It's a good time to be in the business of Latino movies.
Instructions Not Included, a comedy by Pantelion Films, recently broke the U.S. box office record for a Spanish-language film, surpassing 2006's Pan's Labyrinth by pulling in more than $40 million since it came out in August — not bad for a movie with a $5.5 million budget. The film is directed by and stars Eugenio Derbez.
Pantelion Films is a venture founded in 2010 by major movie studio LionsGate Entertainment and Mexican media company Grupo Televisa to create projects aimed at the burgeoning Latino community in the U.S.
"We've been building our brand and our audience for three years, and we're very pleased that our efforts have resulted in a record-breaking hit," Pantelion's CEO Paul Presburger said to The Wrap. "The film's success reaffirms our belief that there is a large audience in the U.S. with an appetite for commercial films with Latino characters and themes."
Edward Allen, Pantelion's COO, spoke to BuzzFeed about the company's mission to provide Latinos with culturally relevant content that still features universal themes.
"Instructions, if you distill it, is about the love that a father has for his daughter," says Allen, noting that he is half-Colombian, despite his "Anglo" name.
Besides the breakout film, Pulling Strings, a new bilingual romantic comedy from Pantelion featuring Jaime Camil, is also doing well in limited release.
But while thriving smaller movies are a window into the viability of marketing toward Latinos, the success of blockbuster movies among Hispanic viewers and of movies created by Latino talent tell the story of an audience that isn't "coming soon" but is already here and powering films to the top of the box office.
When the latest iteration of the ridiculous but ridiculously entertaining Fast & Furious series was released earlier this year, critics expected it to zoom to the top of the box office, but not many people know the fuel for its rise — Latino moviegoers.
Latinos made up 32% of the audience for Fast & Furious 6, powering the film to a record-breaking $120 million, four-day Memorial Day weekend opening, The Wrap reported. This matches the Hispanic percentage of the audience from the previous installment, Fast Five.
The Fast and Furious series is said to do well among Latinos, and minorities in general, because of its multiracial cast and stars who have huge social media presences, like Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Tyrese, Ludacris, and others. But many also point to the inclusion of Michelle Rodriguez and reggaeton singers Tego Calderon and Don Omar, who bring high-profile Latino faces to the screen and even some Spanish dialogue mixed in.
Kellvin Chavez, who founded Latino-Review.com in 2001, a top movie news site that gets it share of scoops and is often cited in industry trade magazines, saw the value in creating content for Latino moviegoers long ago.
"Fast 6 was all over Telemundo and Univision, and it had real diversity," he says of the movie's success. He also cheekily says young Latino men love cars and women. "I mean, who doesn't?"
So why is Hollywood paying attention to Latinos now? Maybe it's because while they may only be 17% of the population, they make up 1 in 4 movie-goers, according to a study by the Motion Picture Association of America.
In addition to being in the theater and in front of the camera, Hispanic talent has also made it behind the scenes in a big way.
The hit Gravity, which reached an October record $55 million opening was co-written, co-produced, co-edited and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who is from Mexico.
Chavez says Latinos aren't just going to want films aimed at them because of their ethnicity — usually quality wins out, and he cites Gravity and Pacific Rim, by Guillermo del Toro, which may have Latino directors but were just great, exciting movies.
"Gravity was just marketed right and it was very good film, story was great and it was shot great. And it just happened to be that Alfonso who basically did the best Harry Potter film did this film," he says. "I mean there was so many TV Spots for Gravity it was just playing over and over in the Spanish markets."
Maria Agui Carter, the writer/director of independent film REBEL, about the true story of a Latina soldier in the Civil War who concealed her sex and identity to fight, says Hispanics are oft-talked about as a desirable audience to market to but they have finally arrived in importance to Hollywood.
"There is a clear trend of Latino-led creativity fueling feature work being embraced by what should be one of the most important demographics to the Hollywood number crunchers," Carter, who is also chair of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), says.
But she says there is a ways to go before Latino talent is as prevalent as its population figures say it should be. "Latinos represent only 2% of the directors working on TV and film, less than 1% of the writers, and 4-6% of the actors in media today," she added.
Besides Instructions Not Included and Pulling Strings, Pantelion has two other movies coming up. The Hours, a suspense thriller starring Paul Walker and Genesis Rodriguez, out on Dec. 13, and Diego Luna's Chavez, starring Michael Peña, John Malkovich, Rosario Dawson, Gabriel Mann, and America Ferrera in the biography of civil rights activist and labor organizer Cesar Chavez, an iconic figure in the Mexican-American community.
The company worked closely with the Chavez family to bring the project to fruition.
Pantelion's Allen says 2014's Chavez is more than a movie to them.
"We feel this project is a platform to elevate this man, Cesar Chavez, to the pantheon of American heroes," he says. "Chavez is a character who is American first and foremost. He spoke up, he wasn't a victim. He spoke up for the rights of not just of Latinos."
Carter says Chavez will be a real milestone for the U.S. Latino community.
"Chavez is the most important Latino leader in U.S. history, yet I am not sure this film could have been made without the knowledge that Latino moviegoers are fueling the prosperity of the box office," she says.
Allen says Latinos are sensitive to being pandered to and that Pantelion feels it is important to continue working with more Hispanic writers, directors, and actors in order to best provide authentic content.
Pantelion obviously sees a business opportunity in the Latino community, but Allen says history has also proved the power of images in media. With studies showing many Americans have negative views of Hispanics, he says the increasing prevalence and success of Latino projects can start to change the way they are seen in the U.S.
"Without a doubt," he says. "Other ethnic groups and immigrant groups throughout history — through entertainment, through movies — the perception of them by the general public changed."