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The Secret to a Smash Movie: Lure Latinos

"End of Watch"

"Hotel Transylvania" and "End of Watch" had huge openings, thanks in part to their built-in appeal for Hispanic audiences.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On the face of it, 3D kids pic Hotel Transylvania and gritty LAPD cop drama End of Watch have little in common other than the fact that both films wildly overperformed in their openings. Yet their bond is the Hispanic moviegoer, who played a big role in driving each movie to success.

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Earlier this year, MPAA chairman and CEO Chris Dodd sternly instructed the film industry to better serve Hispanic moviegoers, who more and more are becoming a Hollywood lifeline. According to MPAA research, Hispanics make up only 16 percent of the U.S. population yet represent 25 percent or more of those buying tickets to the cinema. They also go to the movies more often than any other ethnic group: Hispanic moviegoers go to the movies 5.3 times a year, on average. That compares with 3.5 times for whites and 3.7 times for African-Americans. "The numbers just jumped out at me," noted Dodd during his speech at the annual convention of theater owners in April.

Dodd's comments weren't lost on studios and indie companies, which increasingly are targeting this coveted demo. The question is, is Hollywood doing enough to reach out to Hispanics considering the precipitous decline in overall theater traffic?

End of Watch and Hotel Transylvania are intriguing case studies. Directed by David Ayer, End of Watch is the more obvious of the two in terms of its appeal to this demo. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two cops assigned to South Central L.A. Pena's character is of Mexican descent and from East L.A., while Gyllenhaal's hails from Iowa.

When End of Watch debuted over the Sept. 21-23 weekend, 32 percent of the audience was Hispanic, both Spanish- and English-speaking (separate breakouts by language aren't available). The film, distributed by Open Road Films on behalf of Exclusive Media, won the frame, grossing $13.2 million (a solid number for an indie) and ending domestic box office's four-week losing streak.

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"We know now how important Hispanics are to the business. They have incredible buying power and are wielding that power," says Jason Cassidy, president of marketing at Open Road.

A week later, Sony's Hotel Transylvania stunned box-office observers when it opened to $42.6 million, the top September debut of all time and the biggest opening domestically since The Dark Knight Rises on July 20 ($160.9 million), besting such August event pics as The Bourne Legacy ($38.1 million) and Total Recall ($25.6 million). Heading into the weekend, the film only was expected to do $30 million. To boot, Transylvania scored the single-biggest day for September ($19 million).

Transylvania is an immediate draw for Hispanics for several reasons. Going to the movies is culturally a family affair, so it follows that family movies, including animated ones, are well-frequented. According to a recent Nielsen NRG study on cross-media consumption habits, the Hispanic demo can make up a quarter or more of the audience for animated tentpoles. (This weekend, Ice Age 4 became the top-grossing picture of all time with $694.4 million grossed internationally, fueled in large part by Hispanic markets.)

It's for this reason that Hispanic actors populate the voice cast of studio toons -- Shrek's and Puss in Boots' Antonio Banderas and Ice Age's John Leguizamo, for example -- and Transylvania is no exception. Selena Gomez voices the daughter of Dracula (Adam Sandler), who runs a hotel for monsters needing a rest away from humans. Hispanics also flock to horror films, or any story with a mystical, demonic or Catholic tinge; note supernatural hit The Possession, released Aug. 31, which generated more than $47 million in domestic grosses, overperforming in Hispanic markets.

At press time, Sony didn't have the Hispanic audience percentage for Transylvania, but many of the top-performing theaters during the film's opening weekend were in key Hispanic markets, led by Edwards South Gate Stadium 20 in South Gate, Calif. Theaters in Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio, Miami and Fort Lauderdale did huge business. "Traditionally, even without Hispanic talent or Hispanic-friendly themes, Hispanics overindex at the box office. When you layer in other factors, the result is tremendous," says Peter Blacker, executive vp digital and emerging media at Telemundo Media.

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Studios and indie companies are no novices at marketing to Hispanics, but they still only spend a fraction of their marketing budgets on this demo, at least in terms of advertising on Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. Open Road, for instance, spent about 10 percent of its television budget for End of Watch on the two nets; usually, it would only spend 5 percent (in line with other companies). Guided by Cassidy, Open Road also cut a Spanish-language trailer for the movie. "What has been instructive is that the more authentic the Latino experience feels, the bigger draw it seems to have for that audience. For us, the response was amazing," says Cassidy.

But advertising on Telemundo and Univision are hardly the only ways to reach the Latino consumer. Spanish radio is enormous in the U.S., with film advertising populating the airwaves. There also are Spanish cable outlets including Si TV and Nuevo Mundo. And studios routinely send talent to junkets in Hispanic markets including Texas and Florida.

Early next year, timed to the Academy Awards, Blacker will help launch Fandango Cine, the first dedicated digital offering targeting Hispanic movie fans, a joint venture of Telemundo and online ticketing service Fandango (both are owned by NBCUniversal, and Fandango even provides free Spanish classes to employees). Fandango Cine will offer movie-related content and video programming in Spanish with ticketing access to more than 70 percent of the country's top theater chains.

According to Blacker, a new study out in early October will show that Hispanics stream more movie-related content than any other group: "They are the uber moviegoer and have unlimited passion." In recent months, Blacker and his group met with every Hollywood studio and major independent house to discuss advertiser-supported Fandango Cine. "Everybody referred to their slate as multicultural. I've been with Telemundo for eight years, and there would be select titles that were referred to as Hispanic. But that's changed," he says.

This explains why more all-audience films feature Hispanic talent. Javier Bardem plays the villain in the new James Bond pic Skyfall, while Sony's comedy Here Comes the Boom, out Oct. 12, stars Salma Hayek opposite Kevin James, who plays a teacher trying to save his school by becoming a mixed martial arts fighter, a big draw for Hispanic audiences.

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But Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, believes Hollywood isn't doing enough. "They need to do better if they want to capture this market," he says, noting that many of the roles played by Hispanics fit into the villain stereotype.

Nogales, whose group is based in Pasadena, also thinks film marketers need to be even more proactive. The coalition is proposing a First Look Club, where Hollywood's establishment would prescreen movies and TV shows for Latinos to create prerelease buzz. This summer, Open Road prescreened End of Watch for Nogales' group, and he says it paid off.

The activist also commends End of Watch for not falling prey to stereotypes, noting that Pena's character plays a hero. "I can't think of too many films where there is a balance of Latino bad guys and good guys," he says. "I can remember when many films had an African-American sidekick. We're seeing the same phenomenon with Latinos, and that needs to change."

Following End of Watch's successful opening, the coalition sent an e-mail blast to constituents urging them to see the film. Again, the effort aided the film, which dropped a modest 40 percent its second weekend. "Hispanics go en masse to the movies and as a family," notes Blacker. "Sometimes, they even go repetitively. Any studio has to find a way to be relevant to the U.S. Hispanic market."