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Captivating their Audience

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Impressed by the financial success of films such as Frida and A Day Without a Mexican, a growing number of U.S. production companies and distributors are gearing their efforts toward English-speaking Hispanics.

The potential market is enormous: The nation's largest and fastest-growing minority makes up 40 percent of opening-weekend moviegoers, according to Arenas Entertainment, a leading Hispanic film producer and distributor in Los Angeles.

More attractive still is the market's high proportion of English-speaking youth. Independent film companies believe they can target this segment of the Hispanic audience without losing the mainstream market.

"We found that 55 percent, almost 60 percent, of what is considered the Hispanic market consumes American TV in English. That's a huge number because, in the end, that's the young audience and the audience that really carries the money," says Alvaro Garnica, film division director at Plural Entertainment, a Miami-based entertainment production subsidiary of Spanish media giant Prisa.

No industry-wide consensus exists on the best way to reach Hispanic moviegoers: Major studios typically rely on stars such as Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek to attract Hispanics or target them with special advertising campaigns. But smaller production companies are also becoming more confident about making films for English-speaking Hispanics.

"You have a lot more filmmakers [using] Latin themes or Latin ties, but the movie's done in English. You see more of a crossover," says Alberto Pérez de la Mesa, director of Hispanic acquisitions for Maverick Films, a Toronto-based independent film production company that recently began producing English-language movies for U.S. Hispanics.

Several recent movies have tapped some of the Hispanic market's potential with English-language productions. Frida, a 2002 Miramax film based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, earned more than $25 million in U.S. box offices, according to industry estimates. It cost $12 million to make.

And this year, the independently produced A Day Without a Mexican, which ponders what would happen if Mexican workers suddenly disappeared from California, took in $3.5 million – more than twice what it cost to make – after showing only in Texas and California.

There have been costly missteps as well, such as Chasing Papi. Studded with Hispanic actors and produced and distributed by Fox, the project was touted as a landmark crossover film before it opened in 2003. Made in English but advertised largely in Spanish-language media, Chasing Papi grossed a disappointing $6.1 million at the box office (Fox has not released the project's production costs).

"To be quite honest, Hollywood is still in a learning curve," says Mike Doban, general sales manager for Televisa Cine, which distributed A Day Without a Mexican.

That's not necessarily true for independent production companies that see the Hispanic audience as their niche. Arenas Entertainment, which started 15 years ago as an advertising agency specializing in marketing major studio films to U.S. Hispanics, now makes and distributes films to the Hispanic market. With more than $20 million in venture-capital financing, Arenas hopes to build upon its reputation as a savvy independent studio, bringing movies with budgets of up to $5 million to the Hispanic market. (See "Turning the Silver Screen Gold," Hispanic Business, March 2004).

Smaller production companies such as Maverick are looking for a smaller slice of the same pie. The company launched seven years ago, creating films mainly for the African-American market. Two years ago it began buying and producing small-budget Hispanic films. Since then, Maverick's new Fusion division has made three English-language films for Hispanic audiences, one of which – Señorita Justice – has been sold for distribution.

"[Fusion films] have a Hispanic tie," Mr. Pérez de la Mesa says, "but we could go out and distribute them on a broader basis – on a more massive deal basis – knowing that, in the worst case, at least we're going to hit the Hispanic segment."

Samuel Goldwyn Films, a large independent film production and distribution company, also makes and buys English-language films that contain Hispanic themes. For these, the studio places most of the film's advertising with Spanish-language media, then hopes that movie critics will raise awareness among the U.S. "specialty market" of foreign-film connoisseurs, which president Meyer Gottlieb considers the second target audience for such films.

The most successful of Samuel Goldwyn's English-language Hispanic films was Tortilla Soup, released in 2001. It explores the relationship between a widowed Mexican-American chef and his three daughters. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn at a cost of $654,000, the movie took in $4.5 million at the box office.

Rocio Prado Kissling

"The bottom line is we try to bring an emotional bond. Just like they do in the general market, we do it to the Hispanic market," says Rocio Prado-Kissling, partner at Latin World Entertainment, a specialty advertising and talent agency in Los Angeles.

"There is an effort on our part to find more film projects that should be of interest, culturally at least, to the Hispanic audience," he says.

Plural Entertainment's strategy for reaching Hispanic moviegoers has a twist. Hoping to attract second- and third-generation Hispanics, the company plans to create more films with dialogue in English and Spanish, as it did in co-producing A Day Without a Mexican.

Major Hollywood studios, aware that English-speaking Hispanics will pay to watch a quality film regardless of whether it deals with a Hispanic topic, continue to try to make a connection by casting big-name actors. But beyond that, big studios also are turning to specialty advertising companies to make a connection with Hispanics.

Latin World Entertainment, an advertising and talent agency in Los Angeles, is contracted by major studios to publicize the Hispanic angle in mainstream movies. When Universal hired the firm to market its new Ray Charles film to Hispanics, the company decided to play up Charles' work with Hispanic musician Poncho Sanchez, Partner Rocio Prado-Kissling says.

"The bottom line is, we try to bring an emotional bond," Ms. Prado says. "Just like they do in the general market, we do it to the Hispanic market."

Check out coming attractions aimed at Hispanic moviegoers>>>

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