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Latinos Missing in Hollywood's Big Picture

Survey: A study finds huge gaps between burgeoning Latino consumer base and their on-screen presence.

May 05, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ and KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Although Latinos in the United States spend billions of dollars annually on entertainment and represent the fastest-growing segment of the movie-going audience, a majority believe that Hollywood portrays their community negatively and want to see more films with realistic and positive portrayals of Latinos, according to a report released today.

Titled "Missing in Action: Latinos In and Out of Hollywood," the study was commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild and compiled by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.

The report also concluded that despite a tendency by Latino consumers to patronize films that feature Latinos, Latino actors work less often and rank near the bottom in earnings compared to their non-Hispanic counterparts, according to the "Missing in Action" report as well as a separate casting data survey released by SAG on Monday.

By not making more films or television shows showing realistic Latino characters, Hollywood is missing a potentially enormous audience, said Richard Masur, SAG president.

"We're trying to communicate to decision-makers in this industry that there is a vast market out there they are only capturing haphazardly and could capture much more intelligently and directly if they recognized it," said Masur. "It has nothing to do with political correctness. It's about putting eyeballs in front of television sets and butts in [theater] seats. This is a way to do that--[Latinos] are not seeing themselves reflected."

The results of the report--which exclusively covers English-language entertainment and focuses mainly on movies, but also includes television--will be discussed today by a panel of industry executives, SAG members and political leaders, including Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills.

Though other surveys on the state of Latinos in the industry have been conducted by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the Rivera Institute and SAG, this report is the first to look at both the economic impact of Latinos on the entertainment industry and the experiences of Latinos in Hollywood.

Some highlights of the study include:

* Latinos spent more than $10 billion in 1997 on entertainment, including vacations, trips to the movies, theater and restaurants, out of $191 billion spent by Americans as a whole, according to data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Broken down even further, Hispanics spend an average of $1,055 a year on entertainment compared to $1,818 for non-Hispanic whites and $872 for African Americans.

* Latinos spent more than $661 million on movie and theater admissions solely in 1997 out of $9 billion spent by Americans as a whole.

* Latino actors comprise only 4% of SAG membership and work only 3.5% of the days worked by all SAG actors under union contracts, even though Latinos comprise 10.7% of the U.S. population.

* About 70% of California Latinos surveyed said the most common image for Latino men on television and in the movies is as a criminal, gang member or drug dealer.

The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, an affiliate of the Claremont Graduate University and considered one of the most respected think tanks on Latino issues, conducted the survey over four months. Harry P. Pachon, president of the institute, and his researchers interviewed 509 movie-going Latinos between the ages of 18 and 40. The survey has a margin of error of 4.4%.

Perhaps the most glaring conclusion is that Latino economic clout and growing market size has not translated into more opportunities for Latino actors or improved the images of Latinos in film and television, said Pachon, who oversaw the study.

"The media creates the images of others and the world," said Pachon. "If all we see are the underclass roles, then that is the image that people will form about Latinos and what young [Latinos] may form of themselves. We are bombarded with those negative images in TV news or movies or television. It's like there is a selective blindness about the heterogeneity of the Hispanic community."

A slim majority of the Latino movie-goers surveyed said they thought Latinos were portrayed positively overall in film and television. But when probed further, the respondents said negative stereotypes were still common.

Latinos surveyed said they were more likely to watch a film starring a Latino than they are to see an equally popular film without a Latino star. Still, a majority of the audience members surveyed said they did not select films based solely on whether the film had a Latino theme.

As an example, Pachon cited "La Bamba," the 1987 film that made more than $50 million at the box office and was seen by nine out of 10 movie-goers questioned in the survey. Other examples of films that did well among Latinos include "Selena" (1997), which made $35 million in domestic sales, and "Like Water for Chocolate" (1992), which brought in more than $20 million.

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