He was considered the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico. His legendary poor man’s “swagger” allowed him to rub elbows with some of Hollywood’s finest. And now, Cantinflas is the protagonist in the latest film that follows the secret recipe for box office success: forgetting about English-speaking audiences and creating films aimed solely at Latinos in an American marketplace.
Over Labor Day weekend I saw Cantinflas with my mother, an avid telenovela fan from Mexico, and my 8-year-old sister, who grew up in Fresno and has never seen a single Cantinflas movie in her life. But after seeing my mother point out the huge, colorful billboards, a curiosity sparked. Even with her broken Spanish, she knew somehow Cantinflas, or “Pantinflas,” as she innocently calls him, represented her identity in a way other movies don’t.
Cantinflas’ impact was seen before the film even started playing. Clutching our bucket of popcorn, the three of us found ourselves in a room filled with Latino families. Everyone chatted in Spanish. It was as if we had walked into a twilight zone, or traveled to a Cineplex in Mexico, instead of being in the middle of downtown Culver City. Even the trailers to English movies were narrated in Spanish.
What exactly is this phenomenon? The answer lies in the spending power the Spanish-speaking population has in the United States. Latinos encompass the largest ethnic minority in the country, and we love going to the movies: A whopping 11.6 million Hispanics were considered frequent moviegoers in 2013 and the number is only growing, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Hispanics go to the movies an average of six times per year — the highest attendance level of all minority groups.
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And yet, until recently, no one thought to create movies for Latinos, with Spanish dialogue and stars familiar to Latino audiences. Enter Pantelion, a new Spanish-language film production company. The company was born after a merger between Mexican production powerhouse Televisa and Lionsgate, which helps distribute the films on screens across the country. Televisa is the mastermind behind some of Latin America’s most popular programming, which include the hundreds of “telenovelas” that are massive hits with Latinos in the U.S. and are transmitted daily through network giants like Univision. Cantinflas, much like its predecessors, Instructions Not Included and Pulling Strings, cast a number of these well-known telenovela and comedic stars popular on Mexican and American television.
Barbara Mori, for example, plays a very quiet Elizabeth Taylor in Cantinflas. Mori is extremely popular in Mexico after her soap opera hit Rubi, where she portrayed an evil, ambitious and beautiful woman. Perhaps an American actress would’ve given more life to Taylor’s character, but the producers of films like this one are less concerned with quality than with audience recognition — they want a name that moviegoers can identify with, someone cut from the same ethnic fabric.
The Cantinflas bio-pic made over $2.6 million in its opening weekend, meaning it was already close to earning back its $3.2 million budget within just a few days of its release. It also beat the theatre averages of larger releases, making $6,967 on 382 screens. In comparison, As Above, So Below, the wide-release horror film, averaged $3,270 on 2,640 screens across the country. That makes it Pantelion's third consecutive success.
With films like this, the sub-par supporting performances don't really matter —resonance and connection play a bigger role than the acting. I realized that as I watched my mother sing along to the popular “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” and laugh at Oscar Jaenada’s puns. She was having a blast. As long as studios keep making films that speak to people like her, they will keep filling the theatres.