Hollywood takes note as Spanish-language movie storms US box office

‘Instructions Not Included’ becomes first Latino film to break $40-million mark

Actor-director Eugenio Derbez in his film 'Instructions Not Included.'
Actor-director Eugenio Derbez in his film 'Instructions Not Included.'

“If we get to $6 million it will be a success,” Mexican actor and filmmaker Eugenio Derbez was told about his movie No se aceptan devoluciones, or Instructions not Included. Doling out this advice was Pantelion, Hollywood’s biggest distributor of Hispanic movies, set up by Lionsgate and Grupo Televisa. The company’s Casa del Padre, which saw Will Ferrell practising his Spanish alongside Mexican stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, took just over $4 million on its release. “We reached the $6-million mark in 48 hours,” Derbez recalls. “The first weekend closed with over $10 million, we sneaked into second place in the box office with just 10 percent of screens; we had a screen average of $26,000, the same figures as Avatar or The Avengers; the total box office was over $44 million.”

Derbez’s debut movie as a director – he also wrote and starred in the film – has now become the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in the US ever, overtaking the bar set by Pan’s Labyrinth of $34.3 million.

Derbez answers EL PAÍS’ questions from Mexico as he is putting the last items in his suitcase. The Latin American TV star has moved to Los Angeles to embark on a new stage of his career and ensure that Instructions not Included does not become just another one-off.

“The word on the street in Hollywood is that Latinos are the most important cinema audience in the country,” says Santiago Pozo, founder and CEO of Arenas, the first agency to start promoting the entertainment industry to the Hispanic audience 26 years ago. “Latinos make up 16 percent of the population and buy 27 percent of the movie tickets. They are cinema’s alpha consumers.”

“Latinos make up 16 percent of the population and buy 27 percent of the movie tickets”

The studios know the figures. “It is a big audience for us,” says über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, on the promotional trail for his new horror-thriller Deliver Us From Evil, the kind of film he is convinced works very well with Spanish audiences and even more so if it has a Latino star, in this case Venezuela's Édgar Ramírez.

The Hispanic audience is the one that has grown the most, but Hollywood still does not know how to tackle it. It is searching for the perfect formula. That’s why they see Derbez, a TV star who also crops up on Spanish-language stations in the US, as that “key for entering the Latino market.”

“I’ve received emails from important people saying that they have finally realized that Latinos do go to the movies. But as I say: they go as long as there is something that interests them. There is a market that is badly neglected and that needs films that connect with them,” says Derbez. He attributes the success of his movie to the fact that it is “a story full of magic, bright, like Life is Beautiful or Cinema Paradiso, not another drama about depression, drug trafficking, poverty.” It runs away from Latino clichés: “I said it to my US agents: ‘Why was it successful?’ It was the first time that they had seen a Latino as a winner, not as a criminal. They saw themselves reflected in a good father, a good man, who wins out even though he doesn’t speak English.”

Actor-director Diego Luna agrees. The Mexican Y tu mama también star released his second film as director, César Chávez, about the union leader who won rights for migrant laborers, in the US last month. “The Latino community is growing, changing and defining itself, but we have to send the message that we want to be represented in film. It has always fallen into cliché. There are beautiful stories in our community that have not been told,” he said before the release of his film, which was also distributed by Pantalion and ended up grossing around €5 million.

Hollywood thinks that Latinos don’t want to see themselves onscreen, that they prefer ‘Transformers’”

“Hollywood thinks that Latinos don’t want to see themselves onscreen, that they prefer Transformers, or features that have nothing to do with their lives,” Pozo continues. “And they think that because the films coming out of Mexico and Spain don’t work. However, Derbez has made them realize that it’s not like this. The problem is that these films cannot compete against those big productions with much bigger marketing resources.”

Pantelion spent less than $5 million on the campaign for Instructions not Included, which would have served for nothing if it had not been for Derbez. “This is his film,” says Paul Pressburger, the company’s CEO. “He has a very loyal audience and dedicated a huge amount of time to the launch.”

Derbez confirms that. “I did the biggest promotional campaign of my career, the biggest that has been done for any Spanish-language film at least. I have spent two decades working for this community, they watch my programs on [US Spanish-language TV network] Univision and I know the audience very well, I know what they like. But I don’t have the secret. I hope I have the knack to be able to go on giving them what they want to see, and to bring in other audiences. I want to expand my career in the US and allow the producers to expand their box office takings.”

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS