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Cinema for the Latin Universe : Movies. New distribution group plans to release up to a dozen Spanish-language films in the U.S. in the next year. Sundance winner 'Santitos' is planned for November.

September 10, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to capitalize on the enormous Spanish-language and bilingual moviegoing audience in the U.S., a distribution company has been formed to bring Spanish-language films to U.S. theaters.

Latin Universe, backed by Los Angeles-based venture capital firm Brener International Group, is planning to distribute up to a dozen Spanish-language movies to U.S. theaters in the next year. Latin Universe is filling a void formerly held by Azteca Films, a Mexican distribution company that for nearly four decades distributed Spanish-language films in the U.S. With the exception of some smaller studios, such as Miramax and Artisan Entertainment, which distribute foreign-language films, Latin Universe will be the only U.S.-based Spanish-language film distribution company.

Its first nationwide release, targeting major Latino markets, will be the Mexican film "Santitos," this year's Sundance Jury Award winner based on the novel "Esperanza's Box of Saints." The film will be released in November. The company intends to distribute films made in Latin America and Spain.

Ted Perkins, a former Universal Pictures acquisitions executive, will head up the company--which has no relation to the studio. Perkins, who grew up in Latin America, said the U.S. market is ripe for modern Spanish-language films at local multiplex theaters. The company's ambitious plan has it expanding into film production, licensing, talent management and music publishing by its second year.

"The key for us is to set up a solid distribution pattern in the U.S. I guess you could say we are the new generation of Spanish-language film distributors," Perkins said. "We want to give Hispanics an opportunity to see films in their own language and that speak to their cultural experience."

Brener International has several holdings in Mexico and Latino-related markets, including a newspaper and a supermarket chain in the U.S. Company officials said the creation of Latin Universe was a "multimillion-dollar deal" but wouldn't give specific start-up costs.

As the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. continues to grow, so has Latin television and radio--industries that rake in millions of dollars annually. Hollywood, however, has not caught on to this lucrative market.

Not only is it rare to find Spanish-language films in U.S. theaters, but there are few Latin-themed films in the works at Hollywood studios.

Despite this, Latinos spend billions of dollars annually on entertainment and represent the fastest-growing segment of the movie-going audience. According to a report released in May, Latino consumers are more likely to patronize films that feature Latinos.

Latino Consumers Are Largely Untapped

The potential buying power of the vast Latino population has not been tapped in film, said principal investor Gabriel Brener.

"Hispanic media is a booming industry," said Brener in a press release. "Univision and Spanish-language radio regularly beat Anglo ratings in major markets."

More than 60% of Latinos in the U.S. are bilingual, noted Harry Pachon, author of "Missing in Action: Latinos In and Out of Hollywood," a report that detailed the state of Latinos and the movie industry. Not only are the majority of Latinos bilingual, but they are also bicultural, able to move easily between Anglo cultures and Hispanic cultures, said Pachon, who noted that this audience's moviegoing tastes are not being satisfied by Hollywood.

Pachon called the formation of Latin Universe "a good entrepreneurial decision. With the vast number of Latinos in the U.S., it will be an interesting venture. A lot of us will be keeping a close eye on this because it will have a big impact on the future."

For more than 30 years, Spanish-speaking audiences could count on seeing one of their favorite stars at a local movie house in the U.S. From 1940 through the early 1980s, commercial Spanish-language films--made mainly in Mexico--spurred a multimillion-dollar industry in the U.S.

At its peak, Mexican films were churned out, with at least a half-dozen companies distributing them to more than 300 theaters nationwide.

Though the Mexican film industry suffered a financial and creative crisis from the 1970s through the early 1990s, cinema is reemerging in Mexico today.

"I've taken several trips to Mexico, and [the films] are meeting a criteria of quality that is extremely high," Perkins said. "The audience demographic is even larger today than it was in the '60s, '70s and '80s. The demand for this product never went away. The product just dried up."

Latin Universe's first film, "Santitos," has the potential to reach a crossover audience. Like the 1992 film "Like Water for Chocolate"--which was one of the highest-grossing foreign-language films ever in the U.S.--"Santitos' " blend of magical realism and romantic comedy could appeal to both Latins and white English-speaking audiences, said Juan Carlos Nieto, marketing director for Latin Universe.

Nieto, who worked for a Spanish-language marketing firm on such films as "A Walk in the Clouds" and "Desperado," said Latin Universe intends to launch a Spanish-language radio, billboard and television campaign for "Santitos." Nieto said he intends to show screenings of the film at local churches, schools and community centers in predominantly Latino areas--a similar approach taken to publicize the 1987 hit "La Bamba." In the Latino community, movies often succeed based on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family.

Members of the "Santitos" cast and crew will be present at the screenings for a discussion of the making of the film, Nieto said.

"We want to make people feel that this is not an industry that is out of reach," said Nieto, a Mexico City native. "We want the film to be a part of the community."

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