Distribs usher in new Spanish wave

New talent able to cross linguistic, cultural boundaries

At the beginning of 2001, the specialty film world was buzzing about how the astonishing box office success and multiple Oscars for Ang Lee’s Mandarin epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” would result in a feeding frenzy for Asian-language pics.

But while Asian imports continue to be picked up at a healthy clip, it’s the Spanish-language titles that have become the hot commodity among arthouse distributors. Since last summer, when Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Mexican urban epic “Amores Perros” grossed Lions Gate a solid $5.4 million, more specialty outfits have been distributing Spanish-language efforts.

“There are a few reasons for these movies’ success,” says Lions Gate president Tom Ortenberg. “One is the emergence of great new talent. Another is the growth of the Spanish-speaking population. Also, there is the decision by marketers to be aggressive in their pursuit of that audience. From our perspective, we are going after Hispanic audiences not just when we have a Spanish-language picture like ‘Amores Perros,’ but with all of our releases. For a mainstream commercial picture, we use the same approach. That’s how important that audience is.”

This year, another Mexican import — Alfonso Cuaron’s sexy road movie “Y Tu Mama Tambien” — has served as further proof of the advantages offered by good Spanish-language acquisitions. By custom-tailoring separate P&A efforts to the U.S. arthouse audience and the mainstream Latino population, the IFC Films release has earned more than $13 million and become one of the highest-grossing specialty films this year.

” ‘Amores Perros’ showed that if you have a Spanish-language film you could do business,” says IFC Films former releasing chief Bob Berney. “‘Amores Perros’ really opened the door, and “Y Tu Mama” definitely benefited. Both of those films were not just critically driven. They were also very appealing to a younger audience, and that was extremely important for their success.”

U.S. distribs also have been showing confidence that Spanish titles have the same carryover potential as their Latin American counterparts. Sony Pictures Classics will release “Hable con ella” (Talk to Her) the latest from arthouse favorite Pedro Almodovar, while Lions Gate hopes to find a Spanish-lingo follow-up to “Amores Perros” in Juan-Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intacto,” the opening-night selection for Critics Week at Cannes 2002.

Meanwhile, Palm Pictures is rolling out Julio Medem’s erotic drama “Sex and Lucia,” which was nominated for 10 prizes at the 2001 Goya Awards (it won for actress and original score) and also picked up best director honors at the 2002 Seattle Film Festival.

The new acquisition-friendly atmosphere for Spanish-lingo titles certainly has been recognized by sales agents and directors. “It does seem that there’s a new wave of filmmakers from these countries that are more able to broadly cross linguistic and cultural boundaries,” says Focus co-president David Linde, who as head of Good Machine Intl. helped sell both “Y tu mama tambien” and “Hable con ella.” “It’s a diverse culture, and one that’s really producing amazing work.”

“The good box office with other films has definitely helped my film and other Spanish-language filmmakers,” Fresnadillo says. “The distributors have shown that there is good reception out there for these films. I’m an optimist. I believe this is just the beginning.”

In a market known for the cyclical nature of “hot” foreign territories, it would seem unlikely that Spanish-language films will continue to maintain their current status. But given the fact that, as IFC’s Berney points out, “American culture is dominated by Latino music and style” as well as the U.S.’ sizable Latino population, the recent trend may indeed prove to have long-term staying power.

“If you look overall, at all Spanish language films, I think you have so many places to draw from, as opposed to just one country,” Berney says. “A couple of bad films hit the U.S. market, and that perception will change. But assuming that doesn’t happen, and assuming the films that get released here continue to be carefully selected, I think the trend will continue and Spanish-language films will dominate (the foreign language box office) on a consistent basis.”

(Matthew Ross is a filmmaker and senior editor of indieWIRE and IFCRant.)