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When Lionsgate opened The Last Exorcism in August, the mock-documentary produced for less than $2 million cast an unexpected spell. Opening to $20.4 million, it came within a few hundred thousand dollars of taking the top spot its opening weekend and proved devilishly profitable, grossing $42 million domestically and $66.5 million worldwide. The secret of its success? It captured the imagination of Hispanic moviegoers.
Latinos, as Hollywood is discovering, wield increasing power at the box office. Not only are they the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, they go to the movies more than any other ethnic group. They make up about 16 percent of the population but represented 28 percent of frequent moviegoers in 2008, according to Nielsen NRG. The MPAA confirms that they are the most reliable moviegoers; its stats show that Hispanics who attend movies go more than eight times a year, on average, whereas white moviegoers head to the multiplex only about six times a year. And, Nielsen NRG adds, half of all Hispanics prefer to see a movie within the first 10 days of its opening, which bolsters those all-important opening weekends.
It’s also an audience with dramatic growth potential. According to the Census Bureau, there were 48.4 million Hispanics living in the U.S. in 2009. If projections hold, by 2050, 30 percent of the population will be Hispanic.
Animated family films and actioners typically draw huge Hispanic turnouts. But their numbers go through the roof for thrillers or horror pics with spiritual, demonic or Catholic themes.
So as Warner Bros. readies The Rite, from its New Line unit, for a Jan. 28 opening, it is borrowing a few pages from the Exorcism playbook. Anthony Hopkins stars as a skeptical priest who goes to the Vatican to learn how to perform exorcisms in Rite, which also stars Alice Braga, who speaks both Spanish and Portuguese. The movie is being heavily marketed to the Hispanic community, with a general outreach campaign and a more targeted faith-based sell.
Warners has launched a sizable bilingual TV campaign on Univision and Telemundo. There’s any number of print outlets carrying ads, from El Diario in New York to AP Latino to EFE newswire. On Jan. 21, Hopkins and Braga will do a press junket in New York for the Hispanic press that will include interviews on Univision’s morning show Despierta America and Telemundo’s Levantate, and Braga is also doing one-on-one interviews.
To cover all the bases, the studio is working with Arenas Entertainment Marketing, a leading consultant to Hollywood studios on Hispanic outreach, and Grace Hill Media, a pioneer in marketing to faith-based audiences, which is working with Warners to sell Rite to the wider Christian audience as well as a specifically Hispanic demographic. The faith-based component includes asking leading Hispanic priests and others from religious organizations to talk about the themes in the movie, stressing that Rite is based on true events. Tastemaker screenings have been set up in Los Angeles and Miami.
The campaign is using many of the same tactics used for Exorcism, when Lionsgate posted breaking news about real-life exorcisms on the movie’s website, and then, on a grassroots level, located people in targeted Hispanic markets with connections to spirit possessions who championed the movie in their local press.
Lionsgate’s maverick marketing chief, Tim Palen, seized upon a line in the movie to serve as its slogan — “If you believe in God, you must believe in the devil” — to tap into the religious and mystical themes within Hispanic culture.
The campaign worked. On opening weekend, 54 percent of the audience was Hispanic, and Exorcism overperformed in 14 of the top 20 Latino markets. “Hispanics go to the movies, and they go in numbers,” Palen says. “And if there is a hook for them — a star or a story line — it’s a big boost for the overall box office.”
At the same time, Latinos have also shown interest in upscale films from Mexican auteurs like Guillermo del Toro, as well as those featuring Latino stars. At a recent preview of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful at the AMC Century City 15 in Los Angeles, about 30 percent of the audience was Hispanic, according to its distributor, Roadside Attractions. As part of its planned platform release, Roadside is launching the Spanish-language film in a few theaters Jan. 28, but because that’s the same day Rite opens, Roadside is waiting a week to add more runs to avoid competing for the Hispanic audience.
Some distributors have assumed that Hispanic audiences want to see only Spanish-language films specifically catering to them, but box-office observers and studio veterans say that’s a misconception. “Hispanic theater doesn’t exist,” one studio exec says. “Rather, it’s a beautiful blending of the audience.”
Hispanic audiences in the U.S. are just as eager to attend mainstream movies, and the films that prove popular with them can also overperform in Mexico, Spain and Latin American countries. For example, Mexico turned in the second-biggest foreign gross for Exorcism, behind the U.K.
The hook doesn’t have to be demonic, either. Nielsen NRG says Hispanics can make up a quarter of the audience for animated tentpoles.
Pixar and Disney’s Toy Story 3 certainly tipped its hat toward Hispanic moviegoers; at one point in the film, Buzz Lightyear accidentally goes into “Spanish mode.” Fox’s Alvin and the Chipmunks also did exceptionally well among Latino families: Turns out that Alvin had a longtime following south of the border.
Census Bureau statistics show that 66 percent of Hispanics living in the U.S. in 2008 were of Mexican background. And many of the Hispanic markets in the States where horror films overperform are the border cities where these markets are concentrated.
In fact, Fox Searchlight was recently surprised to see Black Swan — a rare hybrid of art house and horror exploitation — turning in strong performances in such places as Brownsville, San Antonio and El Paso, Texas, even though Searchlight hadn’t marketed it to Hispanic audiences. That quickly changed.
Paramount learned a similar lesson with the supernatural horror-thriller Case 39, starring Renee Zellweger and Bradley Cooper. The studio had been planning to leave the movie on the shelf until it suddenly attracted audiences in Mexico and Spain. So Paramount gave it a targeted domestic release, aimed at Hispanic audiences, and it ended up grossing $13.2 million domestically — found money for a movie that had nearly been written off.
And that’s something that Hollywood can’t afford to ignore. Says one studio exec of the Latino impact at the box office, “You’d better be damn respectful of that buying power.”
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