Hollywood Chases the Latino Buck
As recently as the early '80s, there were roughly 750 full-time Spanish language movie houses in the United States and another 250 showing Spanish-language films part time. Then the Mexican film industry-for years the world's primary purveyor of Spanish-language films-collapsed, the victim of its own arrogance and of competition from Hollywood. Today, few if any of those Spanish-language cinemas remain, leaving the huge and culturally evolving market that was once served by the Mexican film industry to an English-speaking Hollywood. It's a virtual gift that the movie-making moguls there don't know how to unwrap. "I believe there is a niche market that we hope to be able to serve and grow," says Chuck Viane, senior vice president for distribution at Disney's Buena Vista Pictures, "but it is a work-in-progress, one that will take place over the next 10 years." "The Mexican film industry is dead," says Kit Parker, a partner in New Latin Pictures, a company currently trying to tap into the large Spanish-speaking market. "But there is still market potential. Last year my partner and I released a Spanish language film, Nueba Yol and when we opened, it had the number one screen average of any picture in the country."Over the past year, Salinas theaters have seen several major-studio releases dubbed or subtitled in Spanish, including Selena (a film which played well with Hispanic audiences), Fools Rush In (a film which didn't play well with any audiences) and most recently, Disney's animated film, Hercules, which is playing well with kids of every linguistic background. To get a feel for the kind of demand out there for Spanish language films, consider Hercules' opening weekend grosses. According to Shannon Reagan of Century Theaters in San Francisco, the firm that books films for both the Northridge and Century Park cinemas in Salinas, Hercules' debut in Spanish made $2,000 over the weekend, while the English version playing at the same location drew roughly $20,000, or 10 times the business. "In the Salinas area, films with Spanish subtitles do pretty well, actually, but they don't do nearly as well as the un-subtitled partners," says Reagan, who adds that the popularity of Spanish language films is unpredictable. "With Hercules, the Salinas print did okay. But every other Spanish-dubbed print we dumped on Wednesday [following opening weekend]. In Sacramento, the dubbed Hercules did a whole $532 over the weekend and Sacramento has a large Latino population and is a huge movie-going town." Lawrence Martin, an exhibiting producer and also a partner with Parker in New Latin Pictures, says Disney's decision to release Hercules in Spanish does not signify a trend. In fact, he's seen it all before. "This Hercules thing is nothing new. Bambi was dubbed, Snow White was dubbed as were most of the older animated features," says Martin. "They discover the Spanish language market and then it subsides."To a certain extent, whether the films are dubbed or not, Spanish-speaking audiences-in Mexico and the United States-seem to prefer American-made movies over those formerly produced in Mexico, which is the primary reason the Mexican film industry no longer exists. "The Mexican film industry couldn't stand on its own two feet because it didn't make movies that could stand up to the competition," says Martin. But, it wasn't always that way. Between 1906 and the present, the Mexican industry turned out literally thousands of films, and produced many stars that went on to make it big north of the border, including Dolores Del Rio and Lup Velez (who drowned in a toilet, but that's another story). "During the '30s and '40s, the quality films in Spanish were almost all made in Mexico and they were very good," says Parker. "The quality was just about on par with American productions. But by the '70s, the people making Mexican films worked under a government subsidy and they didn't see the need for change. They were making a lot of money making junk while in the United States, we were making things like Star Wars. Finally the disparity between the American and Spanish language films became so great that they killed the business." "In the '70s and '80s, the Mexican film industry began to produce R-rated-type pictures and sexy comedies that basically drove the family from the cinema," says Martin. "It left basically an all male audience coming to see the films." Another contributing factor in the decline of Spanish-language cinema is the fact that Latinos in America are American, not Mexican, and while they may speak Spanish, they are about as culturally connected to the Mexico City as an American WASP is to London."As every immigrant population comes in, they assimilate to a certain extent," says Martin. "Just because they keep the language, doesn't mean they keep the culture. At a certain point, these pictures are not Latin pictures, but American pictures about a certain segment of our society." Hence the mega-hit La Bamba and the less successful Selena, both very American movies produced by major studios about Americans-Americans with Hispanic surnames.But as for Mexican movies set in Mexico playing well in America, forget it. "Mexican movies? Probably not," says Reagan when asked about the viability of Mexican films in the market today. "I'm sure some places in LA do show them, but that's a whole different circuit." So it is left to famously liberal Hollywood to show brown American faces on the screen in positive settings that appeal to a famously family-oriented segment of society."I do not believe that Hollywood understands the market," says Parker. "They continue to make films like Mi Familia and The Perez Family and those types, thinking it is for a Spanish-speaking audience. But it is actually what gringos think it should be like."In bottom line Hollywood, it remains uncertain whether anyone will spend the time or money to learn more about this growing segment of society. "What you are seeing recently is a smattering of Latino-based pictures," says Martin. "It dies down and comes back. I think it will always be around. But to truly make a go of it, it is going to take one of the major companies to say 'we are going into this market on a full-time basis and make a go of it.' Personally, though, I think it will always remain on the fringes."