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’95 a watershed for Latinos in H’wood

With three Hollywood studios opening Latin-themed pix this year, and a fourth pic helmed by a Latin filmmaker, 1995 could go down in history as the year Hispanic cinema finally broke through to the mainstream.

Alfonso Arau’s “A Walk in the Clouds” from Fox, Robert Rodriguez’s “El Pistolero” (the sequel to his “El Mariachi”) from Columbia and Gregory Nava’s “My Family” from New Line present a strong menu for Latin fare that could well determine the immediate future of such projects in Hollywood. And Warners’ “The Little Princess” from director Alfonso Cuaron shows that Latin talent is being utilized on projects without a Latin cultural link – just a need for first-rate filmmakers.

What began for Latinos with the success of an art film – Arau’s 1992 “Like Water for Chocolate,” the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. history – has now broken through to the mainstream with studio pix by and about Latinos.

Says Arau: “‘Like Water for Chocolate’ was a miracle that opened doors for all the culture of Latin America. The studios began to be interested in this culture. I’m happy to be the liaison between the Hollywood system and this world market of 450 million Spanish-speaking people.”

Opening April 14, “A Walk in the Clouds” is a World War II period romance about a well-to-do Mexican-American family that owns a vineyard in Napa Valley. The pic stars the red-hot Keanu Reeves and a cast of actors from Spain, Italy, Mexico and various Latin American countries who display the breadth of talent available to Latinate directors.

For Arau, a former actor (“The Wild Bunch,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Three Amigos”) and indie director who made only seven films in 25 years due to the difficulty of raising coin, working with a major studio like Fox on a budget of $21 million is a whole new world. Part of the budget went toward Fox’s buying rights to the pic, first developed at Columbia under Arau’s 7th Dimension banner.

The helmer observes that while the experience was positive, “I had to learn to make a movie with more money – the procedures and rules.” Though unused to what he calls the “dialectic game of consultation” involved in dealing with a studio, Arau says, “I made the film I wanted to make.” He credits producer Jerry Zucker (“Ghost”) with giving him total freedom.

“I wanted to make a commercial movie, but done in a classy, artistic way. We poured a lot of love into it,” Arau says.

“My Family” was directed by Nava and co-written and produced by his wife, Anna Thomas. The two also made the acclaimed “El Norte.” The film is an immigrant family epic of the Sanchez clan with a star-studded ensemble cast, including Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos.

“Our community has to show its commercial impact,” says Nava, “as well as the crossover appeal of its films. Our world is a rich, vibrant world; the music, the talent is tremendous. I think we’re capable of revitalizing American culture. Our literature is extraordinary – we have 100 years of stories to catch up on.”

Chris Pula, marketing prexy for New Line, says, “Now is a wonderful time to be marketing to the Latino market; radio and TV stations deliver so strongly to that market.”

Pula says with “My Family’s” $5 million budget, if even a quarter of the 30 million Latinos in the U.S. see it, the producers will recoup their cost. Additionally, New Line feels the film’s universal theme of the immigrant experience, expressed in the Sanchez family saga, will pull in a big crossover audience.

One of the biggest sensations of any low-budget indie in recent years was the now legendary “El Mariachi,” made by Austin, Texas, native Robert Rodriguez for $7,000.

Rodriguez says with “El Pistolero,” which stars Antonio Banderas as a mariachi in pursuit of a drug ring, he “made a $30 (million) or $40 million action picture for $8 million. We shot it in seven weeks, all first unit – explosions, action, everything.”

Rodriguez, who had a hand in Steadicam and conventional camera operation, as well as writing, directing and editing, obviously isn’t letting the studio system stand in the way of his whirling dervish filmmaking style.

The helmer, who shot both pix in Mexican border towns, says “El Mariachi” showed that Latino filmmakers should just go out and make their own movies. “Our movies can be universal, but with a Latin flavor. A well-made movie will appeal to all kinds of people; people are looking for something different.”

Rodriguez and Banderas also teamed for one part of “Four Rooms,” which features segments directed by Tarantino, Alison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell. Both films open in August.

Other upcoming Latino-themed pix include Goldwyn’s “The Perez Family,” starring Marisa Tomei, and “Steal Big/Steal Little,” the latest by Andrew Davis, director of “The Fugitive.” “Steal Big,” lensing in Santa Barbara, headlines Andy Garcia in the dual roles of two brothers.

Of the new atmosphere for Latin filmmakers in the U.S., Mexican helmer Alfonso Cuaron, now wrapping “The Little Princess” for Mark Johnson’s Baltimore Pictures at Warner Bros., says, “Something is happening for us, something nice, something exciting.”

Perhaps nothing speaks as eloquently of the advances made by Latino filmmakers in mainstream Hollywood as the “Little Princess” project. According to Cuaron, known primarily for directing the Mexican art film “Love in the Time of Hysteria,” “Princess,” based on the classic children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, boasts a creative team that includes four of Mexico’s top film artisans. The cinematography is by Emmanuel Lubezki, the sound mixer is Jose Antonio Garcia and the title designs are by Gonzalo Garcia.

“This brings a new responsibility for Latin filmmakers to develop stories with a universal theme,” says Cuaron, who recalls that Johnson at first “wondered why I wanted to work with the material.

“I think all directors are the same. When you read a script, even if it has problems, if you understand the material and are drawn to it, you know it. By page 17, I knew I had to do it.” In the film biz of the ’90s, a Mexican filmmaker can tackle a Euro-localed story for a Hollywood studio. And that’s good news for audiences craving new views of the world and the filmmaking process.

Additional reporting by Steven Gaydos.

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