Latino film a hit, but other releases fade in U.S.

Mexican director Patricia Riggen’s debut feature film, “La misma luna,” had the highest-grossing opening ever for a Spanish-language film in the United States, taking $2.6 million its first weekend last March. Released by Fox Searchlight as “Under the Same Moon,” with English subtitles, it played to both Latino and arthouse auds and took in $12.3 million to make it the country’s third-top-grossing Mexican import.

A special achievement winner at this year’s Alma Awards, “La misma luna” is that rare critical and commercial success story. The tale of a Mexican child who wishes to reunite with his immigrant mother in Los Angeles “humanizes immigration, an issue that is unfortunately too often dehumanized by the media,” says Lisa Navarrete, a VP at the National Council of La Raza, which hands out the Almas.

“La misma luna” is the only Spanish-language film among this year’s Alma nominees for top films, but that may change as major Hollywood studios show cautious though increased interest in the growing U.S. Latino market.

Lionsgate, the studio behind such moderate box office performers as “La mujer de mi hermano” ($2.8 million) and “Ladron que roba ladron” ($4 million), has in place distribution deals with Mexican powerhouse Televisa and independent Xenon Pictures that may bring new Spanish-language product to U.S. theaters. And last year, MGM signed a deal with Mexican actress Salma Hayek and partner Jose Tamez, whose Ventanazul shingle looks to produce two to four Latino-themed films a year.

U.S. Latinos are huge film consumers (an average of eight films a year, compared with 7.1 for non-Hispanic Caucasians, according to the MPAA), yet they prefer mainstream Hollywood fare. It’s a marketing paradox that confounds studio executives.

“We haven’t figured that out,” admits Stephen Housden, CEO of Los Angeles-based Xenon, whose 2007 release of the Mexican film “7 dias” took in less than $17,000 at the box office, in spite of the fact that it featured Jaime Camil, star of one of the highest-rated telenovelas to air on Univision, “La fea mas bella” — the Mexican version of Colombia’s megahit that also begat Hayek’s American version, “Ugly Betty.”

“There’s a disconnect between what distributors think and what audiences think,” Housden says. “What we learned from ‘7 dias’ is that it’s hard.”

While blockbusters like the 2006 “Pan’s Labyrinth” (at $37.6 million, the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever in the U.S.) are a rarity, there’s a lesson to be learned from the success of “La misma luna.”

The film “exemplifies how there’s a Latino market waiting to be tapped,” says independent producer Ignacio Darnaude, whose credits includes “Ladies Night,” one of the top-grossing films in Mexican history. The American success of “La misma luna,” he says, “came from a ‘perfect storm’ of eight key elements, which all fell into place.”

The film “premiered to great acclaim and a record purchase price at Sundance (for a Spanish-language film), which immediately put it on Hollywood’s radar, and got good reviews, some of which emphasized the strong family theme,” Darnaude says. He adds that the film had a Latino family-friendly Easter release date, it was released concurrently in the U.S. and Mexico to minimize piracy, and it banked on the appeal of its two stars (Kate del Castillo and TV comedian Eugenio Derbez in a rare but accomplished dramatic turn).

Darnaude also praises the studio’s marketing campaign, first aimed at the Latino audience in Spanish and then at the arthouse crowd in English. Finally, “the good word of mouth sealed the deal,” he says.

Preferred language

While some Spanish is spoken in all five Alma film nominees, each tells a Latino story in English, the preferred language of second- and third-generation Latino immigrants.

The five nominees are different in style and subject matter: the pro-life love story “Bella,” the action-packed gang movie “Illegal Tender,” the Hector Lavoe biopic “El Cantante,” the screen adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Tortilla Heaven,” about a miracle in a small New Mexico town. With differing box office success, each attempts to appeal to Latino (and non-Latino) audiences in English.

That’s the language of choice as well for Los Angeles-based Maya Releasing, a division of Moctesuma Esparza’s Maya Entertainment. In 2006 Esparza named former Si TV CEO and chairman Jeff Valdez as company co-chair, hoping to tap on his expertise with the young, bilingual U.S. Latino market.

But while Maya has been unable to reach the market with an announced slate of English-language films, it has secured U.S. distribution for two films with buzz: Gang pic “Talento de barrio” marks the acting debut of reggaeton superstar Daddy Yankee, while the futuristic “Sleep Dealer” was well received at this year’s Sundance.

Both films are slated for release this year and both are mostly in Spanish.

TIP SHEET

What: Alma Awards

Where: Pasadena Civic Center

When: Sunday

Telecast: ABC, Sept. 12, 8 p.m. EST/PST

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