When the Motion Picture Assn. of America announced last year that Latinos had surpassed African Americans as the second largest group of movie ticket-buyers in the U.S., it gave Latino filmmakers added leverage in their ongoing efforts to have Hollywood make more films aimed at the burgeoning audience.
And now there is an initial indication that the strategy is paying off.
Gregory Nava, one of the first Latino directors to navigate into Hollywood with his 1983 independent film "El Norte" and subsequent hits like "Selena," has brokered an unprecedented studio deal--one that allows him to develop several Latino-themed films over the coming years.
The deal with New Line Cinema is the first of its kind and is being viewed by some in the industry as a breakthrough that could signal a new era for Latino movies and talent.
Despite a growing Latino population and market for films, studio executives have been hesitant to make Latino-themed movies--which they say privately are not reliable profit-makers. But Nava says the two-year deal could finally demonstrate to Hollywood that Latino-themed films can be lucrative and crossover hits.
"New Line is the first major studio that is seriously involved in trying to crack the Latino market," said Nava, who also directed "Mi Familia." "[The studios have usually backed] one film at a time and my point is that you need to hit the market with several and really make a commitment. Mike [New Line production chief Michael De Luca] is really fearless."
Nava said New Line is the first studio to commit to a series of Latino-themed films, rather than on a project-by-project basis. Although most studios are aware of the demographic and economic potential of the Latino moviegoing audience, it has been very difficult to persuade them to produce a flow of material on a continuous basis, he said.
The deal, signed in late January, would allow Nava to develop, produce or direct at least three films with his production company, El Norte Productions, which he runs with his partner, Susana Zepeda.
Nava said he initially intends to make a border drama, an adaptation of Victor E. Villasenor's novel, "Rain of Gold," and an urban comedy.
The deal also allows Nava to develop as many as eight projects--some of which will be handled by younger or lesser-known directors. Most of the films will likely be budgeted at about $10 million--a low figure considering that the average price of a studio production is currently about $53 million. But Nava said some of the films he hopes to direct will have higher budgets.
De Luca said the studio is not only looking to cash in on the Latino market but also hoping to give young Latino talent an opportunity to break into the business.
"Our company is always looking for sources of fresh talent and we think Greg's efforts will complement ours," De Luca said. "It will be a good marriage between finding new talent with a Latin aesthetic in addition to a good business plan."
'A Market That Has Been Underserved'
Latinos buy movie tickets at a rate higher than their proportion of the population and make up the fastest-growing ethnic market among domestic film audiences, with ticket sales for this group shooting up 22% from 1996 to 1997, according to the MPAA. Latinos spent about $6 billion on entertainment last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Noted De Luca: "I think it's a market that has been underserved."
Tapping into the Latino market--particularly the Mexican American audience that accounts for the majority of Latinos in the U.S.--could become a lifeblood of sorts for studios in an increasingly competitive and volatile filmmaking industry, some Hollywood observers say.
"Hollywood hasn't come up with a Mexican 'shtick.' This needs to become a part of the American story just as Italian, Jewish and Irish themes are part of the American story," said Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute of Public Policy who co-wrote a series of reports on Latinos in Hollywood for Fox TV. "That would open up markets here but also add some cultural fodder for Hollywood who could dearly use it."
Nava said he is hopeful that soon Latino-themed films will no longer be looked at primarily for a niche market but rather as potential mainstream successes.
"I'm very proud of being a Latino filmmaker," he said. "But at the same time I do look forward to the day when we can take the Latino label off and the films could be seen as just wonderful stories about people."
Traditionally, it has been difficult for directors to sell Latino-themed projects to large studios--especially if the film has an all-Latino cast. Nava, for example, had to press hard for an all-Latina cast in his 1995 film, "Mi Familia." At the time, the studio was leery of casting relatively unknown Latina actresses--like Jennifer Lopez. But in the end, Nava convinced the studio executives of the need to nurture talent.