How Pantelion Films Lures Latinos to the Box Office

Lionsgate's Pantelion Films wants to do for Hispanic filmgoers what Tyler Perry has done for African-Americans. Is this progress?

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?"

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6 Comments

  • javatrance@hotmail.com

    I truly believe that it is all in the marketing. The real problem is how to market to such diversity of latinos.
    When we speak about Latinos in the U.S. we automatically think "Mexican". Not all mexicans are film goers. However the majority of Latinos are now responding more the Art House cinema coming from Central and South America. Hollywood has the power to tap in on the numbers here in the U.S. bigtime!!! The important thing to do is really market the films from the root. Hollywood spends millions of dollars marketing their films. I believe we can reach latino audiences in a very interesting way, you see latinos are very passionate people. What we need to do is make them feel proud, Latino pride is a very powerful tool, so reach Latinos by the root. Basically the root, is what connects Latinos no matter where they are from... Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Argentina Ect... We need to market Latino films where the audience feels a sense of pride to go see new and fresh talent. Talent that has been lost and mislead by the hollywood stereotype of the Latino Actor. We need to spend our millions reaching out to that audience telling authentic, organic stories about latinos with real latinos. Let us not change accents, let us use real locations, lets be original. The world has changed, the world is globalized. Lets educate, lets give interesting roles to our spanish speaking actors. Lets find new directors, Lets open doors! That is what the industry is asking for. But the corporate world is to blind to see. Latinos spend alot of money in this country, latinos will go see films if the film are worth seeing in their language! The problem is!!! Why go see the same guy on the big screen if I have him in a Telenovela at home for free!!! We need new raw talent on the BIG SCREEN. I love Robert Rodriguez, but he never catered to the Latinos, and the real Latino director that get reconition belong to Hollywood and they are controlled by that monster! Examples: Guillermo del Toro, Alforno Cuaron etc... We need the Latino version of Quentin Tarantino, the Latino George Lucas, the Latino Spielberg, the Latino Spike Lee, the Latino Danny Boyle Catch my drift. Make it happen!

    Just a thought feel free to express your self.

  • K Rodriguez

    @ L. Martin Johnson Pratt - WOW. I am equally in awe of the comment below. Maybe I'm just a "crazy" exception to the rule but, as a latina, I don't have a problem sitting quietly in the dark for two hours. In fact, I have a career watching films. You said it, L. Martin, "We have a long way to go...."

  • L Martin Johnson Pratt

    interesting how the only comment before mine was a racist comment. We have a long way to go before corporate america/america gets how to really create products that engage the culture

  • @JesseLuna

    It's a systemic problem. It's not about finding the right formula, it's about having culturally sensitive and empowered Latinos in the whole filmmaking pipeline. When there is no support in the pipeline for those types of stories and sensibilities, ideas wither.

  • Isobel Kramen

    Most Latinos I know love to talk, eat & dance--forget about sitting quietly in the dark for two hours. Redesign theatres with food and beverages without seats. Pump up the music and add disco lights and mirrors. Send a DM if you want details.

  • Festival LOOP Colombia

    In U.S. market every Latino speaks English, so the strategy will be definitely better. But for south america it would hardly hit the majority of the population, whom expect more close themes and experiences for movies... In our region English is hardly spoken and the cultures of the whole southamerican continent are much more alike to each other than to Latino U.S culture.