For years, Latinos who sat in movie theaters typically saw themselves depicted as ruthless killers, drug dealers or restaurant workers or impoverished dwellers of dilapidated housing projects in grim neighborhoods.
But as the nation’s largest minority group has muscled its way into the middle class – and has started to flex its enormous spending power, Hollywood seems to have gotten the message.
Now they are giving Latinos movies they want to see – and this gamble seems to be paying off.
The heartwarming comedic father-daughter story of “Instructions Not Included” surprised many when it blew into the box office last month – bilingual dialogue and all. It broke records, becoming the highest grossing Spanish-language film in the North American box office. (“Instructions Not Included” raked in $10.4 million during its first week.)
“Instructions” was followed by “Pulling Strings,” the story of a Mariachi singer in Mexico City trying to get his daughter to Arizona by taking a U.S. embassy worker through a whirlwind adventure. The Spanish-language film became the most recent indie box office hit by Pantelion Films, earning more than $2.5 million, so far.
Alex Nogales, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said the success these Spanish-language films was a combination of events that includes a growing Latino movie-going population, a successful marketing campaign by the studio Pantelion and the style used in the films.
“We are hungry for stuff that is about us,” he told Fox News Latino, adding that these grade A flicks touch on themes Latinos care about, like family, death and, to a certain extent, immigration. “When I see the numbers, Latinos are flocking (to these movies). We’ve always been avid movie goers.”
He continued: “We go with our entire families. It’s not just one ticket, but three or four.”
Industry experts agree, saying these movies have succeeded over high-budget, higher-profile American films. That, they say, marks the beginning of what they think will be a surge of Latino-oriented and even bilingual movies that will reflect the lives and culture of a growing Latino middle class.
Kerry Hegarty, associate professor of Spanish and Film Studies at Miami (Ohio) University, said Pantelion, a joint venture between Lionsgate and Mexican media company Televisa, is specifically creating films for the growing Latino audience, using artists well-known within the community and showing stories that appeal to Latinos and non-Latinos alike.
She said the films they were also marketed for audiences in the United States – using a title in English and very little Spanish in trailers – and that brought people to the theaters. She expects more movies like this, she said.
“When I saw (‘Instructions Not Included’), I heard a woman behind me say she didn’t like movies with subtitles and that she did not know it was a bilingual film,” Hegarty said. “But when they see it, they see it has a universal story (and love it).”
Nogales said non-Latinos movie-goers have become more sympathetic toward Latinos, and want to learn more about them.
“Latinos used to be segregated – first self-segregated and segregated by location,” he said. “(But) now we are all over the place. Non-Latinos are getting used to seeing Latinos.”
And this is one of the reasons why, Hegarty said, she believes Hollywood has wanted to connect with the growing Latino community for many years. She said Latinos are the highest minority patronizing movies, but it was not until now that studios had a formula to attract them that worked.
She said she could not believe it took as long as it did, but the second-generation Latinos who have a foot in both cultures are a huge part of it.
“Pulling Strings” director Pedro Pablo Ibarra recently told Fox News Latino that the fact the movie was bilingual did not seem to sway audiences because the story on screen was multilingual, multicultural and can happen anywhere.
“It’s a comedy – a simple comedy – that audiences like because it is authentic,” Ibarra said of his movie. “It’s a father-daughter story, it’s about love. All of those factors are appealing to the public.”
Hegarty said this is what makes these movies refreshing for Latino audiences, who are used to seeing sex-filled, violence-filled movies about their culture. It’s not, she said, what they want to see.
“They want to see their lives on screen… ‘Normalized’ Latino culture,” she said. “I think that’s what’s refreshing for audiences.”
Fueling the Momentum
Nogales said there are only so many times before audiences can see people being blown up or hear the word “gringo” in a movie before they stop watching the “traditional” Latino-oriented movie.
And because of this, Latino media organizations say they are going to start promoting films to the community that they feel are “good for the population to see.” The idea behind this, Nogales said, is to have media and film experts weigh in on why Latinos should see movies about Latinos, or with Latinos.
“They will give you the thumbs up or down about a movie,” said Nogales, who said the project will start in December.
Follow Lucia I. Suarez on Twitter @luciasuarezsang