Latin Invasion Lull: Where is the Year's Latin American Breakout?
by Anthony Kaufman
"Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Motorcycle Diaries" -- these recent Latin American cinema giants have forced the specialized movie business to pay attention to films from south of the border. Studios and independent companies have devoted time, energy, and entire divisions to match Latin American cinema with local audiences, hoping to capitalize on the growing Latino market. As Bob Berney, who released "Y Tu Mama" for IFC in 2002, says, "That's where the growth is in foreign films." And when Latinos make up the largest and fast- growing minority in the U.S., Berney adds, "Do you even call Spanish films 'foreign language'?"
The answer, at least for now, is still "yes." Despite the buzz surrounding Latin American cinema over the last few years, the success of the films have proven to be just as unpredictable and inconsistent as any international imports. "We've had time to see that the hype is not delivering as much as it promised in the beginning," says Carlos A. Gutierrez, co-director of Cinema Tropical, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting, programming and distributing Latin American cinema in the U.S.
While Cinema Tropical has expanded its modest activities since 2001, now operating in 13 cities and showcasing such art-house fare as Lucrecia Martel's debut "La Cienaga" and Rodrigo Bellot's "Sexual Dependency," other endeavors have not been so fortunate. Venevision International -- an Ibero-American television giant -- tried to release a number of Spanish-language movies, all of which failed in theaters. And after the ambitious, but lukewarm release of "Nicotina," Arenas Entertainment is now a "rent-a-system" service no longer working with studio partner Universal. And in New York last fall, Clearview Cinemas' plan to transform their 62nd and Broadway location into "Cinema Latino" -- the only all-Latino movie house in Manhattan -- lasted only three months.
The only box office hotspot of the year falls into in a very different mold than past imports like "The Crime of Father Amaro" or "Motorcycle Diaries." Sergio Arau's social satire "A Day Without A Mexican" -- a mockumentary about what happens when all the Mexicans in California suddenly disappear -- has made $4.8 million in the U.S. Neither a critical darling on the order of "Y Tu Mama," nor strictly "foreign," as it is both in English and Spanish, the film is the first release from Televisa Cine, a division of Mexican conglomerate conglomGrupo Televisa. While the company plans to create more popular English-Spanish hybrids, the success of "Mexican" has proven the exception, not the rule.
While the harbingers of the so-called "Buena Onda" (or "Good Wave") such as Walter Salles, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and Alfonso Cuaron have temporarily taken a break from their local cinemas to helm American studio projects, full-blooded Latin American festival favorites like "Lost Embrace," "Historias Minimas," "The Holy Girl" and "Cronicas" have done fair to mediocre at the box office.
Hoping to capitalize on the Latino market, Palm Pictures made an aggressive push for "Cronicas," a thriller starring John Leguizamo, in Los Angeles. But the numbers proved soft on the West Coast. "I think the softness of the LA numbers reflect the difficulty of reaching and convincing a non-arthouse audience with limited resources," says Palm Pictures' head of marketing Andy Robbins. "They also reflect the repeated fact that LA is often softer with arthouse fare than NY."
Still relative to other Hollywood and art-house competition on summer screens, Robbins believes the box office numbers (over $93,000 in two weeks) "validate the fact that the Latino market is interested in Latino films and that with limited resources we mounted an effective campaign. While the grosses could be stronger in LA, the response from the latino press has been strong and a mainstream Latino community is buying tickets to a foreign language arthouse film."
But Gutierrez notes the difficulty in defining that audience. "It's a myth that the Latino audience is going to see any films that are made in Spanish," he says. "The Hispanic audience is divided into several different levels; it's so fragmented. A second generation Mexican American is different from a 3rd generation Texano is different from a new immigrant in New York."
"And it doesn't work if you're just tapping only into the Hispanic audience," adds Gutierrez. "You need to crossover; otherwise it doesn't work."
"Most people who go see foreign film are non-Latino," agrees Calixto Chincilla, the founder and executive director of the New York International Latino Film Festival, which begins next week. "We're finally getting hip to it. But I don't think the industry understands how to affectively market to us. My grandmother is not going to jump up to pay $10 on opening weekend."
While not yet a launch pad for international films into the U.S. market, the New York International Latino fest did hold the local premiere of "Nicotina," and this year has partnered with the Valladolid Film Festival to showcase a number of films from the Spanish fest in honor of its 50th anniversary. Chincilla points to one of the films in their international showcase as having theatrical potential: "Days of Santiago," Peruvian director Josue Mendez's intense drama about a 23-year-old soldier who returns home from the army. "It's very reminiscent of 'Taxi Driver' and the director is definitely an up-and-comer," he says.
Spanish-lingo film watchers are also noting an influx of stellar nonfiction from Latin America. "Our documentary films are particularly strong this year, especially 'Boxer and Bailarinas,' 'Favela Rising' and 'Al Otro Lado,'" says NYILFF festival programmer Gisela Fosado. "These films, which touch on boxing and ballet among Cubans, a powerful hip-hop movement in Brazil, and a talented Corrido composer from Mexico, tie music and cinema-verite to form lyrical and inspiring stories."
The festival circuit has recently produced another potential success: "Live In Maid," a world cinema winner at Sundance and singled out by New York Times critic A.O. Scott and a number of distributors, the Argentine film could be the next sleeper hit. Sales agent Andrew Herwitz, selling U.S. rights, admits there is a strong interest among distributors, noting "Academy buzz."
There are other films on the horizon that show promise, as well. Magnolia Pictures will distribute festival crowd pleaser "Only Human," an Argentine "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" about a young Jewish woman who brings her Palestinian boyfriend home; Slacker comedy "Duck Season" is also verging on a U.S. distribution deal with a major specialized division; Luis Mandoki's "Innocent Voices" will receive a September release via fledgling outfit BB Entertainment Marketing; and as part of the Weinsteins' unloading of shelved pictures, Miramax will put out "Sequestro Express" about a young couple kidnapped in Venezuela, starring "Motorcycle Diaries" starlet Mia Maestro and Ruben Blades.
Still, none of the above are generating the type of excitement that we saw a few years ago. As one acquisition exec says, "After 'Crime of Father Amaro' and 'Y Tu Mama Tambien,' there should be another one." But where is it?