Hollywood embraces Latin culture

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At Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network, TV projects in development include the secret world of maids in an upscale New York hotel and a series about a Chinese woman and a Mexican man who co-own a Mexican restaurant in Texas. And a pilot is scheduled to be shot in late March starring Sofia Vergara, a huge star from U.S. Spanish-language network Univision, as a sultry Mexican immigrant who marries an uptight Anglo to stay in the U.S. after her visa runs out.

All these projects reflect a growing Latinization of Hollywood as studios hire more Hispanic executives, consider a greater number of Latino-oriented films and TV shows and target Hispanics in their marketing.

Almost everyone who works in Latino entertainment marketing has a deck loaded in their laptops summarizing the Motion Picture Association of America's Hispanic data: Latino moviegoers buy tickets to 11 films a year; non-Hispanics go to nine. Latinos account for about 15% of movie studios' box office, and also rent more videocassettes and watch more TV than non-Hispanics.

time and effort

Last September, Warner Bros. Pictures hired Viviana Pendrill, a former ad exec who sold her Hispanic ad agency Casanova Pendrill to Interpublic Group of Cos. several years ago, as its first VP-targeted marketing.

"Right now that involves dedicating time and effort to the Hispanic market," she said. "Eventually it will include teenage and urban audiences, too." Parent company Warner Bros. Entertainment formed a U.S. Hispanic Council, bringing together senior executives from the theatrical, consumer products, home video and animation divisions. At the movie division, Ms. Pendrill is interviewing research companies to help Warner Bros. target its Hispanic efforts.

"It's less about making films in Spanish than how do we market our regular films, our blockbusters, to make sure they reach Hispanics," said Gilbert Davila, who joined Walt Disney Co. in May 2003 as the company's first VP-multicultural marketing. Family oriented movies and action films are the genres that most resonate with Hispanics, he said.

"The Alamo," a Disney film coming out in April with a Hispanic TV, print and radio campaign, offers a special opportunity to target Latinos, 70% of whom are of Mexican origin, by emphasizing that "The Alamo" film provides a balanced view of that Mexican-American conflict.

Disney's biggest Hispanic commitment is the 24-hour Spanish-language sports channel ESPN Deportes, launched Jan. 7, 2004. To boost awareness of the channel and integrate it with the general market channels, ESPN2 carried the Spanish-language version of Sports Center for a week.

"Studios used to spend $200,000 per movie [for Hispanic marketing]," said Luis Balaguer, president of Miami-based Latin World Entertainment. "In the last year that's jumped to $800,000 or more. Studios saw the results."

Entertainment marketers outside Hollywood are eyeing Hispanics, too. Mexican media group Televisa, the world's largest producer of Spanish-language content, just finished its first English-language movie targeting the U.S. Hispanic market. Opening May 13, "A Day without Mexicans" mixes fiction with reality to show what life would be like in the U.S. if all the Mexicans whose labor Americans rely on suddenly vanished.

`havana nights'

"It's a comedy, but it will open the eyes of many people," said Mr. Balaguer, whose Latin World Entertainment worked with Televisa on the film in a joint venture called Televisa Cine U.S.A. A humorous ad campaign will start in both the Hispanic and general market about three weeks before the film's opening on the West Coast, he said. And in future projects, Televisa will keep the U.S. Hispanic market in mind as well as Mexico, Mr. Balaguer said.

This week Lions Gate Entertainment starts its biggest-ever Hispanic campaign, for the Feb. 27 opening of "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," described by the studio as a "re-imagination" of the 1987 "Dirty Dancing" film set in a Catskills resort. The new movie happens in steamy pre-revolution Cuba, where a privileged but awkward American teenager learns sensual Latin dancing from a Havana waiter.

"It's a very mainstream picture but we're making a concerted effort to get Hispanic audiences to see it," said Tom Ortenberg, Lions Gate's president. The company is doing online promotions with AOL Latino and Terra Lycos, a dance contest with Latina magazine and Spanish-language spots on Univision, Telemundo and on cable TV and radio.

In an ambitious melding of Hispanic and American culture, director James L. Brooks is filming a romantic comedy for Columbia Pictures called "Spanglish" about a Mexican woman and her daughter who become entangled with an American couple played by Adam Sandler and Tea Leoni.

"It's a metaphor for the collision of languages and cultures," said co-producer Christy Haubegger, the former publisher of Latina who last year joined Creative Artists Agency. "If `Spanglish' is big, there are a lot of projects on the back burner in development at the studios."

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