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LatinoBuzz: How Do We Turn a Latino Film Into a Latino Blockbuster?

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by Vanessa Erazo
April 24, 2013 1:30 PM
4 Comments
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The internet has been buzzing about Filly Brown. The film starring Gina Rodriguez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Edward James Olmos, and Jenni Rivera hit theaters this past Friday and made close to $1.5 million over the weekend. It’s an impressive opening for an independent Latino film. 

Historically, Latino films have struggled at the box office but once in a while there’s a breakout hit. Last year’s most successful Latino film Casa de mi Padre, a Spanish-language comedy starring Will Ferrell, Diego Luna, and Gael Garcia Bernal, made $5.9 million. Only two other films were able to surpass the million dollar mark, For Greater Glory starring Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, and Ruben Blades ($5.6 million) and Girl in Progress starring Eva Mendes ($2.6 million). The remaining top grossing Latino films of 2012 each made less than $200,000. (Take into consideration that mainstream Hollywood blockbusters make hundreds of millions of dollars.)

What does it take for a Latino film to hit it big?

It’s hard to predict what makes any film successful but there are a few factors that can help. Last year’s hits all had big name stars. So far this year’s Latino blockbusters (I’m using this term loosely) have also had the benefit of celebrity lead actors, an Oscar nomination, and being adapted from a popular Chicano novel. NO, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, grossed $2 million and earned Chile its first ever Best Foreign Language Film nomination. Bless Me Ultima brought Rudolfo Anaya’s beloved book of the same title to the screen and reached $1.5 million.

Is that all it takes, a famous actor?

No, not really. There are lots of examples of films with celebrities attached that bombed at the box office. But, it definitely helps. So does using targeted traditional marketing, getting some good reviews, employing grassroots techniques such as advance screenings to build word of mouth, and engaging audiences with social media. It’s not rocket science; it’s the same for all indie films not just Latino ones. But, despite the fact that Latinos go to movies way more than other ethnic groups marketers have mostly failed at attracting Latino audiences to Latino films, en masse.

What’s been tried in the past?

There was a time in the eighties known as the “Hispanic Hollywood” when major studios distributed films like the smash hit La Bamba ($45 million), Born in East L.A. ($17 million), and Stand and Deliver ($14 million). For the first time they created bilingual marketing campaigns and even circulated film prints that were subtitled or dubbed in Spanish.

In the early nineties, studios moved away from grassroots campaigns and poured their money into English and Spanish-language television advertising. They also hoped for a few good reviews from newspaper critics to help raise a film’s visibility. Towards the late nineties, as it became apparent that Latino films were not likely to be box office hits distributors began to experiment with “hybrid films” that included multiethnic casts and targeted a general audience.

At the turn of the millennium, Latino and Latin American movies experienced a golden era in the States. Films like Frida, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Y Tu Mama Tambien, El Crimen de Padre Amaro, and City of God earned multiple Oscar nominations and millions at the box office. They achieved these numbers by not emphasizing the Latino elements of the films and targeting a more ethnically diverse audience including arthouse moviegoers. Despite the success of these films, a Latino box office slump quickly followed.

What do we do now?

What’s been tried in the past hasn’t worked, except for a few outliers. I personally think that the theatrical distribution of Latino films is a mistake. It is not a moneymaking venture. Yes, Latinos go to the movies a lot but these filmgoers are mostly young English-speaking Latinos who, up until now, have not shown interest in Latino films (in English or Spanish.) But, I do think there is way to make it work, to get Latinos to watch Latino films.

Let’s use what we know about this audience. Latinos watch movies more than other ethnic groups and they are the fastest growing group of internet users. The moviegoers are young, speak English as a first language, and use social media. They also watch a lot of television, in English and Spanish. Recently, the Spanish-language network Univision has been beating out NBC in primetime ratings for the key demographic of adults aged 18-49 (mostly because Latinos love novelas.) 

Independent Latino films can’t spend a bunch of money on T.V. ads, print advertising, or make multiple copies to circulate in theaters. So, what’s the magic formula? Maybe a small theatrical run (N.Y. and L.A.) for a weekend preceded by a big bilingual social media push and then followed by a V.O.D. release and online streaming. On demand screenings via Tugg might help build buzz too.

Obviously, it’s all a gamble. Who knows if it will work but I truly believe that the failure to attract Latinos to watch these films is a marketing issue. Talk to Latinos in their language (maybe Spanglish) via media channels that they use (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) and give them the option to watch the film on a small screen as soon as they hear about it. It’s worth a try!

P.S. If anyone wants to give me money to employ this distribution strategy, I gladly welcome it.

Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

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4 Comments

  • Mario | April 30, 2013 11:45 AMReply

    Great insight! That strategy won't work. Your strategy has missing pieces. Which means when not marketed correctly will create an additional loss. So then funding becomes even less likely in the future. Interesting point of view! Saludos

  • Sergio | April 26, 2013 3:58 PMReply

    When Persepolis cleared $23m+ on a $7.3m budget, it wasnt because it was marketed as a Persian/French animated film. It was because it was a great film that got a great viral push. American Me, Stand and Deliver, Zoot Suit and La Bamba were great films. Bless Me Ultima, Go For It and I imagine Filly Brown cannot hold the weight of the craft. Sorry to say but Jenni Rivera is just not as accomplished an actor as Rosanna DeSoto. I'd pay real money to watch Rosanna act the phone book and unfortunately, I wouldnt pay any money to watch Jenni act in anything. Id argue that its not the fame of the actor but rather the talent of the cast and crew that makes a film work.

  • Eddy Martinez | April 25, 2013 10:01 PMReply

    You guys have a talent for examining an issue and issuing solutions that seem obvious in retrospect. But I thought that these films from the 80's and 90's were legacies of identity politics that got their start in the sixties. I dont mean it as a bad thing, I would kill to see something that doesn't ply the same tired tropes like dozens of others. Could it be that the lack of explicitly Latin films is symptomatic of a climate where there is a sort of identity fatigue from the larger public? I mean, it seems after 9/11, we've been obsessed with showcasing our sameness. I'm probably completely wrong, but that's what it feels like.

  • Mauricio Alexander | April 25, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    I LOVE this strategy and I will gladly give you Juan and/or Vanessa someone else's money (I personally don't have enough) to hire you to employ this strategy when I have a budget and backing for our first feature film (will seek feedback :) ). I hope you're not joking. I'm not.

    I honestly don't have the kind of mind that enjoys thinking about how to 'get' people to go watch, listen and purchase what I write or produce whether it be music or film and television. Of course, this maybe why I'm poor and at the other end of a career compared to my colleagues currently 'making' it in Hollywood. However, I do know the difference between a great story and a great performance and a not so great story and not so great performance. And here is where it gets tricky. Deep inside all of us, I believe, we want to see ourselves and our fellow Latinos succeed tremendously, often regardless of whether the "product" is one of excellence or one that is not bad, but not amazing. After all we have experienced being marginalized for so long in a country where our heritage and our history rightly deserves to be honored and recognized. But, are we here in this country to succeed in selling record box office tickets or are we here in this country to succeed in making excellent films and storytelling? I don't think, for whatever reasons, they go hand in hand sometimes.

    The large diaspora of Latino men and women originating from over 20 countries in the world, with different primary languages, different regional experiences, different music and film influences makes me realize that it isn't about telling the "LATINO" story that attracts Latinos. There are dozens of Latino stories that do not always bring us under one roof. In the past year, I watched our friends/colleagues blow-up on the scene and loved and supported "Gun Hill Road", "America", "Go For It" and "Filly Brown", and I'm proud of their accomplishments. But, I grew up with Mexican and U.S. citizenship in a low-income all African-American neighborhood in D.C. in the 80's raised by a Peruvian-born family, went to an all white Quaker school and got college degrees (aside from music and theatre) in Soviet/East-European history and politics. So, none of the films I mentioned speak to my story that much, even though they all star Latino talent and are important stories from Latino culture in the United States (with the exception of Filly B, as hip-hop music is a part of my culture). So, why do I like these movies? Not because my idols and mentors star in/produced or directed them, but because they mostly tell a universal story. And I think that IS VERY important to try to sell to the Latino audience. A story that anybody from anywhere can empathize with, can put themselves in the characters' shoes, can say, "wow, that could be me or my friends or my family". I think this element is a more valid reason to creating a Latino Blockbuster (and we all should keep raising bar), and not because it is Latino-made or Latino-produced and therefore we should all go out and support or because some marketing campaign told me that this is the coolest film ever. I don't want my son to go see a mediocre Latino made film because he feels obligated to or to say it was a good film because criticizing it is blasphemous... I want him to go see Latino made films because everyone, black, white, latino, asian or green knows that that producer or director or that writer, or those actors and that STORY is the real Ish. The internet IS a amazing place to prove the value of a film, and we should also be listening carefully to how the next generation consumes stories to understand what makes a 'Blockbuster' a Blockbuster.

    I look forward to seeing us and our stories flood the US and world film markets online in a way that we don't have to beg or demand the people come watch, but instead the people gladly invite themselves to be a part of our experience.

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