december coverRising Stars

As the song goes, it’s been a long time coming.

Although Hollywood had a handful of Latino stars during the silent era, and a few more during the 30’s and 40’s, they were mostly relegated to playing bad guys and bad girls. It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that Latino filmmakers began to turn the tide by focusing on stories that Hollywood had no interest in funding, and therefore were produced independently.

This afforded the filmmakers the freedom to cast Latino actors in substantial roles which allowed the actors to get noticed and subsequently obtain more work; a few of which would go on to become international stars. Among these films were Gregory Nava’s Oscar nominated El Norte (1985); Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. (1987); and Ramon Menendez’s Stand and Deliver (1988). Most of them were critically acclaimed and moderately successful at the box office. This prompted Universal to “greenlight” Luis Valdez’s La Bamba which was premiered in 1987 and went on to reign as the highest grossing Latino-themed film ($52,678,820 in gross receipts) until 2001, when Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids took that title.

But not even the success of La Bamba was enough to get Hollywood to fund more Latino-themed movies. What they did typically greenlight were films like The Perez Family where Latinos were played in “brown face” with clichéd and cartoonish portrayals. When these films flopped at the box office, the studios proclaimed that Latinos do not support “their own films,” so the funding dried up.

Moving Up

But in recent years, Latino stars have achieved considerable success. This can be traced back to Jennifer Lopez when she was cast in the title role of Selena in 1996. Once again, it was director Gregory Nava casting an “unproven talent” in a lead, as he had done for El Norte. He not only cast Lopez, a relative unknown at that time, in the lead role, but made history by making her the first Latina to get paid a million dollars. Since then, she has reportedly commanded upwards of $15 million dollars per film, coming only second to Cameron Diaz (who though of Cuban descent has not been cast as a Latina.) According to Forbes Magazine in 2008, Diaz was the highest paid actress in Hollywood making $25 million per film.

Since the million dollar pay-out in 1996, the number of Latino stars has steadily increased with the emergence of talents like Jessica Alba, Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria Parker, George Lopez, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Eva Mendez, Edward James Olmos, and America Ferrera. Spanish-speaking stars from other countries have also gained fame and fortune, like Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Antonio Banderas, and Gael Garcia Bernal. They are making it possible for Latinos to feel proud of who they are and opening doors for others to move up.

There is no denying the impact of one of these ambassadors. After George Lopez debuting his sitcom George Lopez in 2002, it became the first Latino-themed and Latino-produced sitcom to run six seasons and then go into syndication. Most importantly, in a time when the media has once again turned “Mexican” into a bad word, Lopez wears the label proudly. In fact, it has been the catalyst to his success. With award-winning comedy shows like George Lopez: Talk, Dark and Chicano (the highest rated HBO special in five years); El Mas Chingon; and America’s Mexican, Lopez has become one of the top five highest-grossing comedians in the world.

His mainstream appeal was solidified when he co-hosted the Emmys in 2005, and became the host of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 2006. Lopez also received the Artist of the Year and Humanitarian Award by Harvard University and the Liberty Award by the American Way. And he is taking no breathers. His show Lopez Tonight is the longest running late night talk show hosted by a Latino; he has a production company along with wife Ann Lopez which recently announced the development of the Speedy Gonzalez animated film; and he was recently immortalized as the first Mexican American in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Hollywood.

Eva Longoria Parker is a self-described “American of Mexican descent.” Recognized around the world as Gabrielle Solis of Desperate Housewives, Longoria Parker uses this platform to give back to her community. In addition to her acting career, she is one of the producers of the ALMA Awards, and an entrepreneur with her two Beso restaurants. She has several lucrative deals as the face of L’Oreal, Sports Bebe, Hanes and others. But most importantly, she has been recognized for her dedication to social causes with The Hollywood Reporter’s Philanthropist of the Year award in 2009. She works with several charities including PADRES Contra El Cancer and Eva’s Heroes, which she co founded.

Defining moments are important because they create bricks to help solidify the Latino Hollywood foundation. 2003 was an Oscar defining moment, when there were an unprecedented nine Latinos nominated for an Oscar. Three Latino films were nominated: Salma Hayek’s Frida; Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her ;and Carlos and Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien and El Crimen del Padro Amaro in the Foreign Language Film category.

Three years later, in 2006, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would go on to nominate seventeen Latinos for an Oscar, another benchmark to try and surpass. But 2010 was notable for another reason, the absence of any U.S. Latino talent nominated. All the Oscar nominations went to actors from Mexico or Spain.

Claiming Our Share

In 1985, Latinos were 7.5 percent of the total U.S. population. However, on television Latinos were less than one percent of the characters with only four series regulars on primetime: Edward James Olmos and Sandra Santiago in Miami Vice; and René Enriquez and Trinidad Silva in Steven Bocho’s Hill Street Blues. Meanwhile, that same year there were twenty-one African-Americans in series roles, three of which were title roles: The Cosby Show, Benson and Webster.

