GUADALAJARA – Not all films made by an international company swing by the White House before their world premiere in the U.S.
Lead-produced by Mexico’s Canana Films, “Cesar Chavez” is one exception. The brief pre-screening introduction by President Obama on Wednesday to an audience including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, is just one highlight of an exceptional release strategy.
Releasing SXSW Audience Award winner “Cesar Chavez,” Diego Luna’s film about a man who changed history, producer Canana, distributor Pantelion Films and co-financier Participant Media want to do a little bit to change history as well.
“We haven’t handled ‘Cesar Chavez’ like an ordinary campaign. Right from the get-go, we knew we had to run the full campaign almost as a political campaign, do it from a grassroots basis, get organizations involved which spoke to the film’s audience and treat ‘Cesar Chavez’ as a movement picture,” Pantelion Films CEO Paul Presburger told Variety.
The national release date, March 28, is no coincidence, for example.
Teaming with the Cesar Chavez Foundation and more than 30 non-profit orgs, Participant, Pantelion and Canana are launching a drive for the civil rights and farm labor leader to be recognized with a National Day of Service. A short video on Chavez’s life and work links visitors to a petition urging Obama to institute the National Day of Service – coinciding with Chavez’s March 31 birthday – when Americans become involved in local service activities.
Through March 20 the petition had 25,304 signatures.
Much of the discussion at the White House reportedly turned on the Cesar Chavez National Day of Service.
Lead-produced by Mexico City/L.A. based Canana, run by Gael Garcia Bernal, Luna, Cruz and Julian Levin, and sold by Mundial, a IM Global/Canana joint venture, “Cesar Chavez” stars Michael Pena as the founder of United Farm Workers.
It focuses on the epic five-year grape strike and boycott, put through by the first successful farm workers union in American history, including a 250-mile march on Sacramento and Chavez’s 25-day water-only fast.
A second Follow Your Food drive, also developed by Participant’s Social Action team, aims at highlighting the issue of equitable food in the U.S. and increasing awareness and support for responsibly harvested, farmworker-assured food supplies. Actions include a video, a Caring Food pledge that audience members can take to support the initiative, as well as infographics and editorial content on TakePart.com.
“Cesar Chavez was first and foremost a great American. He led by example, upholding the great American traditions set out in the Bill of Rights. Chavez led by example to achieve social justice, making a National Day of Service in his name a perfect way to honor him,” said Presburger.
Pantelion will use some stock methods – trailers, one-sheets, TV advertising, billboards – to reach audiences.
Non-traditional is its outreach to the Latino community, screening “Cesar Chavez” to multiple non-profit orgs, such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, United Farm Workers and other unions.
Director Luna and cast – such as co-stars Rosario Dawson, who plays labor leader Dolores Huerta, and America Ferrara, who limns Chavez’s wife, both present at the White House – are conducting a whistle-stop tour to stomp up awareness and support for the film and its wider goals, attending screenings at Harvard, Berkeley and UCLA.
“This is unique because of the type of film we are doing, of the type of audience that it has, and the type of reaction we are seeing,” Cruz said, citing a line of 1,000 outside an already-full theater at the UC Berkeley screening.
The L.A. premiere is March 20. Other premieres will take place at Washington, New York, Texas, Dallas and San Antonio (on the same day), Phoenix, Chicago and New Jersey, Cruz said.
In one touching event, next Tuesday Pantelion will stage an open-air screening for farm workers in the Delano, Calif., fields where Chavez’s strike began.
Just how well “Cesar Chavez” can fair at the box office is another question.
“Cesar Chavez” turns on a first-generation American of Mexican origin; 65% of the U.S.’ 53 million Latinos are of Mexican descent. So the film has a large built-in recognition-factor. It also presents – distances apart, like “Instructions Not Included” – a far more positive vision of Latinos than the narco stereotype of yore.
“The fastest growing section of U.S. population has an opportunity to see someone portrayed on the screen who’s presented positively. It’s a very unique opportunity to make sure the industry understands that we love seeing our faces onscreen in a more eloquent way and more constantly,” said Cruz.
A joint venture of Lionsgate and Mexican TV giant Televisa, Pantelion specializes in releasing Latino titles, most notably Eugenio Derbez’s “Instructions Not Included,” which it drove to $44.5 million in the U.S.
As part of two publicly quoted companies, Pantelion has a duty to sell as many tickets as possible, Presburger said.
That said, “Cesar Chavez” is also about “branding,” he added.
“We are out there to target the Latino market, so anything that is good for that market, bringing something to the community, is in our wheelhouse. Even if, after all is said and done, this film is not the most profitable film we will have released, it will be the most important for Pantelion from a branding perspective.”
There may also be, for people of Presburger’s generation, an emotional resonance to “Cesar Chavez.”
“I remember growing up as a young child in Los Angeles and my parents not letting me eat grapes or lettuce,” Presburger said. “I remember those times well and to be involved in this movie and its aims is something special.”
Cruz concluded: “Change is coming in many ways, for the film industry and Hispanic audiences. Films like this empower, create consciousness and wake up to people to feel proud of who they are, their origins, the name they carry.”