Lionsgate, Televisa detail Hispanic film venture

Vow to avoid problems of similar efforts in the past

Lionsgate and Televisa hope to do for movies what Univision Communications, Telemundo and others have done for Hispanic TV audiences in the U.S. -- feed their need while growing their own businesses.

The mini-major and the Mexican media giant Televisa formally unveiled Pantelion Films here Tuesday, a five-year venture that will release eight to 10 movies annually targeting U.S. Hispanic moviegoers.

During a presentation, executives pointed out that 26 million U.S. moviegoers are Hispanic and that this group represents the fastest-growing part of the overall audience and more than one-fourth of all frequent moviegoers. A video package highlighted that Hispanics accounted for $1 billion in 2008 movie ticket sales.

Former Telemundo boss and current Panamax Films head Jim McNamara will serve as chairman of Pantelion. He formed Panamax in 2005 to serve the Latino audience and got a Lionsgate output deal, but the firm failed to make a major splash -- one of several that could not capitalize on that vast audience.

McNamara told THR that Pantelion has only about eight permanent employees but can draw on the staffs and resources of Televisa and Lionsgate.

"Other companies that have tried to do this either did not have enough staff, because they couldn't afford it, or the business was such that it never allowed money to come in fast enough" to keep it going, he said. "This is a low overhead development and distribution company."

Pantelion also has worked to get support from such exhibitors as AMC, Cinemark and Regal.

AMC CEO Gerry Lopez said his chain will dedicate one to three screens at 52 theaters in markets with strong Latino audiences and try to "consistently market to an audience that's already coming." He said Hispanics on average make up more than 20% of AMC guests -- about one-third in some areas.

Cinemark president and COO Tim Warner said his firm is in discussions with Pantelion as well. "The U.S. Hispanic audience is increasing in importance to our business every day," he said in a statement.

Paul Presburger serves as CEO of Pantelion, whose name is made up of the starting letters of Panamax, Televisa and Lionsgate.

One of the themes that his team heard in its research was that U.S. Hispanics want to be better represented on screen, Presburger said. "They want to see themselves on the screen the way they see themselves," McNamara said. "They want to see [their own] as an ad exec or government employee, not just as drug dealer or maid." At the same time, Pantelion wants to avoid giving off an "I feel your pain" vibe or pandering to audiences.

Jon Feltheimer, co-chairman and CEO of Lionsgate, said Pantelion is a natural evolution for his firm, referencing the studio's focus on African-American and other audiences. "One of Lionsgate's core values is directing content to underserved audiences," he said. "The Hispanic audience is the most underserved."

Emilio Azcarraga, chairman and CEO of Grupo Televisa, referenced the 50 million-strong U.S. Hispanic population and its buying power. "Televisa has been very successful in the U.S. on TV and other platforms, such as YouTube," he said. "Now we want to do it in film."

How will the partners measure the success of Pantelion? Feltheimer cited its ability to make money, build a brand and fill screens as key criteria. But McNamara said he would be happy with "moderate success" to avoid setting expectations too high. "It's not easy to pull this off," he said.

Pantelion's slate kicks off in late January with Wilmer Valderrama comedy "From Prada to Nada."

The venture is shooting for a 50/50 split of produced and acquired films, with many of the latter expected to come from Televisa's film slate. However, executives said they also will look elsewhere, including outside of Mexico. Pantelion expects to release both English- and Spanish-language movies across various genres and for different target demos. Family films, comedies and romantic comedies are genres that were described as being of particular appeal.

Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan said Pantelion seems like a good fit for the partners.

"As the dominant Mexican media company, it makes sense for Televisa to have more of a U.S. movie presence," he said. "And Lionsgate has great targeted demo film expertise as shown with horror and urban."

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