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Spanish-language films take aim at U.S. market

A dicey proposition in the past, the potential payoff is luring a few distributors to put their toes in the water.

June 11, 2003|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Better late than never might make a good tag line for "Herod's Law," a film that is finally being released in the United States this weekend -- three years after it debuted in its native Mexico.

The scathing political satire on Mexico's former ruling party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), tied for the Sundance Film Festival's Latin American Film Prize in 2000 and went on to become one of Mexico's highest-grossing movies.

Despite its accolades, no U.S. distributors were interested. Three years later, the Miami-based Spanish-language television conglomerate Venevision International bought a package of films that included "Herod's Law," in a distribution deal with the Mexican company, NuVision.

The distribution deal, which includes movies made by other Latin American production companies, has given some Spanish-language films their only chance to be seen in the U.S. However, the six movies released theatrically by Venevision since 2001 in cities including Miami, Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles, have averaged only about $500,000 apiece at the box office.

"We are just getting to know the market and how it works," conceded Venevision's CEO Luis Villanueva. "We are trying to develop the market in those communities where the movies will have the most success.... There is a lot of risk. But there are a lot of people who see the opportunity and want to try."

Many have tried and failed. Several years ago, Latin Universe attempted to penetrate the U.S. Latino market with the movie "Santitos." The company went out of business shortly after the acclaimed movie's disastrous U.S. release.

Although Latinos make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. moviegoing population, recent attempts at luring them to Latin-themed movies have met with mixed results.

Fox 2000's U.S.-made, English-language romantic comedy "Chasing Papi" reportedly cost $10 million to make but brought in a disappointing $6.1 million. Arenas Entertainment/Universal Pictures' drug kingpin drama "Empire" fared well relative to its $650,000 purchase price, grossing $17.5 million. At the same time, the acclaimed Spanish-language, Oscar-nominated road trip movie "Y Tu Mama Tambien" did well by grossing a little more than $13 million last year. The Oscar-nominated "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" grossed $5 million. The latter two films cost their U.S. distributors less than $1 million each.

Despite the challenges of distributing a film in the U.S., "Herod's Law" writer and director Luis Estrada is grateful to have his movie shown on the big screen to American audiences.

"Would I have liked for this movie to be released closer to its debut? Of course," he said. "But that's the way the cookie crumbles."

Estrada, who has recently completed a novel, does not want his movie to be pigeonholed into a "for la Raza" (Latins only) category. The film opens in Los Angeles at Landmark's Regent Theatre in Westwood on Friday and will likely expand to a broader Los Angeles audience in two weeks.

"Everyone sees [the Latino market] like it's El Dorado -- they think they are going to find gold," he said. "Movies should be made for everyone, and some people will always find more things in common with a theme than others. But people will always take away something interesting."

"Herod's Law" has followed a torturous path to the big screen. The movie, in which an ignorant trash dump janitor is catapulted to small-town mayor by the PRI party hierarchy, infuriated government bureaucrats who attempted to block its release.

At the time, it was extremely topical and controversial, considering the PRI was facing a historic election challenge by the opposition party, the PAN (National Action Party). Despite attempts by PRI operatives to buy him out, blackmail him and sabotage the film's release until after the July presidential election, Estrada's movie was released in February 2000.

A record 2 million people attended the film -- a number since broken by "El Crimen del Padre Amaro," yet another controversial Mexican film which portrayed the Catholic church in an unflattering light.

The PRI was swept out of office for the first time in 70 years by the PAN. To this day, says Estrada, PAN party members give his film some credit for helping in the elections -- something that does not please Estrada.

"They have told me that the movie was a factor in building the consciousness of the people, particularly with the undecided vote," said Estrada. "But that is not something I'm very proud of. I've never been a real sympathizer with the PAN and after these past three years, nothing in Mexico has changed."

After its theatrical release at home and recognizing that no American distributor was going to buy it, Estrada sold the rights to the movie to the Mexico-based distributor NuVision, which had hopes of expanding its distribution business into the United States. But NuVision's plans for U.S. distribution fell through and the company signed a deal with Venevision.

Working with a very limited marketing budget and little knowledge of the U.S. theatrical distribution business has hindered Venevision's efforts, Villanueva acknowledged. However, he hopes "Herod's Law" can benefit from the recent popularity of Mexican stars and movies in Hollywood. "It's a classic film in that it's part of the new wave of Mexican cinema," he said.

Estrada believes the movie offers an interesting glimpse into a world few Americans are familiar with.

"A lot of people say 'Why show the dark side?' But I think there is room in film to show a little of the dark side," he said. "This movie is a reflection, it opens a window on human beings and their follies."

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