Si! change in Spanish-language video

As Spanish-language films and performers enjoy newfound mainstream success, the home entertainment market gears up for an increase in already brisk sales.

Last week's Oscar nominations seemed to affirm the country's growing multiculturalism -- and Hollywood's seeming infatuation with all things Hispanic. A troika of Mexican-born directors -- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron -- commanded the spotlight, with Inarritu's Paramount Vantage drama "Babel" picking up seven noms, del Toro's Picturehouse's fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth" garnering six mentions and Cuaron's Universal sci-fi thriller "Children of Men" picking up three noms.

On top of that, Spanish actress Penelope Cruz was nominated for best actress for her role in writer-director Pedro Almodovar's Sony Pictures Classics release "Volver," while Adriana Barraza received a mention in the supporting actress category for her role in "Babel."

But in the home entertainment arena, savvy executives have been keen on the Hispanic market for some time: The DVD sell-through business has witnessed the emergence of a parallel Spanish-language industry that thrives by appealing to the country's estimated 28.1 million Spanish speakers and their estimated $863.1 billion in buying clout.

Studio research shows that Hispanics are huge consumers of entertainment. In 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available, the demographic represented 14% of the U.S. population but accounted for 20% of all theatrical admissions. U.S. Hispanics also purchased 155 million DVDs that year -- 16% of the total number of DVDs sold.

"Our big effort this year is in the Latin space," says Eva Davis, vp targeted acquisitions and marketing for Warner Home Video. "For us, it is really important to focus on the consumer, and we know that by 2010, one in six American consumers will be Latino. Within that space, there is a Spanish-language segment that is small but vibrant -- and up 14% in units in 2006 over 2005. We are excited about our efforts for 2007 because we have acquired a library of 23 classic films from the revered Mexican icon Pedro Infante."

Other labels devoted to the Latin DVD business expect to see even stronger growth. "The Latin DVD market is still growing solid -- 20%-25% over last year," says Elart Coello, president of Laguna Prods., which has been in the market since 1990.

Eager to cash in on the growing market for Spanish-language product in the U.S., the home entertainment arms of studios such as Universal and Warner Bros. Pictures have launched "multicultural" divisions to identify consumers' wants and needs. In 2005, Warners launched its Colleccion Latina featuring contemporary Latin-American and Latino-themed films such as 1992's "The Mambo Kings" and 2005's "La Nina Santa" and "Hormigas en la Boca."

The independents are following suit. Less than a year ago, Lionsgate hired Arturo Chavez to launch the company's Spanish-language initiatives with a goal of producing and acquiring Spanish-language films for release on DVD. The 2006 drama "La Mujer de Mi Hermano" became one of Lionsgate's biggest Spanish-language DVD releases, and executives have even higher expectations for "El Vacilon: The Movie," which hits stores today.

But like the general DVD market, Spanish-language theatrical features aren't the only type of content enjoying newfound interest. Distributors like Image Entertainment, which has built a catalog of more than 100 Spanish-language titles over the past four years, also are releasing TV shows, sports titles and music DVDs, among other product.

"Not only is the product out there, but the sales of the product is there," says Greta Nodar, director of sales and Latin programming at Image, which has found success with titles including "Selena Live: The Last Concert" and "Chalino Sanchez: Una Vida de Peligros." The former has sold 200,000 units since its 2003 release, while the latter has sold 40,000 units since it debuted in October 2004.

Then there are labels -- like Laguna Prods., which releases up to 100 DVDs annually -- that specialize in Spanish-language product. Laguna's highest-profile titles include 2004's "El Padrino" and 2006's horror film "The Wailer."

Xenon Pictures also has been a leader in the Latin DVD market since its launch in the late 1990s. The company has a catalog of 125 Spanish-language DVDs and recently began releasing telenovelas such as "Amor Real," which has sold 170,000 units, and "Rubi," which has sold more than 100,000 units. "Nearly every telenovela is tracking between 35,000-50,000 units," says Leigh Savidge, president and CEO of Xenon Pictures, adding that the company's latest release "Rebelde: Season 1," which came out Jan. 9, is nearing 600,000 units.

While Savidge sees the telenovela niche as "strong and robust," the key to success is offering "well-marketed content that consumers really want," he says. "You can't show up with one Latin title and say, 'Here I am.' You have to try a number of different titles, experiment with a number of different marketing methodologies and be prepared to make some mistakes. But when you figure out what works with what, the upside is unlimited."

Despite the impressive sales figures in the home entertainment arena, theatrical distributors have been slow to embrace Spanish-language material -- which is what makes the Oscar nominations all the more noteworthy. The high cost of producing and marketing feature films makes most executives reluctant to gamble on anything other than the most proven formulas.

"The cost that goes with launching films (on DVD) is relatively less expensive and less risky than launching in theatrical," says Julio Noriega, director of the film division at Venevision International.

Even a name star like Andy Garcia had trouble finding the funding to make his 2006 feature "The Lost City." It took the actor 16 years to secure the financing for the English-language movie, in which Garcia plays a Havana nightclub owner caught in the middle of Fidel Castro's revolution. "I had to look outside traditional channels," Garcia says.

Magnolia Home Entertainment released the film on DVD last August.

"Most studios don't want to embrace a Spanish-language film in the theatrical space unless they think they can get a significant Anglo audience," Savidge says. Films such as 2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries" and Cuaron's 2002 U.S. release "Y Tu Mama Tambien," he says, were "aimed at upmarket Anglo audiences and got the Spanish-speaking audience through osmosis."

That strategy seems to be changing. In the case of del Toro's "Labyrinth," Picturehouse president Bob Berney specifically designed a marketing campaign that would appeal directly to three disparate audiences -- Spanish-language speakers, the art house crowd and the sci-fi/fantasy fans who have previously demonstrated an interest in the director's body of work.

With that film having grossed roughly $16.3 million domestically at press time and still going strong, it's hardly surprising that audiences are taking an interest in del Toro's earlier features, including the 2001 Spanish-language thriller "The Devil's Backbone," which was among Amazon.com's top Latin DVD sellers last week.

And that bodes well for nominees from other Spanish-language films including Cruz, according to Lexine Wong, senior executive vp worldwide marketing at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, who says that the actress' Oscar nomination "is a wonderful and timely bonus from a marketing perspective" for the studio's recent eight-film "Viva Pedro: The Almodovar Collection." Cruz stars in two films in the collection, 1997's "Live Flesh" and 1999's "All About My Mother."

As consumers develop more interest in a star or a director's career, they're much more likely to venture out to theaters to see new projects from those actors and filmmakers, Nodar says.

"It's creating more awareness that there are wonderful films from Colombia, Mexico, Spain -- not just to the Latino community that's still learning that these movies are out there but to the curious person who wants to see movies from different countries," Nodar says. "There's still a lot of room for growth."

Gabriel Vicuna, product manager for First Look Home Entertainment who oversees the company's Latino product, agrees. "There are so many talented directors and filmmakers that haven't gotten any exposure here," he says. "The attention from the (recent big theatricals) brings more attention to the DVDs. People want to know who's the next del Toro, the next Inarritu."

Angelique Flores is managing editor of Home Media Magazine.
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