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April 6, 2000



Is the American Mainstream

Ready For a Latino 'Rocky'?

Can a Latino 'Rocky' Find an Audience in American Theaters?

"Price of Glory," seemed to have all the ingredients needed to become America's first Latino crossover movie since "La Bamba," but American moviegoers disagreed.



HOLLYWOOD -- When producers Moctesuma Esparza and Robert Katz set out to make a movie about a Latino boxing family last year, they figured their timing was impeccable. Ricky Martin and a string of other steamy Latin singers were winning fans across the American heartland. Hispanics, long the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the U.S., were rapidly overtaking African-Americans to become the largest, too. And after years of indifference, Hollywood was taking notice.

What's more, "Price of Glory" seemed to have all the ingredients needed to become America's first Latino crossover movie since 1987's "La Bamba." Jimmy Smits, who has a mainstream following from his roles on the TV shows "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law," had signed on to star. Its themes of sports and family played well to test audiences -- after all, one of America's most popular boxers is Hispanic superstar Oscar De La Hoya. And Time Warner Inc.'s New Line Cinema, known for marketing crossovers of African-American films, was committed to the film.

"This is about as Latino as 'Rocky' was Italian," says Mr. Esparza. "This is a story about Americans."

But when "Price of Glory" opened last Friday, the release was far less ambitious -- and less lucrative -- than the producers had envisioned. Instead of the 1,200 screens they said were the minimum for a mainstream crossover release, New Line chose 800, aimed primarily at the Latino market. The film didn't even open in cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, where the Hispanic population is low.

Hollywood found ways to market some African-American films to mainstream audiences more than a decade ago, feeding a now-thriving genre. But filmmakers say the emerging Latino market is proving trickier. "The separation between the hard-core Latino audience and the general market can be huge," says Santiago Pozo, president of Arenas Group, who was hired by New Line to handle the film's Spanish-language marketing campaign. "This is a country within a country."

New Line says it has gone out on a limb for a market that's largely untested. Along the way, it has been confronted with the vexing hurdles facing ethnic crossover marketing -- including everything from Mr. Smits' surprising lack of recognition among many Hispanic moviegoers to the difficulty in persuading mainstream moviegoers to see free test screenings.

By Hollywood standards, the financial stakes are relatively low. "Price of Glory" cost about $10 million to make and another $10 million to market; it will need a modest $20 million at the box office to break even, studio executives say. But long term, the stakes for such breakout hits are indeed high. Until there is a Latino crossover hit, Hollywood studio executives acknowledge, movies about Hispanics will continue to have a tough time attracting financing and winning audiences. And they admit that the dearth of films with Hispanic roles and themes will stifle talent and slow the assimilation of Latinos into American popular culture.

Consideration of the potential audience's ethnic makeup was a factor in the movie's development from the beginning. Originally written by former New York Times boxing writer Phil Berger in 1991 as a dark and brooding stage play, the screenplay tells the story of a failed Mexican-American boxer who pushes his three sons to realize his foiled dreams.

When Mr. Berger's producer, Arthur Friedman, began shopping the script to Hollywood studios in 1998, the initial reception was cool. "I took it to one studio executive whose reaction was, 'It's Latino,' " Mr. Friedman recalls. "I said, 'So?' and he said, 'It's like a small thing. Do it on HBO or TV.' "

Undeterred, Mr. Friedman brought the script to Messrs. Esparza and Katz, who had earned a reputation for producing successful movies with Latino and African-American themes. They loved the idea, with one caveat: change the downbeat ending, which concluded with the father leaving his family, to make the story an uplifting, redemptive tale of a father's relationship with his sons. "The thinking was that a big part of the audience was going to be Latino -- not all -- but a big part," Mr. Berger recalls. "An up-and-coming minority is going to want an uplifting, heroic story."

With the revised script in hand, the producers took "Price of Glory" to New Line. The timing was auspicious: The studio's head of production, Michael DeLuca, had been eyeing recent statistics showing that Latinos not only outspent blacks on entertainment, but Latino entertainment spending was growing at a faster rate than that of any other ethnic group in the U.S. "We're always looking for new opportunities for niche marketing," Mr. DeLuca says. " 'Price of Glory' was a good vehicle to test out the Hispanic market."

"Price of Glory" got the green light in January 1999, and Mr. DeLuca recalls agreeing that the release might go wide "if it turned out really great."

"History is working against us," Joe Nimziki, New Line's president of theatrical marketing, said before the movie's release. "But if audiences can get over the fact this is a Latino family and see it's just a family, we'll have a chance to break history."

The first step was signing Mr. Smits. "Jimmy to me meant everything about this movie being mainstream," recalls Mr. Friedman, who is also a producer on the film. He had recently left "NYPD Blue" and was considering film roles. Says Mr. Smits: "From an actor's standpoint, I'm interested in showing versatility in my career. This guy I'm playing doesn't fit the role of the cop or the idealistic lawyer that TV audiences are familiar with." He adds that he also liked "the positive Latino story that wasn't just a Latino story -- it had universal themes."

To cast the rest of the film, the producers held an unusual open casting call in Los Angeles that February. An effective publicity stunt, it was also a necessity, Mr. Esparza says. While nearly 12% of the population is Latino, only 4% of Screen Actors Guild members are Latino. As a result, there isn't a large enough pool of Hispanic actors to cast a full movie, particularly one focused on boxing. More than 1,000 people showed up to try out for roles. The producers discovered a 16-year-old high-school junior named Ernesto Hernandez, who was cast in his first role, as Arturo's youngest son, Johnny.

Once shooting ended, the studio immediately began testing "Price of Glory" in Los Angeles-area neighborhoods of mixed ethnicity to gauge how it would play with different audiences. At a fall screening in Northridge, Calif., 61% of the majority-Latino audience rated the film excellent, while 16% said it was very good.

