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by Anthony Kaufman
March 21, 2006 11:06 AM
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Viva El Cine: Will Mexico and Spain Spur a Spanish-Language Revival?

A scene from "Duck Season." Photo provided by Warner Independent Pictures

"Vamonos!" cries one of the ads for "Duck Season," Fernando Eimbcke's slacker comedy about two 14-year-olds, a pizza delivery guy, pot brownies and the loneliness of growing up. But are people actually going?

Produced by "Y Tu Mama Tambien"'s Alfonso Cuaron and the winner of 11 Ariel Awards (Mexico's Oscars), the film has been a favorite on the international festival circuit. But as the first Spanish language release for mini-major Warner Independent Pictures ("March of the Penguins," "Paradise Now"), "Duck Season" isn't yet cause for felicitaciones. After opening two weeks ago in art-house theatres in New York and Los Angeles, the movie has gotten off to an unremarkable start with a total box office so far of roughly $61,000.

Spanish-language films have often been a hard nut for U.S. distributors to crack. After the brief, roaring successes of the Gael Garcia Bernal hat trick "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Crime of Father Amaro" and "The Motorcycle Diaries," several companies have tried and failed to repeat the model, catering to a mix of art-house devotees and Latino audiences.

Last year, only a couple Spanish language films were successful, and those companies created to specifically target theatrical releases to the Latino demographic (Arenas Entertainment, Venevision Int'l, Televisa Cine) have all flamed out. Still, 2006 will see a steady rise of Spanish language movies (specifically from Mexico and Spain) - and the chance for another possible U.S. breakthrough.

For "Duck Season," Warner Independent has been aggressively courting the "upscale" Latino market, using email list-serves and Latino film groups, like Vive Tu Cine in Los Angeles and Cinema Tropical in New York, to get the word out. "It's a hardcore art film," admits Warner Independent's Laura Kim. "If you're looking for a Latino audience, you're looking for Latino art-filmgoers."

But as the release goes into its fourth week, the company will try to broaden the film's base. "We'll be targeting the specialized audience, as well as carefully planned expansions to upscale, crossover theatres in existing markets in an effort to attract an upscale non-arthouse Hispanic audience," says Warner Indie distribution executive Steven Friedlander. "We'll be in over 100 theatres and over 40 markets by the seventh week of release."

This two-pronged approach marks the wide divide that few Spanish language films are able to bridge. Cinema Tropical's Carlos Gutierrez acknowledges there is a large gap between "the Latino arthouse crowd and those who go to see 'El Vacilon,'" he says, referring to the recent film based on El Vacilon de la Manana, a popular New York morning radio show. Highlighting the difference between the two different cinemas, radio host and "Vacilon" star Luis Jimenez says in the film's press notes, "Almost every Spanish film wants to deliver a message or be nominated for an award. We don't care about awards or about teaching a lesson, we just want to make people laugh!" "El Vacilon," one of Televisa Cine's last releases, did just that, making more than $1.2 million in New York area theaters.

With its screenings of award-winners like Natalia Almada's engrossing corrido documentary "Al Otro Lado" and Pedro Gonzalez and Carlos Armella's intimate Mexican bullfighting portrait "Toro Negro," Cinema Tropical caters to the other end of the spectrum.

"There is definitely an interest in art-house films from an upscale Latino audience," says Gutierrez. At a recent promotional screening of "Duck Season" sponsored by Cinema Tropical, he says about 90% of the audience were Spanish speakers. "We've been able to offer a particular niche," he says. "That's why we've been successful. Most of the people are assimilated; they can watch Univision and read the New York Times."

But such art films have a tough time in the U.S. marketplace. Earlier this year, Tartan Films released Carlos Reygadas's controversial tour-de-force "Battle in Heaven." A mesmerizing cinematic breakthrough that was never meant to cross over, the movie continues its slow rollout across the country, with grosses still falling under $100,000.

"La mujer de mi hermano" ("My Brother's Wife") -- another recent high-profile Mexican film, headed for U.S. theaters next month - falls into the broader-based "Vacilon" category. A hit melodrama back home that earned $3.2 million, "La mujer" will be released by distributor Lionsgate as part of a multi-film collaboration with Florida-based production company Panamax Films. In a nod to its target Latino audience, Lionsgate will keep the title of the film in Spanish. If the company can tap the U.S. Mexican population, the country's largest and fastest-growing Hispanic group (which numbered 20.6 million people, according to the 2000 Census), Lionsgate can claim victory in what has been a notoriously challenging niche.

As New Yorker Films' Rebeca Conget warns, "To see films in their own language, [the Latino audience] watches cable or rents on DVD, where there's a lot more choice and it's cheaper."

Conget is currently working on Iciar Bollian's "Take My Eyes," Spain's 2004 seven-time Goya winner and a highlight of the 2004 Spanish Cinema Now series in New York. Among a number of recent Spanish films focusing on domestic abuse, "Take My Eyes," which opened last Friday, boldly mines the psychology of the violent, yet fragile male ego as well as his traumatized female victim. ("[Bollian] fuses a fine script and piercing central performances into a provocative piece," wrote Variety after the film's San Sebastian premiere.)

Despite the film's largely favorable reviews and Spanish language, many Latinos will likely skip the movie in theaters, says Conget. "The fact is that this 'Latino' population is made up of people from more than a dozen countries, each with a very particular culture... Mexicans might go out of their way to see a Mexican film, but Colombians, Peruvians, Dominicans and Cubans couldn't care less," she says. "I am actually from Spain and completely bilingual, but had to read the subtitles for at least the first 20 minutes of 'Amores Perros,' for example, because I couldn't understand a word of the Mexican slang."

For Spain's "Take My Eyes," Conget says, "We're dealing with a completely foreign culture that most Latinos here would definitely not identify with." So as with most foreign-language films, the company is targeting "the general, albeit limited, audience that goes to see art films and foreign films, and, of course, that includes people from all over, including Latinos," she says.

"Take My Eyes" may not be crossover material (the movie only grossed $6,440 on two screens). But Conget blames this, in part, on the press. "It is almost insulting that a film that was one of the highest grossing domestic features in Spain's history and won seven Goya awards would be relegated here to capsule reviews and the dreaded 'Film in Review' section of The New York Times," she says. "Still, we're not planning on giving up."

And neither are other distributors. There are a pair of high-profile Spanish films being released this fall that will get a lot more attention: With recognizable cast and auteur directors, Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" and Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" offer the best chance yet for a Spanish revival in the U.S. market.

There also continues to be a thriving film scene south of the border. According to a recent article in Variety, 53 films were shot in Mexico in 2005, up from the previous year's count of 36. The sexy Mexican co-production "Solos Dios Sabe," starring Diego Luna and Alice Braga, which premiered at Sundance, will likely see a U.S. release later this year, according to an industry insider close to the film. And Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga ("Amores Perros," "Babel") is kickstarting the production of "The Night Buffalo," according to Variety, also starring Diego Luna and to be directed by Venezuelan director Jorge Hernandez.

And as long as Gael Garcia Bernal keeps working in Spanish, there's always another potential breakout on the horizon.

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