Latin-themed pix compete for global tix

MIAMI – From the music megastores of American malls to the dance halls of Europe, Latin music never has been hotter as artists like Ricky Martin, Mana and Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club cross over into global markets with regularity. Can Latin-themed films do the same? From New Line Cinema to Columbia Pictures, Kushner-Locke to Warner Bros., a growing number of folks are betting it can.

New Line is in production on Carlos Avila’s $8 million “The Price of Glory,” a boxing drama starring Jimmy Smits and developed by Esparza/Katz Prods. New Line separately has a two-year production deal with veteran Chicano director Gregory Nava to make Hispanic pics in the $10 million range.

Columbia has made four Latin-themed films since 1997, including global hit “The Mask of Zorro,” and has sequels to both “Zorro” and Robert Rodriguez’s actioner “Desperado” in development. To date, admits motion picture group prexy Ken Lemberger, pics such as “Zorro” have sprung from individual choices rather than a concerted effort.

But now Col’s parent, Sony, anxious for synergies with its TV assets — from U.S. Hispanic broadcaster Telemundo to a slew of Latin American cablers — intends to formalize its commitment. Lemberger says, “There will be a Latin program and our intention is to start this year.”

Smaller players are in on the act, too. Fox Searchlight has greenlit the romance “Woman on Top,” directed by Venezuela’s Fina Torres and starring Spain’s Penelope Cruz. The pic is set to shoot in June.

Another Venezuelan helmer, Betty Kaplan, has inked with Miami-based Royal Pictures to shoot the $5 million music-themed drama “Calle Ocho,” which with multiple markets in mind will be made in distinct English and Spanish versions.

In April, Allied Entertainment pacted with Celozzi Prods. of Chicago on a three-pic co-prod deal. The films are budgeted at around $2 million each and two will be Latin-oriented.

In Cannes, Kushner-Locke will unveil “Mambo Cafe”” a comedy about a Puerto Rican family mixed up with the mob, that is planned as the first in a slate of Latin-themed pics in the $3 million range. The star is Mexican TV phenom Thalia, whose telenovelas have been hits from Turkey to Thailand, and K-L’s international topper D’Arcy Conrique says the actress’s rep helped “Mambo” cover 20% to 25% of its budget in foreign pre-sales.

“It caters more to U.S. Hispanics, but it’s made as a mainstream film, with Danny Aiello in the cast and comic elements that are not only comical to Latinos,” says Conrique. He adds that U.S. theater business is not essential to see the pic recoup costs.

There’s also a growing U.S. interest in handling product from Latin America. This year, perhaps for the first time ever, two Latino pics got Oscar noms: Walter Salles’ “Central Station” (Brazil) and Carlos Saura’s “Tango” (Argentina). Both saw respectable numbers in U.S. B.O., close to $6 million and $2 million, respectively. “Central” took a princely $15 million abroad, two-thirds of which came outside Brazil.

Upcoming are Wim Wenders’ Cuba-shot music docu “The Buena Vista Social Club,” which Artisan bows Stateside this summer; Warner’s “Orfeu,” a Brazilian retelling of “Black Orpheus” that opened locally in April; and two Brazilian co-prods from Sony, Bruno Barreto’s Amy Irving starrer “Bossa Nova” and soon-to-shoot kidpic “Castello Ra-Tin-Bum.”

Nava says the Latino-specific element of his deal with New Line makes it unprecedented in Hollywood. He says the films they develop will have “universal stories and crossover appeal,” and he reports that New Line reckons Latin-themed pics have a better shot at foreign markets than African-American films.

Crossover is what everyone is seeking for Latin-themed pics. Latinos rep 11% of U.S. ticket buyers (as many as African-Americans) and are a cinematically underserved demo — but rarely in Hollywood is that population considered big enough to carry a picture, despite the $35 million success of Nava’s 1997 biopic “Selena,” which was all but ignored by Anglos until it got to video. So producers hope instead that U.S. Latinos can provide a core audience for pictures that also embrace non-Hispanics.

But the formula for crossover success remains a mystery. For 12 years, Latin-themed pictures have been trying to live up to the promise of “La Bamba.” Luis Valdez’s biopic of 1950s rocker Richie Valens did $54 million in U.S. B.O. and around another $50 million overseas.

Since then, Latin-themed production in the U.S. has been sporadic, or only superficially Latino. “Zorro,” set in an era when California was part of Mexico, achieved global blockbuster status, but its three lead actors and its director were European (mostly Brits) and its script was old-time Hollywood.

“Zorro” embodied a Hollywood assumption that Latin-themed pics will strike gold if they make big cultural compromises — but that’s an argument Hispanic helmers strenuously resist. They say Sony hedged its bets on two other recent pics, “Dance With Me” and “Fools Rush In,” suffering at the box office as a result.

“Fools,” a romantic comedy starring Salma Hayek as a Mexican emigrant and Matthew Perry as her preppie suitor, was written as a story from the woman’s p.o.v. But Sony switched the focus to Perry’s character and threw in sight gags involving travel by donkey and other stereotypes. The pic did an OK $29 million.

In “Dance With Me,” another romancer, the studio tried to embrace not only Hispanics but African-Americans by pairing hot Puerto Rican singer Chayanne with Vanessa Williams. The combo was a no-no for many Latinos, whom marketers feel are not attracted to interracial pairings, and the pic limped to $16 million.

Can Hollywood rediscover the recipe that made “La Bamba” sizzle — a strong ethnic sensibility acceptable to Latinos and thematic appeal for everyone else? Using Latino directors would help, says helmer Laura Angelica Simon, who has romantic farce “Papi Chulo” in development at Fox 2000.

“Latin stories tend to lose their soul whenever they are directed by Anglo directors — with the exception of John Sayles (‘Lone Star’),” Simon says.

It’s also important to get the marketing right, says “Selena” producer Moctesuma Esparza. That’s one reason why Esparza is excited to be working with New Line production prez Mike de Luca on “The Price of Glory.”

“Mike learned how to market African-American films, as of about 10 years ago, and to position them so they crossed over,” Esparza says. “That bodes extremely well.”

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