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Hollywood Finally Gets Its Spanish Lesson

Mainstream filmmakers are finally recognizing the significance of the Latino moviegoing population

June 28, 1998|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

The movie poster for "Out of Sight" hangs in the windows of more than 2,000 shops in Latino neighborhoods around the nation. Specially tailored trailers for the film, which stars George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, have aired on Spanish-language television during the World Cup, which is a magnet for Latino viewers. And this weekend, Universal Pictures is advertising the sexy crime caper not only in mainstream newspapers, but in publications printed en espanol.

"Una pelicula con 'Girl Power,' " the ad boasts, quoting a review of the film from CNN Espanol. "Jennifer Lopez es fantastica."

Such niche marketing would not be surprising if "Out of Sight"--which opened Friday--were a Latino-themed movie such as last year's "Selena." It's not. Directed by one white guy (Steven Soderbergh), it's based on a book by another white guy (Elmore Leonard). Lopez plays a federal marshal who hunts down a third white guy (Clooney as an escaped convict), and the fact that she is Latina is never even mentioned.

So what's going on? Particularly since "Selena's" success--the $20-million picture about the slain Latina singing sensation has taken in $53 million in domestic ticket sales and video rentals--Hollywood is beginning to experiment with courting Latino moviegoers.

Not every movie studio is equally committed to the effort: Spanish-language newspapers complain, for example, that most only advertise movies in their pages on opening weekend. And some marketing experts say their attempts to advise the studios about the Latino market can still fall on deaf ears.

"Sometimes I go to pitch an account and they say no because the movie doesn't have a Latino theme or star," said Santiago Pozo, president of the Arenas Group, a movie-marketing firm that has made a specialty out of reaching Latinos. "I say, 'Are you going to open in Germany and Japan?' They say yes. I say, 'What's the point if you have no German or Japanese star?' "

But little by little--taking "baby steps," in the words of Bill Miller, president of actor-director Edward James Olmos' production company--movie studios are awakening to Latinos' box-office potential and acting to claim it.

Targeting Latinos is gradually becoming "part of the basic mix now of how you sell a film," said Jersey Films' Michael Shamberg, who produced "Out of Sight" and who has worked with Pozo to market it. "When you do a TV marketing campaign, you already do a female spot [aimed at women], you do an 'MTV' spot, you do a male spot, you do an urban spot. Now, we're adding this."

Statistics explain why. Latinos make up the fastest-growing ethnic group among domestic film audiences, with ticket sales up a whopping 22% from 1996 to 1997, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Every year since 1995, Latinos have outspent African Americans at the box office: Last year, they bought 15% of tickets (194 million) as compared with blacks' 13%.

Though just 10.7% of the total U.S. population, Latinos are concentrated in the top urban markets where the majority of movie tickets are sold. In Los Angeles, for example, 45% of the prime moviegoing audience (ages 12 to 34) is Latino, according to one recent Nielsen study. Another report by Simmons Research found that 47% of L.A.'s Latinos went to movies at least once a month and that they were more likely than non-Latinos to see a movie its opening weekend.

"Absolutely, this is a very heavy movie-consuming audience," said Michael A. Vorhaus, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a Burbank-based research firm.

Nevertheless, studios have been reluctant to invest in regular tracking studies that would chart Latino moviegoers' viewing habits--meaning that even when they set out to lure Latinos to the theater, they often are working without up-to-date information.

"My single greatest frustration has been trying to get Hollywood to pay serious constant attention to the Latino market," said Carlos Garcia, whose firm--Garcia Research Associates--has tried without success to sell the major studios on a weekly study of Latinos' movie awareness and decisions.

"We made a presentation to Fox and New Line, who said, 'If everybody else does it, we'll do it,' " Garcia said. "We couldn't even get in the door at the other studios."

For years, it has been commonplace for studios to make what one executive called a "nominal" nod to Latinos in the marketing of many movies, particularly for action pictures and for comedies that skew toward younger audiences.

For example, a print ad for Buena Vista's upcoming "Armageddon," Jerry Bruckheimer's asteroid-threatens-Earth saga that opens July 1, simply translates the copy featured in English-language ads into Spanish: "No more taxes . . . Ever." becomes "No mas impuestos . . . Jamas."

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