The ratings cheered the producers and gave them ammunition to lobby New Line for their vaunted crossover goal: 1,200 screens. But the numbers didn't tell the whole story, some executives warned. "When you're dealing with ethnic films, the results of research have to be taken with a grain of salt," says Mr. Pozo, the consultant hired by New Line. "Nobody tells the truth when you have sensitive social issues and issues of race."

Back at the studio, executives saw a more worrisome phenomenon. The recruitment of random people to see a free screening was yielding unusually high negative response rates. As many as 15 people had to be solicited before one would agree to attend, reinforcing the studio's worst fears. The mere mention of the lead character's name, Arturo Ortega, seemed to turn off some potential audience members. "Latinos have no problem seeing a white movie," says New Line's Mr. Nimziki. "But for whatever reason, white audiences have a problem seeing a Latino movie."

At a meeting last fall at New Line, the filmmakers gathered to discuss how "Price of Glory" would be marketed and distributed. When the subject of distribution was raised, one New Line executive furtively held up four fingers, meaning 400 screens, to his distribution colleague -- causing the producers to silently fume. The release was likely to follow the 400-screen formula New Line had used in 1995 when it released "My Family," the story of three generations of Mexican immigrants. That film played mostly to a Latino audience and earned $11 million at the box office, recouping its investment but never crossing over to the mainstream.

Others at the studio weren't as pessimistic. With the positive test screenings, the question wasn't whether audiences would like the movie. "The question is how do you get them in," says Bob Friedman, co-chairman of world-wide marketing. Studio executives came up with one solution: If Messrs. Esparza and Katz could sign a big Latino crossover musician for the soundtrack, mixed audiences could be more easily enticed in and the film could almost certainly support a mainstream release. Los Lobos's hit remake of the song "La Bamba" had helped propel the film of the same name in 1987. Now New Line gave the producers three options: Carlos Santana, Jennifer Lopez or Ricky Martin.

In the meantime, the studio and the filmmakers had to ensure they could attract their core Latino audience, regardless of the crossover strategy. New Line toyed with creating separate advertising materials for the Latino audience to drive home the all-Hispanic cast. A trial poster, to be used for bus stops and billboards, showed closeups of Mr. Smits and co-stars Jon Seda and Maria del Mar bathed in golden light.

For the general audience, a different poster featured a darkened silhouette of a boxer raising his fist in a gesture of victory. That image, ultimately chosen for both campaigns, did not show the race of the actor. As Mr. Pozo told New Line: "People aren't going to go to a movie just because the actors look like them."

New Line then focused on another unexpected issue: Mr. Smits is largely unknown in Spanish-language-dominant households where English-language TV isn't watched. "The problem with [Spanish-language] publicity was how do we make Jimmy Smits a household figure overnight?" Mr. Pozo says. The answer: send Mr. Smits to Miami on a marathon Spanish-language talk-show tour. Despite his imperfect Spanish, the American-born actor -- whose mother is Puerto Rican -- appeared on seven Spanish-language shows in one week.

By February, New Line distribution executives were finalizing a distribution plan, and it was time to give the producers the bad news: On March 31, "Price of Glory" would be released on 600 screens in Latino markets only.

After months of effort, the producers had failed to sign any big music stars for the soundtrack, despite encouraging negotiations with Mr. Santana. And while the existing soundtrack was considered cutting-edge "rock en espanol," it wouldn't be enough to draw mainstream audiences into theaters, studio executives said.

The film also was plagued by more-conventional movie-business woes. Executives worried that Mr. Smits has no track record for opening a film. And while positive reviews could help the movie, early signs weren't good. In its review for the trade, Variety called "Price of Glory" an "earnest but flat-footed saga" that "may hold some appeal for Latino auds in the Southwest but will fold after a couple of rounds in the big arena."

Certainly bad reviews don't stop studios from wide distribution of films. But as one New Line executive lamented, "There was nothing that stood out about this movie."

The producers fought back. Emphasizing the extraordinary timing of the film and the positive test scores, they lobbied the studio nearly every day for more screens. They pointed to the marketing of the only Latino crossover hit, "La Bamba," which opened on 1,200 screens and grossed $52 million in 1987. "Had that movie been niched, it wouldn't have succeeded," Mr. Esparza said.

At the annual convention of theater owners in Las Vegas on March 7, New Line previewed "Price of Glory" and won big applause. Good test results and a desire to tap into the broader Latino explosion led several New Line executives to lobby their bosses in New York to test the waters for a crossover release. New Line's president of distribution, David Tuckerman, told senior executives that theater managers were enthusiastic about the film's potential when he took it on the road in February to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles.

On the Warner Bros. jet back from Las Vegas, New Line executives told Mr. Esparza they would add 200 more screens, sending up a trial balloon for a crossover. They would also buy some national network-TV advertising, including 30-second spots on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "NYPD Blue."

The conservative opening had been designed to avoid the risk that audiences might not fill 1,200 theaters the first weekend out, executives say. "It's uncharted territory and we're steering around the rocks," Mr. Tuckerman said before the release.

The studio also promised to add extra screens this week if mixed audiences did turn out. But that looks highly unlikely now, the studio says. Its opening weekend, "Price of Glory" grossed a disappointing $1.6 million, performing better in Latino locations, but poorly in the few mainstream theaters the studio tested.

"It was almost all Latinos who showed up," Mr. Nimziki says. "But I'm still glad we gave it a shot at a crossover. At some point, one of these films is going to draw a white audience and we want to be ready."

But the producers remain frustrated that their time still hasn't come. "Latinos are where black films were in 1989 and 1990," says Mr. Katz. "What we're going through today won't be happening five years from now, I hope."

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