Would You Like Hot Sauce With Your Popcorn? Courting Latino Moviegoers

By Vanessa Erazo, Indiewire

Of the 20 highest grossing foreign language films in the U.S. six are in Spanish. 'Pan's Labyrinth' comes in at number four with a domestic box office gross of $37 million. But unlike these outliers, most films from Latin America or Spain are unlikely to make it to the theater. Yes, foreign language films have it tough in the U.S. It's hard to know exactly why non-English films don't reach wide audiences. Most people believe that Americans just don't like reading subtitles. But there are more Spanish speakers in the U.S. than there are in Spain or Colombia or Argentina! As the U.S. Latino population continues to grow, industries are eager to acquire their market whose purchasing power exceeds $1 trillion. And so the film industry is hungry to capitalize on the leading ethnic group driving theater sales, Latinos.

Do Latinos go to the movies?

They absolutely do and much more so than any other ethnic group. Latinos account for $30.6 million in annual movies sales and see an average of 5.3 movies per year (compared to 3.7 movies per year for African Americans and 3.5 movies per year for white moviegoers.) They make up 25 percent of moviegoers even though they're only 16 percent of the population. But, the movies they are watching isn't what you might expect. Click here for full size graph.

What movies do Latinos watch?

Surprisingly (or maybe not) Latino moviegoers go see mainstream Hollywood movies (like everyone else) and aren't likely to seek out Spanish-language films. In other words, Latinos--for the most part--don't go see Latino films. But generalizations, of course, are difficult to make. We are talking about a heterogeneous group of people who come from over 30 different countries with differing tastes. Not to mention the divide between bicultural bilingual U.S.-born Latinos and those more recent immigrants. This fragmentation makes it difficult to capture its much sought after demographic. But, companies continue to court Latino audiences. One chain of movie theaters, in particular, has taken an innovative approach.

Providing a "unique entertainment experience entirely en espanol"

Cinema Latino, operating under Sonora Entertainment Group, tries to meet the entertainment demands of U.S. Latinos by exhibiting first run Hollywood blockbusters, either dubbed or subtitled in Spanish. And once in while throw in a Latin American film with subtitles in English. The Cinema Latino concept was launched in 2001, with its first theater in Aurora, CO. In addition to this theater, Sonora currently operates theaters in Fort Worth, TX, Pasadena, TX and Phoenix, AZ. But, what sets it apart, is the theater experience. Customers are greeted in Spanish (all employees must be fluent) and listen to a mix of Latin pop, rock en espanol, and Nortenos while buying their favorite Mexican concessions along with Valentina-topped popcorn (Valentina is a popular Mexican hot sauce). After loading up on snacks they are guided to the right theater by signage in both English and Spanish. This all adds to the 'Latin sabor' Sonora hopes to add to the regular movie theater experience. And it's proven to be pretty successful.

What does the future hold for Cinema Latino?

Cinemas catering to an ethnic minority is nothing new. From Magic Johnson's theaters targeting African-Americans to now-defunct theaters in New York that exclusively showed Russian or Asian films. Bombay theater, located in Queens, features Bollywood hits. In the past many ethnic theaters have had a tough time staying in business. But, with its uniquely Latino elements, Cinema Latino has been able to keep its customers coming back. An understanding of their audience's movie-going habits also goes a long way. They show animated kid's movies in Spanish on weekend afternoons--their busiest time of the week--knowing that Latinos with children are more likely to head to the theater and that they usually catch a movie as a family. Tickets prices are cheap (under $8) and they sponsor cultural events--hoping to connect with the local community. Time will tell if they are able to expand to other parts of the country--especially difficult to conquer markets like New York and other big cities. But, with the explosive growth expected for the Latino population over the next decades, movie theaters 'entirely en espanol' may be the wave of the future. This Latino moviegoer sure hopes so.

Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights emerging and established Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on twitter.