Hollywood gets 'Instructions' on Hispanic audiences
05:00 AM, Sep 25, 2013
LOS ANGELES Like a lot of actors here, Eugenio Derbez has a select few restaurants where he likes to take a meal with studio executives.
Unlike his counterparts, Derbez chooses the restaurant based on the intrusiveness of the wait staff the pushier the better.
“Waiters, cooks, valets, I want them to come find me and ask for an autograph or a picture,” Derbez says. “That way, (execs) know that, at least where I’m from, people know who I am.”
He won’t need to be picky about restaurants much longer. The Mexico City native’s latest film, the modestly budgeted, bilingual comedy Instructions Not Included, has earned more than $30 million since its limited release on Aug. 30. That robust reception upended box-office forecasts and has made it one of the year’s biggest surprises.
Analysts and academics say the movie’s success over pricier, higher-profile American films could mark a sea change in pictures bound for the cineplex namely, a surge in Hispanic-oriented, even bilingual movies that reflects the growing Latino influence in the country and film industry.
“There is a large middle-class and working-class Hispanic population anxious to see itself reflected on the Hollywood screen,” says Kerry Hegarty, associate professor of Spanish and Film Studies at Miami (Ohio) University.
With its increased dependence on international box office and its embrace of nascent Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) and Alfonso Cuarón (Oct. 4’s Gravity), Hollywood has for years seen the need to habla español.
But observers consider Instructions, a family comedy set in Mexico and Los Angeles, more of a game-changer. For one, the film’s dialogue leaps from Spanish to English.
“We wanted it to be like real life,” Derbez says by phone from Mexico City. “People have become more bilingual. But, truthfully, we never thought it would cross over” to American audiences.
Not that the 51-year-old star of film and television thought he’d be at the forefront of an industry shift.
“Five years ago, I thought I would be able to get Natalie Portman and have a big cross-over hit” in Instructions, says Derbez, who wrote, directed and stars in the film. “But then, the budget was so small, I just gave up. I thought, ‘I’ll make a Spanish-language film and maybe a few theaters in the U.S. would show it.’ Not this. I never expected what happened out of this movie.”
An audience that’s ‘under-served’
No one did. When the $7 million movie opened Aug. 30 on 348 screens in the USA, the partially subtitled story of a father bringing his 6-year-old girl from Mexico to Los Angeles barely made the radar of most box-office forecasters. They instead debated whether the boy-band concert film One Direction: This is Us could unseat Lee Daniels’ The Butler as Hollywood’s summer wrapped up over Labor Day.
That showdown overshadowed Instructions’ debut of $10.4 million, making it the largest Spanish-language debut for a film in the USA.
Since then, Instructions has been nothing short of en fuego at the box office. It hasn’t dropped from the top six in the month and a half since its release, and last weekend it crept up to No. 4. The film has grossed $34.3 million so far and will likely clobber One Direction, which sits at $29 million.
“Spanish-language viewers are demonstrating that they are a commercial force,” says Christina L. Sisk, professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Houston and author of Mexico, Nation in Transit: Contemporary Representations of Mexican Migration to the United States.
Sisk says that as the Latino population has grown in the USA, the movie industry “also adjusted its approach so as to tap into the consumer potential of this group.”
Indeed, a recent survey by the National Association of Theater Owners finds that Hispanics see more movies every year than any other ethnicity. The NATO study says that Hispanic moviegoers saw an average of 5.3 movies in 2011, the most recent data available.
That dwarfs the number of movies seen by other groups, including African-Americans (3.7 movies a year) and whites (3.5 movies).
“It amuses me that we are in 2013, and with the 2000 and 2010 Census under our belts and countless reports that have been stating for years the fact that Latinos are strong moviegoers, (there are) still very few studios that have dedicated the attention to understand our market,” says Luis Balaguer, CEO of Latin Entertainment and the manager of Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara.
“We are definitely under-served,” says Balaguer, who called on the industry to hire more “Latino executives who have dedicated their lives to this market and can help the studio crack the code.”
Some studio executives think they’re close. Instructions comes from Pantelion Films, Hollywood’s first Spanish-oriented studio and a joint venture between Lionsgate and the formidable Mexican multimedia company Televisia.
Chief Executive Paul Presburger says that Instructions shouldn’t have come as such a surprise because of Derbez, a huge star in Mexican film and TV.
“He’s the biggest star nobody heard of,” Presburger says. “But even in the testing (with sample audiences), we were scoring higher than we thought. It was clear we’ve just been scratching the surface of the Latino market.”
Latino moviegoers are diverse
That market will soon take on a more international flair. Upcoming Latino-themed movies include:
Presburg says that while there is no monolithic Latino market “there’s a Mexican audience, Cuban, Puerto Rican” he expects more studios to follow suit with specialty divisions.
“It’s not that different from most moviegoers: If they’ve got a choice between Transformers and a small Mexican movie, most people are still going to choose Transformers,” he says. “What’s changing is you’re seeing more choices for that community, which is why we’ll see more subtitles and bilingual movies. You’ll see a lead character who doesn’t speak English.”
Derbez will be happy to play one. He says that, for all his newfound success in the USA, he remains mystified by the country’s impression of its neighbor to the south and its residents.
“I love American movies,” Derbez says. “So do most people who know my movies. But you use Mexicans who are not really Mexicans. You say George Lopez is Mexican. But for us, he is the American guy. We really don’t see many people like us.”
Still, he says, he can’t get over his latest publicity tour of the States, which included stops at L.A. restaurants and grocery stores, where fans knocked over aisle displays to get an autograph or photo.
“Suddenly, people are telling me that I’m the one who’s going to change things,” he says. “An American asked for my autograph, my first. I think I’m going to have to make some life decisions. But I really want to tell people that they don’t have to be afraid of subtitles.”