"La Bamba's" bow in Latino movie houses this weekend may have marked a turning point in the marketing of mainstream films to the Latino community, if its opening is any indication.
Studio officials and Hollywood movie analysts suggest that if "La Bamba" continues to draw big crowds at Latino theaters, Hollywood will direct more non-action films at the Latino market. The story of '50s rocker Ritchie Valens, who died in a plane crash at age 17, was released simultaneously in English- and Spanish-language versions, a developing pattern in marketing Hollywood films to the Latino market.
In its first three days, the film brought in an average of $5,300 per screen in the 77 theaters nationwide playing the Spanish-dubbed or Spanish-subtitled versions, Columbia said. The English-language version of the film drew an average of $4,086 at 1,174 screens nationwide, according to the studio. The film brought in a total of $5.6 million nationwide, with $400,000 of that coming from the Latino audience.
"We are delighted with the results," said Morton Lippey, vice president for Metropolitan Theatres Corp., the nation's largest Spanish-language theater chain. "It's the best picture we've had this year, as good as any regular Mexican picture could be."
This apparent success of Columbia Pictures' first major venture into the national Latino film market was good news for the studio.
"When you do $5,000 a print you open up a whole new revenue area for the company and for others as well," said Jim Spitz, president of domestic distribution for Columbia.
One marketing executive for a major Hollywood studio, who asked not to be identified, said, "It's not a blockbuster, but the Columbia people have every right to have a spring in their step. Those are good figures anywhere."
Some observers said that one of "La Bamba's" strengths has been its ability to inspire Latino audiences to spread good word-of-mouth about the film. At the Million Dollar Theater, a landmark downtown Los Angeles Spanish-language movie house, box office receipts for "La Bamba" jumped from $1,100 on Friday to $7,600 on Sunday, a nearly seven-fold increase in three days.
Some suggested, however, that the Million Dollar's opening-weekend figures may have been bolstered by a strong Sunday movie-going tradition among Latino audiences.
Like Universal Pictures' "An American Tail" last year, "La Bamba" challenges the notion that only films with hefty doses of sex and violence popularized by Mexican drug-smuggling movies or featuring larger-than-life Hollywood stars can play well before Latino audiences.
Daily Variety film analyst Art Murphy said that "La Bamba's" total 3-day box-office figures must be balanced against the difficulty of selling both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences on a film lacking well-known stars and a readily recognizable historical personality.
"It's a good opening considering that (Valens) was not a big star when he died," said Murphy. "Obviously, they drew on a younger crowd because the people who would have remembered him are now in their 30s," and generally don't go to films as frequently as teen-agers.
Santiago Pozo, special markets manager for Universal Pictures, which pioneered the simultaneous release of films in Spanish for domestic Latino audiences, said that until recently, the major studios had accepted this definition of the Latino market.
"Traditionally, only action-adventure movies filled with violence and sex were believed to function well in this market," he said. "But this audience only represents a fraction of the Latino universe: Males 18 to 30 years of age with less than five years' stay in the country."
Universal marketing research indicates that Latinos tend to change their movie-going in favor of U.S.-made films five years after arriving in the United States, he said. Universal's research is being borne out today in Los Angeles with "La Bamba' " showing, he said.
As much as one-third of the films exhibited in Metropolitan's theaters are produced by the major Hollywood studios, Lippey said. He predicted that the declining quality of Mexican films will contribute to the growing popularity of Hollywood films, whether they are dubbed or not, as this audience becomes increasingly assimilated.
"There are no longer those stars, such as Maria Felix, Cantinflas, Dolores Del Rio, who the people used to revere," he said. "Now (the Mexican film industry) just makes movies, they aren't films to be loved and cherished."