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A Start-Up's Tough Spanish Lessons

Latin Universe looks to learn from the mistakes it made in its distribution debut, 'Santitos.'

March 19, 2000|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer

The business of distributing Spanish-language films in the United States may have proved harder than it looked to Latin Universe, but the company is determined to stick with it and learn from its mistakes the first time out.

The start-up U.S.-based Spanish-language film distribution company had a brutal welcoming into the cutthroat movie industry last month with its debut of "Santitos."

The film, a romantic comedy from Mexico that received rave reviews, took in only $420,000 as of last week since its release Jan. 28, according to ACNielsen EDI box-office tracking service. The movie cost $1.5 million to make, and the company spent more than $1 million for publicity.

Latin Universe President Ted Perkins said his company learned a great deal from the first go-around. He said he hopes not to repeat the same mistakes with its second feature, the romantic drama "Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas" (Sex, Shame and Tears), which has been pushed back to a summer release instead of May.

The company's failure with "Santitos" has made some, including the producers of "Sexo," jittery, sources said. The company could ill afford another disappointment if it wants to line up more quality films.

With "Santitos," the company opened the film in too many theaters and failed to market it with enough lead time to get the word out. It did not do an English-language campaign for the English-speaking art-house crowd--despite the film's positive English-language reviews. In addition, the movie was not booked in theaters outside predominantly Latino areas, losing a potential art-house audience and many bilingual-bicultural Latinos.

"We went through a steep learning curve," Perkins said. "If this were as simple as just everyone automatically going out and seeing the movies, I'd be a millionaire. But we know it's not that easy. We have to reintroduce this whole new message of seeing movies in Spanish in multiplex theaters."

The less than stellar performance of "Santitos" illustrates the difficulty of cracking the bilingual and Spanish-speaking Latino audience. Latin Universe was the first company in more than 20 years to attempt a wide commercial release of a Spanish-language film. ("Like Water for Chocolate," the most successful Mexican import to the U.S., was released initially in only two art-house theaters and very gradually expanded to more of the same type of screens. Latin Universe envisions much wider initial releases in mostly mainstream locations.) From the 1940s through the late 1970s, Mexican movie distributors enjoyed tremendous success releasing classic Mexican films in U.S. theaters in predominantly Latino areas.

However, today's Latino population is very different from 20 years ago. Today, Latin Universe has to persuade bilingual and bicultural Latino moviegoers to see a small Spanish-language movie instead of watching the latest Hollywood action thriller or romantic comedy.

But Latin Universe, Perkins said, is here to stay. It has been a difficult few months, but eventually the movies will start picking up a loyal following--he hopes.

"We don't have the resources to do what people expect from us," Perkins said. "We are doing what we can with what we have. If people want to berate our decisions, then I would welcome them to step in and put their money where their mouth is."

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To be sure, Latin Universe made some missteps. "Santitos" was released in 155 theaters--an enormous number for such a small picture. The movie never opened with a big bang and continued to drop from there. This was done in part to "test" the market, essentially to figure out which theaters worked and which did not.

Their next release, "Sexo" the highest-grossing film in Mexico ever, will be released in 50 theaters, Perkins said.

In addition, "Santitos," a film that received good critical reviews from the English-language press, was released only in predominantly Latino neighborhoods and not in art-house theaters where non-Spanish speakers could see the film. Observers questioned why Latin Universe would close off an automatic audience, like the art-house crowd, from seeing the movie.

The company hopes to release "Sexo" in at least two Westside theaters, although Perkins said he has not finalized which theaters, so that a wider audience of foreign film lovers as well as bilingual and bicultural Latinos can see the film.

Latin Universe intends to begin a publicity campaign for "Sexo" a month before it opens--not the week the film opens as it did with "Santitos."

Some observers say Perkins and his team at Latin Universe suffered from hubris--they were so confident of their product they almost assumed an audience would show up.

But most would agree that building back a U.S. Spanish-language audience in film will take time and perhaps more than a few failures.

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