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

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This article has been republished from IndieWire, with the permission of our resident film writer Vanessa Erazos.

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.