Why Latinos Are the Multibillion-Dollar "New Mainstream" Audience Hollywood Is Missing (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix's 'One Day at a Time'

A former Nickelodeon exec writes about the "enormous" financial impact of Latinos as the group still lacks representation on the big screen, "leaving hundreds of millions in future revenue on the table."

The Academy has made positive strides since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign last year. The nomination of films such as Hidden Figures, Fences, Moonlight, Moana and Lion absolutely should be celebrated. But there still is much more work to be done to make the film industry reflect reality and make diverse stories come alive. What’s missing year after year? It’s time for Hollywood to understand that by not including Latinos and telling our stories accurately, they’re leaving hundreds of millions in future revenue on the table.

Latino financial impact is enormous. Today, Latinos wield an estimated $1.3 trillion in buying power. Latinos are responsible for 29 percent of the growth in U.S. real income since 2005. We are the fastest-growing demographic, and we love the movies. In 2015, one in every four movie ticket buyers was Latino. Overall, Latinos represent 20 percent of all media consumers.

We are the new mainstream.

So why aren’t film studios trying to target us? Why aren’t our stories told? Why hasn’t a Latina ever won the Oscar for best actress? Behind the camera, the Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu broke ground with his Oscar wins, but the onscreen visibility of Latinos just isn't there.

It’s easy to blame the Academy, but the problem starts long before awards season. It starts in the casting calls, scriptwriting and studios that don’t include Latinos — studios who don’t see the missed financial opportunities. It starts in executive suites where Latinos are few and far in between. Angelenos, in their everyday life, see the numbers and the vitality of Latinos in their city. However, that hasn’t moved them to find a place for members of this community in their movies.

Maybe this is a place where adults can learn from children. When I started at Nickelodeon, we were determined to reflect our audience of kids and their diversity, both in our programming and in the characters we had on screen. It was, simply stated, good for business — we wanted all kids. I was fortunate to be at the helm as president of Nickelodeon from 1996-2006 when the brand was coming of age. In my opinion, it was no coincidence that having one of the most diverse talent lineups correlated with 10 straight years when Nickelodeon was the No. 1 network in cable. During that time, we expanded our offerings from television to digital media and movies and became a licensing powerhouse. And kids who were excited about Nickelodeon became eager buyers of our products.

During my tenure, we would regularly ask, “What’s wrong with our picture?” — and we meant literally the TV screen. In the late ’90s we realized there were few Latinos, so we didn’t wait for agents to bring us talent. We found the talent ourselves and launched three series, most prominently Dora the Explorer, and we got bigger audiences and became a better business. That was well over 15 years ago, and Dora has had two spinoffs and at least a half-dozen years of $1 billion-plus in licensing retail sales. Dora was true to Latinos, but with business that big it was true to all and truly "pop." We’ve seen the same type of success on TV with popular shows starring Latinas like Jane the Virgin, Superstore and the reboot of One Day at a Time rising in popularity and drawing broad audiences.

My experience at Nickelodeon is proof that if you build a product where people see their stories told in a genuine and multifaceted way, they’ll buy it. It’s a shame that the movie business hasn’t been self-reflective and asked, “What’s wrong with our pictures?” If they did, they’d come up with the same answer we did at Nick and make the extra effort to bring Latinos to their screens. And they’re not doing charity work by doing so — Dora was a gold mine. There’s gold in them there Hollywood Hills, with the Latino “new mainstream” buying power waiting to be tapped.

Hollywood is well known for having good intentions, but what’s best is to do something that changes the picture. America is filled with Latinos who have been making the U.S. great for centuries and we aren’t going anywhere. We want to be included, and we have plenty of money to spend once we are. Get the picture? Or better yet, how about many pictures!

Herb Scannell is a Puerto Rican-American media executive, businessman and board member of the Latino Donor Collaborative (LDC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to reshaping the perception of Latinos in America.