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WB betting on appeal of ‘Selena’

Will Warner Bros.’ biopic “Selena” do for Latino films what “Waiting to Exhale” did for black films?

While Latinos account for more than 10% of the U.S. population (compared with 12% for blacks), very few Hollywood releases have specifically targeted Hispanic auds.

Latino-oriented films that have seen the light of day have tended to be gritty dramas focusing on the harsh realities of ghetto life, such as “Zoot Suit,” “American Me,” “Stand and Deliver” and “Mi Familia/My Family” by “Selena” helmer Gregory Nava. Domestic grosses for these films have typically been well below $20 million.

But just as the female perspective of “Waiting to Exhale” marked a departure from young male-oriented urban action films, some observers believe “Selena” has the potential to appeal to a broader audience than its predecessors.

In the film, which opens Friday, Jennifer Lopez plays the hugely popular Tejano singer Selena, who was murdered in 1995 at the age of 23.

“Selena’s legacy is something that the entire Latino community feels a sense of ownership toward,” says Christy Haubegger, publisher and founder of the recently launched Latina Magazine.

Selena’s last album, “Amor Prohibido,” featuring songs in both Spanish and English, sold more than 3 million copies.

WB execs are hoping that in addition to Latino families, the film will cross over to young girls in all ethnic groups. “It’s too early to say how strong that segment will be, but it looks promising,” says WB prez of distribution Barry Reardon. “We believe young girls could be buying this in a pretty strong way.”

The company is using a two-pronged approach to marketing, says Lynn Whitney, VP of worldwide media. “There is a complete Spanish-language campaign with print, network and spot ads. But there’s also a separate campaign aimed at a broad crossover audience. I’m targeting Latinos first and foremost, but I’ve gone 10 steps beyond that.”

Whitney also notes that targeting Latinos doesn’t just mean advertising on Spanish-language shows. ” ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Moesha’ actually have extremely high Hispanic viewership,” she says. “There will even be a ‘Friends’ spot.”

Latinos represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, expanding at many times the rate of the overall population. By the year 2010, it is projected there will be more Latinos than blacks in the U.S. In the border states, Latinos are already a potent political and economic force.

So why doesn’t Hollywood pay more attention to this key segment of the population?

Power vacuum

It may simply be a function of the absence of Hispanics in positions of power in the movie industry. But black-oriented films have been a staple of Hollywood since the early ’70s, even though there are only a handful of black studio execs.

Some studio honchos defend the policy privately, saying that films with Latino themes don’t attract their core audiences in the same proportion that black-themed films do.

“Basically, Latinos want to see what everybody else is seeing,” one veteran distribution exec contends.

While Haubegger agrees that Latinos want to see films with mainstream storylines, the Texas native says Hollywood could go much further toward depicting the diverse realities of Latino life. “I’m a lawyer. A lot of my friends are lawyers. Yet I’ve never seen a Hispanic lawyer in a movie. There are 1 million Hispanic households with incomes of over $50,000. How come we never see them?”

Latino audiences have contributed to the moderate success of Columbia’s current “Fools Rush In,” which stars Matthew Perry and Mexican-born Salma Hayek, and has grossed more than $27 million to date.

Bilingual release

At select multiplexes, in markets with large Hispanic populations, the film was shown in two versions: one with Spanish subtitles and one without. Warner Bros. plans a similar approach for “Selena,” with about 50 sites playing both subtitled and non-subtitled versions of the film.

As of last week, market research indicated relatively little national awareness and only weak interest in “Selena.” Surveys from National Research Group showed a 51% awareness level, with only 1% of the sample rating the film as their first choice for the weekend, compared with an 88% awareness and 11% first choice for Universal’s “Liar Liar.”

But those numbers may prove misleading. For one thing, the surveys were done before WB did most of its TV advertising. Also, conventional market research techniques are notoriously unreliable when it comes to niche audience segments such as teens, blacks and Latinos.

The makers of “Selena” can also take heart in box office history: By far the most successful film to date focusing on a Latino character was Columbia’s Ritchie Valens biopic “La Bamba,” another story about a musical star who met an untimely death. “La Bamba” grossed $54 million domestically after its release in 1987, with Latinos accounting for a significant portion of ticket sales.

Latina’s Haubegger believes that if “Selena” is a commercial success, Hollywood will reconsider its policies towards the Latino market. “It’s sort of an unfair burden to place on this film, but if it does well, it’s certainly going to open a lot of doors.”

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