A raucous new low-budget, high-concept comedy may change the way Hollywood looks at movies for Latino audiences.
It may persuade the movie industry to make them.
"Chasing Papi," opening Wednesday in Washington, is a first of its kind for Hollywood: a glossy, marketing-driven English-language film with stars from the Spanish-speaking world, aimed at the heretofore-ignored Hispanic audience. The $10 million film about three women chasing the same man was made by 20th Century Fox, but studios all over town will be carefully watching its performance to see whether the underserved Latino audience will respond.
"We've always known that Hispanic Americans were very heavy moviegoers," says Pam Levine, the head of marketing at Fox. "They're a critical audience for us on many movies. They see a lot of comedy and action films, and they go in multigenerational groups. We wanted to see what would happen if we concentrated all our efforts and resources to bring it as an event just for them."
For long-struggling Latinos in Hollywood, "Chasing Papi" is a sign of hope that Hollywood may be waking up to the reality that Hispanics are poised to become the largest ethnic minority in the country.
Hollywood discovered a middle-class African American audience in the mid-1990s, and the major studios now churn out a dozen or more movies a year just for that public, whether "Juwanna Mann" or "Soul Food" or "Barbershop."
But the studios have no such slate for the Latino audience, although there have been a handful of Latino-themed art house films like "Empire" and "Real Women Have Curves." For several years activists have argued that Hollywood has been ignoring a huge potential source of revenue.
"Hollywood is finally coming to the party," notes Lisa Navarette, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit advocacy group. "They're looking at the demographics and seeing this audience out there that it hasn't paid a lot of attention to."
According to the 2000 Census, Hispanics now constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population. Half of that population is younger than 26 -- compared to a median age of 36 in the general population -- and 40 percent is under 18. In the youth-oriented movie industry, that is no small matter.
Furthermore Hispanics, like African Americans, spend more per capita on the box office than does the general public, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Says Navarette: "If you don't serve this market, you're losing out on tens of millions of potential consumers."
That is probably not true, as Latinos have demonstrated that they will pay to see movies that don't feature Latino characters or story lines. The question posed by "Chasing Papi" is: Will they pay to see movies that do?
The movie's director, Linda Mendoza, feels confident that they will. "My goal was to make an old-fashioned, feel-good Hollywood movie with Latin characters," she says. "Most movies with Latinos are stereotypical -- maids, gardeners, gang-bangers, drug lords. It's very rare when we get to step outside that and be something else."
Mendoza, who grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Detroit, says she was tired of movies that depicted the noble struggle of working-class Hispanics. She says that was the reason she turned down an offer to direct last year's art house hit "Real Women Have Curves."
" 'Papi,' " she says, "is a first in that it's not about the struggle, some hard-luck story like 'Mi Familia' or 'Selena.' I didn't want to patronize our ethnicity. This movie could have been about anybody -- Asians, African Americans. It could be any three girls going after the same guy."
Or, as Navarette puts it: "I don't want to see another movie about a boxer."
Still, as movies go, "Chasing Papi" is not much to fuss about, a thinly plotted story about three women (straight from Central Casting: a Charo look-alike, a spoiled rich girl and a lawyer) who discover they're in love with the same man.
After various farcical high jinks, the ladies discover -- in true Hollywood style -- that they're better off without him. There's a catchy salsa-laden soundtrack and -- here's a surprise -- even a cute little dog.
The studio cast well-known actors and media personalities from across Latin America to bridge the cultural differences within the Spanish-speaking community. Eduardo Verastegui, a Mexican soap star and former pop singer, plays the lovable three-timing Papi. Sofia Vergara, who plays the Charo wannabe, is from Colombia and is a celebrity in Latin America. Texas-born Jaci Velasquez, playing the spoiled rich girl, has a successful career as a singer of Tejano and Christian music, while Roselyn Sanchez, who portrays the lawyer, is a well-known actress from Puerto Rico.
"In the development process, it was really important that we were saying, 'This could be a Mexican, Cuban, a Puerto Rican story.' We never actually say where they come from," says Carla Hacken, a Fox executive who championed the project. "Hopefully this movie spans the gap between all different . . . Latinos."
Fox also cast popular astrologer Walter Mercado in a cameo role, which during test screenings sparked a huge audience response.
Significantly, the studio chose to make the film exclusively in English and will not dub it into Spanish. That's because studio research shows Hispanic American moviegoers generally see movies in English, Levine says, and the idea was to distinguish this film from movies coming from Spanish-language countries.
"It's a Hollywood movie -- that's part of its appeal," Levine said. "Movies from Mexico or Central America are not the same."
"Chasing Papi" got its start at Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, in the wake of the studio's 1997 success with "Soul Food," a black family drama. The studio decided to buy a pitch for a Latino romantic comedy shortly before Elizabeth Gabler came to head the division. Gabler had helped produce "Waiting to Exhale," the 1995 film starring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston that opened the door to films for the black audience.
Gabler liked the idea of developing films for the Latino audience. "I had always felt that this was a market that was underserved," she says. "When I got to Fox 2000 I was elated to see it in development."
But the development process was a learning experience for the executives. For one thing, they had no idea what actors were the major stars among Latinos, and had to learn about the Spanish-language telenovelas on Telemundo and Univision. They went through Fox's music department to come up with stars from the music world.
Even the most open-minded executives betray what Latinos might consider a certain condescension in their remarks.
Says Hacken, "One thing I learned more than anything about why this is culturally appealing is that the idea of the cheating man is really, really relatable to them, and funny to them."
She adds: "When a Latin man cheats on a woman, she doesn't go after the man, she goes after the hootchie mama. It's a revolutionary idea for Latino women -- or so we're told -- for the women to be friends and the man to be the jerk."
Fox's marketing department ordered up special market research and test screenings, for lack of previous data. As a result, the film is being sold heavily on Spanish-language radio, and in cities like New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego.
While the studio is marketing the film exclusively to Hispanics, director Mendoza wishes Fox had been willing to publicize it outside its target audience. "I think we're missing a huge market, the American teen market," she says. "Why not open it up to other cultures?"
But in the meantime, she and her colleagues are nervous enough about how the movie will perform among Latinos. If "Chasing Papi" is a success, many similar movies like it are likely to follow.
"There's an incredible amount of pressure for it to succeed with our audience," says Mendoza. "I don't necessarily want to be pigeonholed as a Latina director, but if I can help fill a void, fill a niche market, I'd be lucky and blessed."