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The Wall Street Journal

Missing The Latin Beat --- New 'Dirty Dancing' Skips Appeal to Latino Viewers; Catskills Then, Cuba Now

By John Lippman

February 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

IT'S A FILM SET in late 1958 Cuba starring a handsome young Mexican actor, filled with red-hot versions of the rumba, mambo and cha cha, and Latino musicians like Carlos Santana power the soundtrack. In other words, it's exactly the kind of film Hollywood could use to court Hispanic moviegoers.

But in the case of "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," due out Feb. 27, it's not happening. Instead of pitching it to a Hispanic audience, the movie's makers instead are summoning up the ghost of a 1987 tale of middle-class whites in the Catskills. Even more unusual, the new film's makers say it's a retelling -- not a prequel or sequel with the same characters -- and, despite the Latino elements, the producers are being careful to avoid calling it a movie for Hispanics. "This is a mainstream American movie," says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing. Getting the Hispanic audience would be "just gravy."

It's one of the biggest examples yet of how Hollywood, while hungry to bring Hispanics into the theater, isn't willing to risk positioning a major film to them.

Part of the reason is financial: With the exception of the 1997 biopic "Selena," featuring Jennifer Lopez in her first major movie role, Hollywood has failed miserably at making profitable crossovers of Latino films. Yet the Hispanic audience represents one of the biggest opportunities out there: It made up 11% of the moviegoing public in 1999 and now totals 15%, and is expected to produce 18% of box-office sales by 2012. Industry insiders say the rise is a function of a young, growing population -- not because Hispanics are delighted with the fare. "The market is under-served, under-targeted, and under-utilized," says film distributor Santiago Pozo ("Empire," 2002).

As for the new "Dirty Dancing," Lions Gate may be paddling toward the mainstream (a wide-release 2,500 screens) because this has been a very long swim indeed. The 1987 megahit starred Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze as two kids from the opposite side of the tracks who fall in love at a resort through their passion for dancing. The follow-up "franchise" movie languished on the development shelf for 16 years while the rights owners shuttled through a succession of bankruptcies, buyouts and mergers. But the movie has always been a gold mine for the rights holder: "Dirty Dancing" is the second-biggest selling home-video title in Lions Gate's library, behind "Terminator."

Originally, the second movie's story was set in Miami. But when Disney's Miramax brought onto the project one of its favored sons, "Pulp Fiction" producer (and onetime dancer) Lawrence Bender, the new locale reflected the life of Mr. Bender's friend, choreographer JoAnn Jansen, who was a teenager in pre-revolution Cuba. So now it tells of a waiter who improbably falls in love with a bookish, upper-class American girl. It stars Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") and Romola Garai in Ms. Grey's role.

So with all the big names involved -- Miramax co-financed the $25-million budget movie and will distribute internationally -- marketers are approaching with caution. "It's smart to market ["Havana Nights"] as a mainstream picture appealing to mostly young women," says John Shaw, who consults studios and theater owners on movie distribution strategies, though he didn't work on "Havana Nights." Young male Hispanics, especially the rising working-class immigrants outside the major cities, tend not to go to the movies often, he adds.

Of course, some will shrug off the cultural issue entirely, saying the mega-careers of stars like Ms. Lopez outweigh the lack of movies that would appeal to a niche audience. Others will point to Hispanics' burgeoning power in other media, like broadcast TV and music.

But while blacks get to see at least fragments of their day-to-day lives in the movies of Spike Lee and John Singleton, no equivalent Latino director has come to the fore, and Hispanics will see little of themselves on the screen in the next few months. Some, as Mr. Pozo points out, may not even realize that "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" is a movie with Latino themes.

Sooner or later, Hispanics may get tired of waiting to be included in Hollywood's stories. And some may stop coming -- something the industry, hurt by piracy and declining ticket sales, can't afford.

Passionate Moviegoers

MEL GIBSON'S controversial "The Passion of The Christ" has grabbed 54% of sales for the past week at Fandango, the leading online movie-ticket agent. That's 21 days before the movie opens on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

The percentage, Fandango says, is even higher at comparable points in the advance-sales cycle than huge franchise movies as "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter," which were of course big hits.

But that may not be the case with "Passion." While many church groups are urging the faithful to buy tickets early, they're like the "hard core" fans who make up the first wave of an audience -- not necessarily indicative of broader appeal.

The Fandango percentage is "bigger than we normally see and demonstrates strong consumer interest," says Miyuki Kitamura, the company's vice president of marketing and product development. "But it is a relative figure" that depends on time of year and rival movies.

Millstones and Milestones

Here are some of Hollywood's attempts at films attracting both Hispanics and a wider audience.

MOVIE/YEAR: El Norte 1984

IMPORTANCE: Film launched Gregory Nava -- director of "Selena" and writer of '02 biopic "Frida."

MOVIE/YEAR: La Bamba 1987

IMPORTANCE: Hollywood has been trying to replicate success of Ritchie Valens story ever since.

MOVIE/YEAR: American Me 1992

IMPORTANCE: Edward James Olmos starred in, directed this Chicano gang story; tepid box office.

MOVIE/YEAR: Bound by Honor 1993 IMPORTANCE: Three hours more about barrio gang wars. No dice.

MOVIE/YEAR: Price of Glory 2000

IMPORTANCE: Family and sports drama starring Jimmy Smits never caught on with non-Hispanics.

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