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Paul Presburger, Producer Matt Walden on One of Pantelion’s Big Swings for 2022: ‘La Usurpadora, the Musical’

La Usurpadora The Musical
Credit: Feli Gutierres

Until Pantelion Films unleashed “Instructions Not Included” in the U.S., grossing $44.47 million there in 2013, no other distributor had really cracked the Latino market.

Over the next eight years, Pantelion has produced the biggest U.S.-Mexico double-market comedy movie franchise, “No Manches Frida” and handled the first-run release in the U.S. of six of the 10 biggest Mexican hits of all time.

Now, however, leading Latino studio Pantelion Films is raising the ante.

Partnered by sister company Pantaya, the premium streaming Spanish-language service, from August this year Pantelion has signed talent deals with Maite Perroni (“Dark Desire”) and Mauricio Ochmann (“El Chema”) and co-development and production accords with Elefantec Global and El Estudio, The Lift and Traziende Films.

Simultaneously, with The Lift Entertainment, it has gone into production in Mexico on “La Usurpadora, The Musical,” a modern musical movie makeover of Televisa’s 1998 telenovela classic that punched humungous ratings and was exported to 125 countries.

When announcing the title, Pantelion Films described it as its “most ambitious undertaking to date.” That’s no understatement: “La Usurpadora, the Musical” bids fare to become the biggest Mexican movie release in Mexico of 2022 and a wider release for Pantaloon in the U.S..

A few days into the shoot, Variety talked to Paul Presburger, Pantelion Films and Pantaya CEO, and Matt Walden, producer of “La Usurpadora, The Musical” and an ex-Columbia Pictures, Fox and Arista Records executive, about the latest big swing from Pantelion.

Pantelion Films has called “La Usurpadora, the Musical” its “most ambitious undertaking to date.” Could you drill down on that ambition?

Presburger: Aside from budget, there’s the undertaking of a musical is itself, integrating songs seamlessly into a highly popular story that already existed and securing the rights to the underlying telenovela and music. Then there’s the hugely elaborate sets and the choreography. It’s a project we’ve been working on for four years.

Walden: Just the scope of the film is so significant. Tomorrow we’ll be here in a small town with hundreds of dancers and hundreds of extras, shooting the end of the movie. And that’s just not something that happens, particularly in this space and market, this kind of big-break-into-song musical, Hollywood-style musical. This is a first of its kind in its market.

“La Usurpadora, The Musical” looks like part of a larger growth at Pantelion and Pantaya. Why the pedal to the metal?

Presburger: We certainly have our pedal on the metal. There’s now a lot of competition for the Hispanic audience. For example, Univision will be launching their service next year. We’re a smaller player focused on the U.S. Hispanic market and then partnering with folks in Mexico and Latin America and around the world. Securing those talent deals we recently announced, for example, is a way to ensure that we have a steady stream of marketable and important content over the next several years.

And “La Usurpadora” is part of the build?

Presburger: Yes. We understood that to make any noise at all in the U.S. Hispanic market, which indeed is part of the general market, if we made movies in Mexico we had to make the biggest movies in Mexico. So at Pantelion we’ve been doing three-or-four movies at most a year, which we call our tentpoles for Pantaya. We are spending multiples of what the local Mexican market is spending for their movies because we have two markets: U.S. Hispanic plus Mexico, Latin America. If you go back over out slate – “No Manches, Frida,” “Overboard,” “How To Be a Latin Lover” – it was really trying to be the biggest movies in this space. When Matt came to me with this idea of a musical four years ago, it slotted right into what we wanted to be doing.

And how, Matt, did you come up with the idea for the movie?

Walden: I spent most of my early career doing music for film and television. About six years ago, I joined the board of Center Theatre Group, the largest non-profit theater company in the U.S. We were doing a revival of “Zoot Suit.” Sitting in the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and watching the audience, I realized that part of the obligation of the biggest theater in Los Angeles was to make theater for people who live there and you’ve got a city that’s half Hispanic. So I started thinking about the most popular art forms in that market.

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Alan Estrada, Santiago Limon and Isabella Castillo © Feli Gutierres / Pantelion Films

Such as telenovelas?

Walden: Yes. Novelas obviously have historically been the sort of monsters of content in that culture. But nobody’s really going to want to see a novela turned into a play. So I thought about the characteristics of a novela that make it interesting and unique. It’s a push story:  Pushed character, pushed emotion, and those are all the elements of a musical. In a novela, when emotions get big, people get melodramatic, or highly dramatic. In a musical, people sing. I began to do research, to look for the perfect novela and came to Paul and asked: “Could you see if the rights would be available for the Center Theater Group to develop it as a Broadway style musical in Los Angeles?” Paul came back to me and said: “I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is: No, you can’t have those rights. The good news is you’re going to produce it for us as a movie.”

“La Usurpadora” originally aired in 1998. It turned on two identical twin sisters, separated at birth and unknown to each other, one truly decent but humble who agrees to replace the other who’s married, ultra rich and truly destructive. Given that this will be a modern musical, has that storyline evolved?

Walden: Valeria is written as a strong, independent woman who ends up making the choice of taking the place of this other basically evil woman mostly from a place of strength. She does so to save her grandmother. And when she sees that the family business in Mexico is in trouble, she takes a very positive and proactive role in helping them save the business.

The musical is announced as being in Spanish and in English. Does more of it happen in the U.S than in the original?

There is the story that takes place in the U.S., though it’s not shot in the U.S. Valeria, the good sister, has grown up in Las Vegas. When she comes down to Mexico to replace her evil sister, the sick grandmother is still in the U.S. Also, for the first half of the movie, the evil sister remains in the U.S. with her boyfriend, which was the reason she made the proposal in the first place.

Presburger: The interesting thing is making it cross-border. What a challenge for the lead actress, Isabela Castillo, who has to speak English with an American accent and also Spanish with a local Mexican accent and do both without missing a beat. A lot of Pantelion movies are cross-border and in English and Spanish. We try to be really organic that way. If somebody would be speaking in English, they do. And if somebody would be speaking Spanish, they do. It’s how Hispanics live their lives.

Even in movies made in one language such as “No Manches, Frida,” there’s still a cross-border sensibility.

Presburger: I was just going to say. The same principle applied: If we were going to shoot in a high school, we needed it to fit into both cultures. And so the school is nondescript, you don’t know where the story is happening other than that it’s in Spanish and the story is universal.

Walden: When you look at the talented group of people we’ve put together to make this movie, all those people have the ability to understand a broader sensibility, how to appeal to the U.S. market. Santiago Limón, our director, went to the AFI. Sebastian Krys, who’s Argentine, has made very successful records on both sides of the border. The extremely talented choreographer Priscilla Hernández has worked on a James Bond movie. Our star, Isabela Castillo, is Cuban-American. The cast also includes American actor Shane West. The movie is going to have all the elements that appeal to the same people who go to see big Hollywood movies as well as down here.

Presburger: We aren’t focused on Mexico. We’re focused on Mexico, the U.S. and the broader Hispanic market. The songs come from not just Mexico but from across the Hispanic world and were top 10 hits. Latin music spreads across nationalities. Telenovelas have worked everywhere as well these days. So we’ve tried to take music that works across various nationalities and cultures, as well as an art form that does as well.

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Paul Presburger and Matt Walden Pantelion Films