From Box Office to Pandora's Box: An American Latino Filmmaker's Journey

Until recently, I embraced the American ethos, that all things were possible for all people. It never occurred to me that a Puerto Rican born in Spanish Harlem and raised in the South Bronx would find it so difficult to make films in the United States in the 21st Century. My first film, Empire (Universal Pictures, 2002), boasted a domestic gross more than four times its production costs. An outgrowth of Empire's success was recognizing an American Latino audience who wanted more. Consequently, studios began developing American Latino projects. One project, not written by an American Latino, and the first of these films to shoot, had a production and advertising budget three times that of Empire's. However, it's box office performance was so poor, that similar projects were soon shelved. And, despite the profitability of Empire, I didn't make my next movie, Illegal Tender, for five more years.

At a recent panel, a Hollywood executive stated, "Things are hard for everyone, but, for the Latino presence in Hollywood, there is progress." He cited Ugly Betty, George Lopez, etc. I responded, Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, and Cesar Romero. He didn't understand my point. I told him that in the 1940's/50's, these Latino-Americans were leading men who worked opposite the Julia Roberts of their day. I then asked him to name two comparable American Latino leading men of today. To his surprise, he soon realized that there was no comparison. As a final effort, he mentioned John Leguizamo (my leading man in Empire). While few entertainers have had as successful and multifaceted a career as John, the only movie where he is the leading man is in my latest film, The Ministers.

Check out these statistics: (i) according to Daily Variety, 46% of the tickets purchased for The Fast and the Furious, Hell Boy, and others were purchased by American Latinos; (ii) 41 million U.S. Latinos are more frequent moviegoers than Anglos or African-Americans (averaging 12 theatre outings a year); and (iii) when well marketed, American Latino films, (Empire, La Bamba, Selena and Spy Kids, -- yes Spy Kids written/directed and starring American Latinos and the highest grossing American Latino film/franchise) are dramatic financial successes. Why then, unlike creators of African American films in the early nineties, have doors not opened for us? When I posed that question to a major Hollywood studio executive, his response was to cite a fragmented Latino community.

A film made by a Puerto Rican in New York may not translate to Mexicans, Salvadorans, and others on the West Coast and vice/versa. Logical? On its face, Yes. True? No. If you place packages of rice and beans in front of a Dominican, a Mexican, a Colombian and a Puerto Rican, we will all cook it slightly differently and, in that way, we're beautifully fragmented. But that metaphor is not applicable to pop culture. When it comes to pop culture, there is no fragmentation -- thanks to Hollywood! Billions of dollars have been spent over the last 100 years conditioning people of color to believe that the primarily Caucasian stars of Hollywood are the standard for who we should all want to be.

When I recently approached studios about a new horror film, the response I received was that they loved the script, but I needed stars to get the film financed. Yet, when I researched the horror genre, there were no major stars in any of the highest grossing or most financially lucrative horror films in the last several years. Why this requirement for my film? I re-read my script. There was the answer: the lead character and the majority of the cast were to be American Latinos. Had I written the lead in the film to be Anglo, would they have asked for a star in that role? Hollywood has been around for a hundred years, yet there are very few persons of color in executive positions at the major studios who can "green light" a film. There still isn't anyone to whom I can pitch a project who looks like me, relates to me nor fully understands the American Latino experience.

People have said that Obama is president because the country wants change. I say that Obama is president because the country has already changed. In part, filmmakers like Spike Lee and Will Smith have been catalysts for this change. It's time for Hollywood to be the change agent again. Great films can be written by, directed by and star American Latinos.

These opportunities in Hollywood can now exist for us too. With the Latino community growing faster than the U.S. Census can measure, Hollywood and independent investors need look no further for the next financial sweet spot. The American Latino film community is primed for success on every level -- creative, social and financial.

Franc. Reyes is the writer/director of several motion pictures including The Ministers, Illegal Tender, and Empire. Tonight, The Creative Coalition hosts a gathering with Hollywood leadership to discuss the issue.