When film executive Jim McNamara goes to a movie theater, he has trouble walking past Latino teenagers without stopping to ask what movie they saw and why they chose it. Even more than the newest nubile starlets, it is these bicultural, bilingual teens from Miami to Detroit whom Hollywood studios want. Latinos are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America indicate that they are big movie fans: In 2009, Latinos purchased 300 million movie tickets and went to more movies per capita than any other ethnicity.
Last fall, looking to attract the ever-growing number of Latino moviegoers, film studio Lionsgate partnered with Mexican media conglomerate Televisa on a new venture called Pantelion Films, which will release 8 to 10 movies a year, catering specifically to Latinos. With Pantelion, Lionsgate is attempting to replicate its success marketing Tyler Perry's films — including the $297 million Madea franchise, featuring a crotchety matriarch played by Perry — to African-Americans.
"Latinos don't see themselves reflected in Hollywood movies," says McNamara, former chief executive at Telemundo and Pantelion's new chairman, who was raised in Panama. His new company aims to change that.
Released at the end of January, Pantelion's first film, From Prada to Nada, focuses on two formerly rich sisters — one of whom proudly quips "no hablo español" with an Anglo accent — who are forced to move in with relatives in a scrappy, Latino part of East Los Angeles. While the movie is in English, many of the punch lines are in Spanish.
Hollywood's previous attempts to market Spanish-language and Latino-centric films have largely failed. Even though movies in Spanish like IFC's Y Tu Mamá También and Focus Features' The Motorcycle Diaries found success in the art-house market, they did not broadly appeal to the Latino population. Those teenagers McNamara chats up in movie-theater lobbies generally opt to see commercial blockbusters in English. Language is not the company's key strategy — only about half of Pantelion's releases will be in Spanish.
"When a movie is in Spanish, if a Puerto Rican is speaking Spanish, or a Mexican is speaking Spanish, it identifies them," Pantelion's chief executive, Paul Presburger, says of the language's countless dialects and geographically diverse slang. "Whereas when we do a film with Latino stars in English, it unifies."
Whether in English or Spanish, the new films will provide opportunities for Latino talent. "There are fewer Latinos in the movie industry per capita now than there were 50 years ago," says Kathryn Galan, executive director of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. "We're still waiting for our Latino breakout stars."
In an effort to connect with this demographic, Pantelion will borrow tactics from other ethnically specific movie distributors. Lesson one comes from Perry, whose loyal fans count on seeing a few heavily branded Perry films a year. This steady stream of new releases has brought in more than $517 million in ticket sales since 2005 and made Perry a magnate. Pantelion staff also studied the successful distribution of Bollywood films.
Still, targeting an ethnic slice of society is fraught with potential clichés. In 2009, director Spike Lee likened Perry's films to "coonery and buffoonery" and asked how such fare persists when the country has a black president.
Pantelion will let the target audience decide if something is offensive, executives say. "African-Americans are going to see Perry's films; they're the ones enjoying them," Presburger says. Nonetheless, the Pantelion staff reads scripts with a careful eye for hackneyed images of Latino life and culture. "We get out of the stereotypes of narco kings and drug dealers and gang members," Presburger adds.
Some are skeptical that Hollywood can so easily shed those timeworn tropes. Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent his academic career cataloguing the stereotypes of Latinos in cinema from silent films to today's box-office hits. At the top of his taxonomy are el bandito, the criminal; the floozy, whom Berg calls the "harlot with a flower behind her ear"; and the Latin lover.
"Stereotypes in film persist because they serve a function: They provide an efficient way to tell a story in under two hours," Berg says. "Now films are being made by and for Latinos, so the next question is, Will they break out of stereotypes or just repeat them?"
A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.