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Will 'Chavez' Get Hollywood Excited About Latino films?

Hispanics are a growing and key group of the U.S. moviegoing public.
Image: Rosario Dawson Michael Pena
This photo released by Pantelion Films shows Rosario Dawson, right, as Dolores Huerta, and Michael Pena, left, as Cesar Chavez, in a scene from the film "Cesar Chavez." The movie opens Friday, March 28, 2014, after its premieres at the Berlin Film Festival and South by Southwest, and after a special screening with Barack Obama at The White House.AP/Pantelion Films

Hollywood is watching "Cesar Chavez." As the film version of the iconic labor leader’s story opens this weekend, studios and producers will be taking notice of whether the movie is a success – which could result in more projects aimed at Hispanic moviegoers.

"Cesar Chavez" director Diego Luna hopes that audiences will turn out for his film, not only for the story, but to help other Latino films get produced. “The diversity today and the complexity of this community is pretty interesting,” he said. “But we as a community have to send the message that we want to be represented on film.”

Speaking at a New York City press roundtable, he said, “If I ask you to name one film about someone who comes from our community, you’re just going to be able to talk about entertainers… as if we had no other impact in this country.”

According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the biopic "La Bamba" (about Ritchie Valens) grossed $54 million in 1987, while "Selena" (about the Tejano singer) pulled in $35 million in 1997.

Now, Cesar Chavez debuts amid high expectations. “I’ve been waiting for this movie to be made for 35 years,” said actor Tony Plana of "Ugly Betty" fame. He said that Hollywood is generally “not that interested’ in telling the stories of Latinos. “I’m hoping this movie will change that; that it will show if you get the right talent and you tell the story in a powerful way, we can bring in the people to see it.”

Pantelion Films, the studio behind "Cesar Chavez", is going all out to make the film a success. They have held special screenings everywhere from Delano, California (where the real-life Chavez organized farm workers) to The White House. Pantelion broke box office records last year with "Instructions Not Included", to date the most successful Spanish-language movie released in the U.S.

The studio has also partnered with the makers of a new app, MyLingo, which allows moviegoers to view a film in the language of their choice. By using the app – along with headphones and a smart phone – Cesar Chavez can be watched in theaters in Spanish.

Latinos are a key sector of the movie-going public. A 2013 Nielsen report found that Hispanics go to the movies in disproportionately high numbers. Although Latinos constitute 16 percent of the U.S. population, Latinos bought 25 percent of the movie tickets sold in 2012.

Yet Latinos remain under-represented onscreen. A 2013 University of Southern California study reported that Hispanics accounted for only 4 percent of screen roles.

The potential power of Latinos at the box office is not lost on Paul Chavez, the son of the late farm worker leader. “We want to get people to go out and see this movie on March 28 because we know that the opening day weekend is the pivotal time. If there is a strong opening, then it plays longer, it goes to new markets,” he said. “And if this movie is successful, then it opens the door for other stories that have not been told.”

Director Luna’s message to Latinos has been simple: “Go see this movie – and take five friends!” A strong opening weekend, the filmmakers say, would help send a signal that a film about a Latino can be a profitable venture.