Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Pantelion Films chief executive Paul Presburger. It has been corrected.
LOS ANGELES — These days, when Eugenio Derbez walks into a room, people notice.
They hug and kiss him, often followed by spirited congratulations. He’s not a politician running for office, and he’s not a household name in the United States — at least not yet.
One of Mexico’s most established entertainers, Derbez has a loyal audience and nearly 4 million followers on Twitter. That has helped make his movie, “Instructions Not Included,” the most successful Spanish-language film at the box office in U.S. history. The 52-year-old wrote, produced, directed and cast himself in the picture, which cost $5.2 million to make but has grossed more than $44 million in the United States and an additional $46 million internationally. The film, which features Derbez’s style of slapstick and meshes it with a dramatic arc that often leaves viewers teary-eyed, was recently nominated for a People’s Choice Award for favorite comedic movie and is whispered to be a contender for the Oscar for best foreign film.
“I feel like I’m living in someone else’s life,” Derbez says of all the attention. “I’m very happy because I’ve worked my whole life for this.”
Derbez’s profile has grown in recent years as he’s continued to star in Mexican TV programs. He’s also branched out to the United States by taking small roles in films such as “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” “Under the Same Moon” and “Jack and Jill,” starring Adam Sandler.
The strength of “Instructions,” Derbez says, is rooted in universal themes — love, fear, overcoming the odds. But an understanding of the diverse community of Latinos in this country was also important.
“I’ve had the opportunity to study Latinos in the U.S.,” Derbez says, noting that his TV shows air weekly here on Univision. “I know why they laugh, I know why they cry and I know what they like because I’m Latino like them.”
Like one of his characters, Derbez in some ways has also been the underdog. In Mexico, he says, TV actors generally do not get cast in feature films. “So 12 years ago I decided to start writing ‘Instructions Not Included’ for me.” He finished the screenplay in two years and spent the next 10 fine-tuning as he looked for investors.
Derbez found a partner in Pantelion Films, which has alliances with Lions Gate Entertainment and Mexico’s Grupo Televisa, the same company that produces Derbez’s TV shows. It was important to create a film with vibrant story lines that worked against type, Derbez says. For example, Valentin, who loves his life in Mexico, travels reluctantly and illegally to the United States in search of his daughter’s American mother; there, he finds a job as a stuntman. The subject matter is kept light throughout, but the framework of the script is also substantive without speaking down to audiences.
“I did not want to make a film that was [exclusively] Latino or for Mexicans,” Derbez says. “I wanted to make a universal film about love that spoke about broken families, single parents and about those things that the world could identify with. I wanted this project to be for the entire family with English and Spanish [dialogue]. This allowed people to see the film beyond Latinos.”
While acknowledging its broader appeal, Pantelion chief executive Paul Presburger says that “Instructions” has resonated particularly with Hispanics in the United States because “Latinos have been underrepresented” in Hollywood. “U.S. Latinos didn’t have stories that really spoke to them in a way that they could relate to in their own lives,” he says.
Presburger says roughly $10 million was spent marketing the film, which opened in late August, including appearances by Derbez and his wife and co-star Alessandra Rosaldo on Spanish-language TV. A promotional tour took Derbez to Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New York, among other cities, and commercials for the movie were aired on the Lifetime and ABC Family cable channels.
“There were a lot of really big films during the summer, but this film ranked as a success story among a sea of films,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Rentrak, a global media tracking company. “The film was marketed in English, Spanish, included a big star from Mexico and crossed over in terms of a North American audience. That’s a grand-slam scenario.”
For Derbez, the attention the film is getting is opening more doors. He says he wants to continue acting while writing another screenplay.
“When I was 7 years old, I would watch the Oscars with my mother,” Derbez recalls. “That’s when I decided to be an actor. I wanted to tell stories, and I dreamed of working in the U.S. Now I’m living that dream.”
Águila is a freelance writer.