Timing could finally be right for U.S. niche distribs

HOLLYWOOD — This may finally be the year Latino-themed pics get significant theatrical play in the U.S.

At least two major Los Angeles-based distribs, one new and the other not so new, aim to go down a path few have tried and none has mastered: to provide a steady stream of Latino-themed product to U.S. cinemas.

Their principal target market is the bilingual urban Latino, the most avid moviegoing segment in the U.S.

Newcomer Televisa Cine has pulled out all the stops in the ad campaign for its debut pic, Sergio Arau’s “A Day Without a Mexican,” using billboards, television, radio, press and a provocative teaser campaign to attract auds. Shot mainly in English, the satire opens May 14 on some 100 screens in Southern California, the first step in a platformed release strategy.

“We’re planning to release two or three more titles this year and ramp up our release schedule to six to eight films a year,” says general sales manager Mike Doban.

“Our advantage is that as seasoned producers, we can guarantee a continuous supply of product,” adds Televisa Cine CEO Eckehardt von Damm.

“Televisa Cine has been involved in half the films made in Mexico, either as producers or distributors,” he notes.

He also points to the benefits of its commercial airtime accord with leading U.S. Hispanic net Univision (in which parent company Grupo Televisa is a minority shareholder) and the raft of magazine titles published by Miami-based Televisa Editorial.

L.A.-based marketing and talent rep org Arenas Entertainment launched a distribution effort with Franc Reyes’ “Empire” in 2002. Back then, however, it had a co-production and distribution deal with Universal Pictures, which released the gritty urban drama on nearly 900 screens. Starring John Leguizamo, “Empire” grossed a robust $18 million.

Without the heft of a studio behind it now, Arenas will likely play a more cautious game. Its first release, targeted for an early summer debut on an estimated 100 screens, is dark comedy “Nicotina,” starring Diego Luna.

Other pics on its release slate are Christopher Hampton’s “Imagining Argentina,” co-produced with Myriad Pictures, and Salvador Carrasco’s Aztec drama “The Other Conquest.” The latter was released only in Los Angeles in 2000, garnering positive reviews and nearly $1 million in box office.

Key to these companies’ strategy is a marketing push for pics in both English and Spanish. Given the results of a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, that is a sensible move.

The research points out that 94% of U.S. Hispanics speak English at home and 96% of U.S.-born Hispanics, the fastest growing Hispanic segment, speak mostly English or consider themselves bilingual.

In 2000, the short-lived distrib Latin Universe was sharply criticized for putting out ads solely in Spanish and only in the Spanish media for its first release, Alejandro Springall’s “Santitos.” The company folded soon after this misstep.

Miami-based Venevision Intl. has been distributing Latino pics on a smaller scale, having released nine such films on the commercial circuit since 2002.

Its highest-grossing pic, Peruvian comedy “Pantaleon y los visitadores” grossed $500,000 where it opened on 26 screens in L.A. before moving on to other key markets on a rotating basis.

“Any player who contributes to the success of this emerging market will help towards our success, too,” says Venevision’s marketing & entertainment chief, Jose Antonio Espinal.

For now, it is in talks for three theatrical releases this year, but it continues to distribute an annual average of 70 titles across all windows. Parent company Grupo Cisneros is also a shareholder in Univision. “Mind you, we’re also up against the classics divisions of studios and indies who grab the best product,” adds film head Julio Noriega.

“We would like to acquire and release all Latin movies that will have a broad appeal to Latin audiences in the U.S. Whether we find one or nine a year, we would release as many as we feel meet our criteria,” says Peter Goldwyn, director of acquisitions at Samuel Goldwyn Co.

The indie, while not dedicated to Latino product, has released some of the more successful Latino titles in the U.S., “El Crimen del Padre Amaro” ($5.7 million), “Raising Victor Vargas” ($2.2 million) and “Tortilla Soup” ($4.5 million).

Meanwhile, Miramax kicked off the platformed release of coming-of-age Argentine drama “Valentin,” May 7 at two of the best cinemas in the U.S.: Gotham’s Paris Theater and Hollywood’s The Grove.

“I honestly think there is room for 20 Latino movies a year,” says Doban. “As long as they’re good and fresh.”

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