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Despite a few luminaries, Latino films still struggle for mainstream acceptance

In the wake of the political debate on immigration, not only are individuals from foreign countries keen on reaching the U.S., but the arts — specifically cinema — are finding it difficult to bridge the gap between the United States and Spanish-speaking countries, despite some recent, notable successes.

La Mujer de Mi Hermano, top, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Duck Season are three Spanish-language and/or Latin American films that made it to the U.S. in the past year, but they represent only a handful of the available movies. Distribution companies are springing up dedicated to meeting what they see as a growing demand for Latino and Spanish films in the U.S.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, a perplexing story of love, betrayal and underground dogfights released in 2000, redefined Spanish-language films for the American viewer. In 2001, the sexual energy of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También continued to spark an interest in the genre. The trend, though sporadic, has lasted for the past five years, with films including The Motorcycle Diaries, Maria Full of Grace, and Talk to Her finding an enthusiastic reception with U.S. audiences. But the influx of well-received Spanish films at the turn of the 21st century is only part of the story. Unless the name Pedro Almodóvar is attached to the production, most films from Mexico, Latin America, and Spain are not given the opportunity to cross over into the U.S. market.

“Of the over 150 films from Latin America and Mexico, the U.S. gets about 10 per year,” says Carlos A. Gutierrez, co-founder and co-director of Cinema Tropical, a New York-based non-profit organization that promotes, programs, and distributes Latin American cinema in the U.S. “Even though the Latin-American voice is growing, we are missing out on the boom of Latin-American art.”

One reason so few Spanish-langugage films are distributed in the U.S. is that some American film companies view it as a “very risky venture,” says Joshua Gabel, co-founder of ¡Viva Tu Cine!, an LA-based grassroots organization similar to Cinema Tropical that promotes Spanish-language films and Latino-themed films such as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

“Only very few companies have, up to this point, been willing to risk millions of dollars in paying for the marketing campaign and prints of a Spanish-language film,” said Gabel, adding that he hopes to bring 10-15 first-run Latino films to theaters in 2006. “And of these few films, even fewer have made money.”

According to officials with Santikos Theaters in San Antonio, the movie chain that includes the Bijou at Crossroads Theatre (which shows most of the foreign language films in the city), the number of weeks a film is screened depends on the amount of box-office revenue it brings in per week. Last year, Argentina’s The Holy Girl and Mexico’s Crónicas ran for only two weeks before the Bijou pulled them from its lineup because of poor ticket sales. This year, only two Spanish-language films — Duck Season and La Mujer de Mi Hermano — have been released in San Antonio. Duck Season bowed out after a two-week stint at the Bijou this month. Mujer made headlines when its U.S. distributor, Lions Gate Films, created a new division, Panamax Films, to reach out to the 41 million Latinos currently living in the U.S. Lions Gate and Panamax announced plans last November to co-produce and release six to eight Latino-themed films per year. Mujer, the distributors’ first film of the year, is said to be “one of the largest openings for a Spanish-language film targeted to Latino audiences in the U.S.,” reaching 206 screens across the country.

“It is important that Latino audiences see films that are relevant to their unique cultural experience and heritage,” says Gabel. “These films tend to provide a ... level of enrichment that Hollywood films cannot offer to them.”

Along with Lions Gate, other film distributors seem to have read the Motion Picture Association of America’s 2004 study, which found that Hispanics frequent the theater more than Anglos or African-Americans. According to Tartan Video President Tony Borg, Tartan Films, whose name is synonymous with the Asian Extreme cinema it produces (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), is gearing up for a theatrical release of its second and third Spanish-language films, Battle in Heaven and H6: Diary of a Serial Killer.

“We are trying to bring Spanish films more into the mainstream,” Borg said. “For Hispanics, there is a certain pride in being able to point to a homegrown son who is out there making great films and trying new things.”

One of these new things, Gutierrez says, should be the creation of additional categories for Spanish-language films as an alternative to placing them under the broad strokes of arthouse, independent, or foreign-language.

“Many distribution companies think that because a film is in Spanish, all the Latino population in the U.S. will go see the film,” he says. “They are not aware that there are big differences in Latino communities around the U.S. We have to create new ways to really promote and make these films accessible.”

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