Spotlight: Mexico 2012

There’s been a sea change in the U.S. Latino market, and key players on both sides of the Rio Grande have been shifting their strategies to face it.

Recent census data have shown that Hispanics are the fastest-growing and largest minority group in the U.S. — 50.5 million and counting — and have found that a big chunk of this ethnic group consists of acculturated, bilingual or even non-Spanish speaking individuals.

They’re considered the “new mainstream,” but the secret to tapping this market remains elusive.

The consensus is that U.S. Hispanics are underserved in terms of pics that depict their lives despite being the most avid moviegoers in the country.

A handful of film companies, some straddling Mexico and the U.S., have been exploring the gamut of genres and language combinations to reach this lucrative market. The results have been middling so far, with few breakout hits.

Upcoming pics aimed at this far-from-homogenous market range from a Spanish-language comedy with a Spanish-speaking Will Ferrell in Nala Films’ “Casa de mi padre” to bilingual $10 million biopic “Chavez” from Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna’s Canana Films and Pantelion’s mainly English-language coming-of-age pic “Girl in Progress” with Eva Mendes and Matthew Modine.

A joint venture between Lionsgate and Mexican media conglom Televisa, Pantelion discovered that it didn’t work to just release its pics in all neighborhoods — the company had to take into account the various nationalities comprising the Latino market.

“We realized we needed to do more strategic targeting,” says Pantelion CEO Paul Presburger. To transcend the diversity and linguistic nuances of multiple Latino nationalities, Pantelion aims to produce and release more Latino-themed pics in the English language.

“It’s not a market that we can open by simply looking at people of Latino origin,” says Mexican producer Alex Garcia, a partner at Lemon Films and Nala Films, both run by great-grandsons of Televisa’s late founder Emilio (El Tigre) Azcarraga Milmo.

One of the busiest dealmakers coming out of Latin America today, Garcia will likely be offering production services for a couple of U.S. projects in the region this year. Garcia also owns stakes in Argentina’s Costa Films, 11:11 Films in Colombia and Mexican toon house Anima Estudios.

The complexity of the market has led to some identity issues. “We don’t want to do these movies that are by Latinos for Latinos. We want to make movies by Latinos for everybody,” says Fernando Rovzar, who founded Lemon Films with his brother, Billy. Both are in their 30s.

“The added value that we can bring to the table is that we can find these stories from Mexico, from Latin America,” says Rovzar, who shuttles between Mexico and the U.S.

Coming up for Lemon Films is “El charro misterioso” (The Mysterious Cowboy), based on the real-life account of a Mexican outlaw in the 1970s who robbed banks to fund his career as a mariachi.

“We’d rather not be labeled a Latino company, but be known as one that finances and produces good stories that are commercial, ” says Darlene Caamano, prexy and COO of L.A.-based Nala Films.

“Casa de mi padre” is in fact the first Spanish-language pic from Nala, which has backed such productions as “In the Valley of Elah” and “Dan in Real Life” and even a doc about spiritualist Deepak Chopra, “Decoding Deepak.” Nala is in talks with Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez Prods. and “Casa de mi padre” helmer Matt Piedmont for another pic.

Nala Films is the film arm of Nala Investments, run by chairman and founder Emilio Diez Barroso, 36, who manages a diverse portfolio comprised of multiple investment asset classes in the U.S. and Latin America. He sat on the board of Summit Entertainment where he made an initial equity investment of $10 million and has since reaped the benefits of Summit’s sale to Lionsgate.

Ultimately, “it’s not language but a good story that matters,” says L.A.-based Maya Entertainment topper Jeff Valdez, wryly adding: “Latinos are not just about telenovelas and soccer.”

Canana Films, run by producer Pablo Cruz, opened an L.A. base in August and hopes to replicate its success and experience in Mexico to develop film and TV series in the U.S. Canana has chosen a biopic of iconic Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez to kickstart its U.S. efforts. Now in pre-production, “Chavez” will be helmed by Diego Luna, who makes this his second feature after “Abel.”

Like the rest of Hollywood, these companies are facing a slowdown in the U.S. theatrical market and a moribund homevideo biz.

Canana Films was the first Mexican indie to strike a deal with iTunes and Netflix in Latin America.

“With the theatrical market waning and technology advances moving so fast, we’re all on a learning curve,” says Cruz. “We’re positioning ourselves as the prime purveyor of content in the market.”

Maya is now undergoing a reorganization with a shift towards VOD. It has downsized its home entertainment division but will continue to produce films and release some theatrically on a case-by-case basis.

Pantelion will release approximately eight pics in 2012 compared to six last year. Some may go straight to video or VOD and subscription VOD through Netflix this year, says Presburger.

But what this market needs is a genuine hit. Expectations are high for “Casa de mi padre,” which Pantelion acquired and plans a March 16 platform release on an initial 350 to 400 screens.

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