Now twenty-five years later, the landscape looks a lot browner. As of April 2010, there were thirty-eight Latino series regulars, with America Ferrera having the distinction of playing the only title role in Ugly Betty. However, we continue to trail our African American counterparts in television screen time and the number of executive producers (“show runners”) on TV series. We have gone from no Latino show runners in the 80’s to a handful of successful and talented executive producers currently working. Some of the more prominent ones include René Echeverria (Castle, Medium); Peter Murrieta (Wizards of Waverly Place, Greetings from Tucson); Salma Hayek (Ugly Betty) and among them a Hollywood producing powerhouse, Roberto Orci.

Orci is one of the executive producers/creators of the Emmy nominated television sci-fi thriller Fringe along with his producing partner Alex Kurtzman and director J.J. Abrams. In addition, Orci is producing the remake of the Hawaii Five-O TV series. He is also coming off a banner year in 2009, having produced two of the highest grossing films—Star Trek and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen , as well as The Proposal—together grossing close to a billion dollars domestically. Currently, he is working on a total of 16 films in different stages of production. One of them, Cowboys and Aliens, is being co-producing with Steven Spielberg.

Man with a Mission

In the mid-90’s, comedian Jeff Valdez made it his mission to teach Hollywood that young Latinos watched mostly English language TV. He had an ulterior motive, since he was raising money for SiTV, an English language network which would be targeting these young Latinos. Fifteen years later, there are now believers. The bilingual network landscape has grown. In addition to SiTV, MTV launched MTVtres; NBC/Universal has mun2; and LATV Network also has some bilingual content.

Additionally, according to Nielsen Wire, Latinos between the ages of 12 and 34 are the largest film going audience in the U.S., representing an overwhelming 28% of today’s heavy moviegoers. For example, Latino audiences contributed 46% of the gross receipts of $72.5 million to Universal’s Fast and Furious. And with regard to the 800 million DVD units sold in the U.S. last year, Hispanic households are 24% more likely to purchase them compared to the average American household. In fact, almost 79% of Hispanic moviegoers bought at least one DVD in 2008.

After decades of being ignored, this sector of the market, referred to as the New Generation Latinos, is regarded in the corporate realm as the “hottest” and fastest-growing segment of American consumers.

“Hollywood has been around 100 years and there still isn’t one person that looks like me who can greenlight a feature,” says outspoken independent filmmaker Franc.Reyes. He has raised the funds to independently produce three of his films, Empire, Ilegal Tender and The Ministers.

“Hollywood has never funded anything I’ve done,” he proclaims. “Latino [money] power has to get behind Latino art.” He gives the example of Spike Lee, the director of the film Malcolm X ,who when the studio refused to give him money to finish his film, approached Oprah, Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson and Michael Jordan. Who can Latinos approach to help fund their projects? Good question...

“With the Latino community growing faster than the U.S. Census can measure, Hollywood and independent investors need look no further for the next financial sweet spot,” Reyes told a group of journalist, marketers and ad agency executives attending the New Generation Latino Consortium on April 5, 2009. “The American Latino film community is primed for success on every level — creative, social and financial.”

El Futuro

Moctesuma Esparza, the veteran producer whose credits include The Milagro Beanfield War, Selena, and the HBO movie Walkout, is not a man to wait for Hollywood to change. He’s been banging on the door for decades and he has gotten in a few times. But now he doesn’t just want in.

In 2008, Esparza founded and became Chairman and CEO of Maya Entertainment, a vertically integrated, full-service motion picture production and distribution company targeting the growing entertainment interests of Latinos living in the U.S. Esparza is looking to establish Maya Entertainment as a force in Hollywood, and to provide major opportunities for Latino filmmakers. The distribution arm of his company is especially crucial since it’s the lack of distribution where Latinos films meet their demise.

Hollywood has not escaped change and is going through its own metamorphosis. According to Reyes, independent filmmakers are no longer waiting for studios to distribute their films, they are cutting deals directly with exhibitors like the Regals and AMCs. Portals of sorts are being created where exhibitors will provide between 500 to 1000 screens to indie filmmakers – cutting out the middle man. Reyes is currently putting together a slate of films to present directly to the exhibitors, because as he sees it, studios are going to be making the films they’ve been making for over 100 years, and it’s not Latino films.

Other film and distribution avenues are being explored by (former Telemundo CEO) Jim McNamera’s Panamax Films and Lionsgate, an independent film and television distribution company in North America. They are taking the international co-production route to making Latino-themed films. Their first film, Ladron Que Roba Ladron, was directed and written by Joe Menendez and Jo Jo Henrickson, respectively, and stars well-known telenovela actors. The film was made for $2 million and went on to gross $4 million domestically and another $1,679,505 in Mexico and $1,183,330 in Latin America (where it was distributed by Televisa) for a grand total of $6,875,089 worldwide.

This has prompted a co-venture by Lionsgate, Panamax and Televisa to continue their collaboration. One of their films which is currently awaiting a release date is entitled From Prada to Nada and stars Alexa Vega (Spy Kids); Wilmer Valderrama (That 70s Show); Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza (Babel) and Kuno Becker (Goal). U.S. filmmaker Angel Garcia directed from a script written Luis Alfaro, the well-known Chicano playwright, and Fina Torres (Woman on Top).

So the futuro is bright. But even if it was a long time coming, it remains to be seen whether it will be a long time gone…

Bel Hernandez is the publisher of Latin Heat.