonzales to several studios, but, so far, has been unable to get financing for a screenplay.
“I am pitching the story about an individual who has achieved the American dream and never got the recognition he deserved,” said Valdes. “I can’t get any real interest.”
Too often, Latino stories are relegated to an “urban” niche that deals with tales of drug dealing and gang banging, Valdes said Valdes, who just finished production of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” starring Brad Pitt.
Part of the problem is figuring out which part of the Latino community to serve and how to reach it. Latino is a broad term that includes many nationalities.
“It’s an incredibly rich opportunity, but also a major challenge, since the American Latino audience is itself extremely diverse with multiple niches within its own niche,” said United Talent Agency’s Stuart Manashil, who represents such directors as Argentine Alejandro Agresti (“The Lake House”) and Ecuadorian Sebastian Cordero (“Cronicas”), both of whom are now making studio-financed films.
Disney’s theme park division has been mining the Latino market for years. From May 2005 through last month, the number of Latinos visiting Disneyland grew faster than any other demographic group, a company spokeswoman said.
Spanish is the most common foreign language spoken by employees at the Disneyland Resort. There are three Mexican restaurants, including one where visitors can make fresh tortillas. Package deals for the resort are aggressively marketed to Latinos in Spanish and English.
“When immigrant families come to the states, they come with an aspirational notion of what Disney is about: It’s about attaining a piece of Americana,” said Gilbert Davila, Disney’s vice president of multicultural marketing. “And that creates a wonderful halo effect for all things Disney.”
Disney’s sports channel, ESPN, has launched ESPN Deportes, a 24-hour cable sports channel, radio network, monthly sports magazine and website -- all in Spanish.
Last fall, the studio’s home entertainment division promoted the release of the 1950 classic “Cinderella,” with a “Community Cinderellas Quinceanera” contest in nine U.S. cities for young Latinas. The winners received “Cinderella” DVDs, trips to Los Angeles for a family of four, and invitations to a “Cinderella” screening followed by a Quinceanera ball at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood.
Disney-owned ABC has created programs such as “The George Lopez Show” and cast Latino actors in popular shows such as “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.” “Ugly Betty,” an English-language version of a Colombian soap opera, stars America Ferrera of the film “Real Women Have Curves” and, according to Nielsen Media Research, is the most-watched new show on television this season.
But Disney’s movie division is still months away from greenlighting its first Latino picture. Buena Vista’s Reed said there appeared to be more success in diversifying the programming and casting in television than in movies, in part because of the shorter lead times necessary to bring projects onto the small screen.
Disney has several Latino projects that are close to getting greenlights, including a Salma Hayek film about clashing cultures in a marriage between a Latina and a Connecticut blue blood; an Eva Longoria project titled “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and a live-action movie, “South of the Border,” featuring a talking Chihuahua that leaves its home in Beverly Hills and heads for Mexico.
The films, which are to be released to a mainstream audience with budgets of $15 million to $40 million each, were all initiated under the studio’s former head of production, Nina Jacobson, who was fired in the summer. But Reed said Disney was “fully committed” to maintaining Jacobson’s support for Latino projects.
“We fully recognize the importance of reaching out to that audience,” he said. “We are putting energy into changing the system.”
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Hollywood is hoping to reach more Latinos, who already watch more movies per year than any other ethnic or racial group and whose younger generations are predominantly English speakers.
Percentage of Latino teens in a survey on what language they use when they are with friends
English only 49%
Both, but mostly English 28%
Both equally 16%
Both, but mostly Spanish 6%
Spanish only 1%
Sources: Motion Picture Assn. of America, Creative Artists Agency