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Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network Builds Heat With Young Latinos

For the first year of its on-air life, the El Rey Network has been about as DIY as any microbudget indie movie ever was, an apt trait, given the net’s origins.

Comcast gave filmmaker Robert Rodriguez a distribution commitment for the channel in the spring of 2013; El Rey snuck on the air with a soft launch in December, after Univision came onboard as a financing and operational partner. The Austin-based filmmaker and his team at FactoryMade Ventures effected some quick hires, and bought up as much programming as they could find — and afford — that focused on Rodriguez’s love for genre pics, 1970s pop culture (think “Starsky & Hutch”) and other cool stuff that would appeal to movie- and TV-loving millennials, particularly U.S.-born Hispanics. Rodriguez also reached out to friends including Quentin Tarantino and Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to get a handful of original series off the ground quickly. (The launch timing was dictated by Comcast’s obligation to carry multiple minority-owned channels, per the terms of its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal.)

Now that they’ve made it through year one, Rodriguez and Co. are expanding the programming to include a broader range of original fare and fan-friendly ideas, such as the People’s Network initiative, which solicits material directly from viewers. Some fans who have sent in homemade El Rey promo spots have gotten calls to produce more (for a fee, of course). Rodriguez also wants to use the fan feedback loop to recruit writers and directors for El Rey original series, such as “From Dusk Till Dawn” and interview skein “The Director’s Chair.” “Filmmakers need to get training somewhere,” Rodriguez says. “That’s the only way we’re going to get the diversity in programming that (the industry) needs. We’re going to have to go outside Hollywood to find those new voices.”

Rodriguez and El Rey vice chairman Scott Sassa say it’s possible to make a business out of a cable channel built on vintage kung fu movies and low-budget chestnuts such as 1972’s “Frogs.”

El Rey is available in about 40 million homes, earning about 8¢ a month per subscriber. The channel employs about 60 fulltime staffers, with Rodriguez hands-on as programmer-in-chief. The channel has some sizzle with marketers as an outlet with a target of English-speaking Latinos.

Sassa acknowledges that El Rey’s audience isn’t as young as company execs would like. But they’re working on it with shows like “Lucha Underground,” an out-there mix of Mexican-style wrestling and folklore, produced by Mark Burnett.

“We have the elements in place, and most importantly, we have Robert as the face of the network, which gives us that authenticity,” Sassa says. “Now it’s about executing.”

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