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In Disney Experiment, Spanish Speakers Prefer English 'Groove'

January 09, 2001|LEE ROMNEY and CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Don't expect to see the Spanish language version of your favorite new movie at a theater near you any time soon.

Disney's effort to lure Spanish speakers with a dubbed version of its animated movie "The Emperor's New Groove" flopped. Although Latino audiences showed up to see the movie, they largely passed over the Spanish version in favor of the English one. The simultaneous release in 16 Los Angeles-area multiplexes was a first large-scale effort by any Hollywood studio to broaden its moviegoing base among Latinos.

Still, the experiment provides insight into an elusive Latino market that appears to prefer unaltered versions of American movies.

"I would rather see it in English," said Pedro Nungaray, who went to the El Monte Edwards Cinemas on New Year's Eve with his wife and 5-year-old daughter--both of whom speak more Spanish than English. "When the movies are changed to the Spanish version, they lose a lot in translation."

Nearly half the prime moviegoing audience in Los Angeles is Latino, according to recent data, and Latinos nationwide are the fastest-growing audience segment among ethnic groups. Although a majority of Latinos are bilingual or prefer Spanish, the experiment reveals that dubbed prints may not be the way to attract them.

"It is an unbelievably big audience that we're going to continue to mine in a variety of ways," said Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group Chairman Richard Cook, adding that the studio isn't likely to release dubbed versions again.

According to Cook, the dubbed "Emperor" drew less than one-fifth of the audience that the English-language versions generated at the same theaters.

For the 19 days beginning with the film's Dec. 15 release, the Spanish versions had total ticket sales of $96,000 versus $571,000 for the English-language prints at those theaters. After the second week, the multiplexes pulled the Spanish versions from dedicated screens, showing the film instead at select times on the same screens where the English versions played.

It has now been pulled entirely from seven AMC locations and is available only in single daily showings at most other venues.

"The Latino audience clearly came out for the movie, but that audience definitely preferred to see it in English," said Cook, noting that the English version of the film played well in heavily Latino neighborhoods.

Other studios had said they would watch the Disney trial closely.

The experiment came with little financial risk to Disney, which routinely dubs its animated fare for international release and spent only $250,000 for the prints, dubbing and advertising, Cook said.

Theater owners, however, reluctantly agreed to the experiment at a time when many are in financial straits and during the second-busiest moviegoing season of the year.

"We started out dedicating a screen for an entire week and a holiday week, so we made a pretty big commitment," said Rick King, spokesman for Kansas City-based AMC. "We subsequently scaled back due to demand."

There has been little in-depth study of Latino moviegoing habits, and studios have made only spotty attempts to cater to Spanish speakers, with largely poor results. Even Disney was armed with little more than U.S. census data. But the sheer mass of bilingual Latinos in the region is no guarantee of success with Spanish prints.

In recent years, studios have discovered that targeting bilingual Latinos through advertising and promotion in Spanish is critical, but showing the movies in Spanish may not be.

Myrna Evangelista, 21, read about the dubbed movie in Spanish-language media. But the former El Monte resident who now lives in Mexico opted to take her 10-year-old brother to the English version instead.

The actors and consequently the characters' voices are different in Spanish versions, she said, leaving her with the sense that the movie has been altered.

Wendy Medrano, the El Monte Edwards Cinemas assistant manager, said customers applauded the effort as "important to their culture." Yet on New Year's Eve, the 5:30 dubbed showing played to an empty house.

To be sure, the experiment was not a complete wash. At the Pacific Theaters in Commerce, attendance was split nearly evenly between the dubbed and English versions, with the Spanish one playing better on most Saturdays, said theater manager Jorge Escobar.

Those theaters, planted in a shopping mall filled with immigrant-owned businesses, have been booking Spanish subtitled prints for nearly a decade so customers are accustomed to having choices there, Escobar said.

On Sunday, the theater showed subtitled prints of "Dracula 2000," "Cast Away," "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," and "102 Dalmatians," along with the dubbed "Emperor."

Margarito Valentin and his wife, Mireya Navarette, came to see "Emperor" in Spanish because, after four years here, their English is still weak. Reading subtitles makes it difficult to view the action, said Valentin, but with the dubbed animated movie, "you can concentrate on the drawings."

Other bilingual parents came with small children. Although the kids are U.S. born, they are not yet fluent in English because Spanish is spoken at home.

"My baby doesn't speak English and neither does my wife," said Ismael Hernandez, whose 3-year-old son nevertheless goes to the movies about twice a month. "It's better for us to see it in Spanish."

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