By Vanessa Erazo
Despite being virtually unknown to American audiences and Hollywood studio executives, Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez shattered box office records in the United States and Mexico in late 2013 with Instructions Not Included (No se aceptan devoluciones) a film he wrote, directed, and starred in.
In the movie Derbez plays a ladies’ man who lives in Acapulco, Mexico. One day a knock on his door drastically changes the course of his previously unattached life. An old fling shows up with a baby in her arms; she’s his daughter. The mother disappears leaving the baby behind with the eternal bachelor. In an attempt to track down her mother, he takes his daughter to Los Angeles despite not speaking a word of English. Then, she shows up out of the blue threatening to take the daughter he has raised for six years away from him.
With an extensive career in film, telenovelas, sitcoms, sketch-comedy and other television programs such as Al Derecho y al Derbez, XH-DRBZ, Vecinos, Derbez en cuando, and La familia P. luche the comedic actor is extremely popular in Mexico. His large following put him at the center of U.S. promotions for the film.
Derbez was a constant on morning and evening talk shows on Univision the week before its release, traveling to five cities all in major U.S. Hispanic markets. In hopes of targeting families, the marketing strategy also included outdoor media, radio, and promotional tie-ins with Jarritos soda. In total, about $5 million was spent on marketing the movie which cost about the same to produce.
Distributed by Pantelion Films, a venture between Lionsgate and Mexican media giant Televisa, and bolstered by Derbez’s star power Instructions went on to earn $44.5 million making it the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever in the U.S., topping Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and the adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s popular novel Like Water for Chocolate.
Competing against such films as Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and critical darling 12 Years a Slave, Derbez’s feature directing debut was able to beat all specialty movies that opened in limited release, ending 2013 as the highest grosssing indie film of the year. This bears repeating, a Mexican guy most Americans had never heard of made a movie in Spanish and beat Woody Allen at the box office. That my friends is cinematic history.
The family-centered comedy not only struck a nerve with Latino immigrants in the United States, in Mexico Instructions Not Included surpassed El crimen del padre Amaro and Nosotros los Nobles in ticket sales making it the most successful Mexican film in history.
The chart-busting film took Hollywood by surprise and likely sent studios scrambling in search of the next Latino hit, but the lasting effect on the industry has yet to be seen. Will big studios see Latino films as less of a risk then they did before? Derbez thinks so. In an interview with Maria Hinojosa of NPR’s Latino USA he told her, “I think there is a huge market that nobody has taken care of and now finally this movie, Instructions, is taking care of this market. Now I think things are going to change. I hope so because now they know there is an audience that can bring a lot of money to the Hollywood industry.”
For Pantelion, life after Instructions Not Included hasn’t changed much. The specialty distributor continues with its mission to, “produce and acquire movies that speak directly to acculturated and Spanish-dominant Hispanics alike.” A few weeks after Instructions Not Included opened, the distributor released another family-friendly bilingual comedy Pulling Strings. Not a home run like its predecessor, it made $5.8 million after playing more than 400 theaters for seven weeks.
Even with a major hit on their hands capturing the most loyal film-watching audience in the United States (statistics show that Latinos purchase 25% of all movie tickets) may remain elusive for Pantelion. Latinos, like other movie-goers, mostly watch mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. There is no magic formula to successfully selling Latinos on watching Latino films but Instructions Not Included may have gotten close. What packed the theaters with majority Latino audiences was a Spanish-language family-friendly comedy with mass appeal and big name talent with a large following.
Time will tell if other big studios will catch on and greenlight more Latino projects. After all, this isn’t the first occurrence of Hollywood courting a Latino audience. There was a time in the eighties known as the “Hispanic Hollywood” when major studios distributed films like the smash hit La Bamba ($45 million), Born in East L.A. ($17 million), and Stand and Deliver ($14 million). For the first time they created bilingual marketing campaigns and even circulated film prints that were subtitled or dubbed in Spanish. At the turn of the millennium, Latino and Latin American movies again experienced a golden era in the States. Films like Frida, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Y tu mama tambien, El crimen del padre Amaro, and City of God earned multiple Oscar nominations and millions at the box office. Despite the success of these films a Latino box office slump quickly followed.
The monetary success of Latino-themed films has its ups and downs. Whenever there is a breakout hit, the doors seem to open wider for Latino filmmakers but inevitably they quickly shut again. What remains constant is the Latino movie-going audience’s appetite for entertaining films of all types. The bottom-line is that studios will happily produce Latino films as long as they are profitable.
For Derbez though things are looking up. He’s received countless offers for future projects and is reviewing several scripts. In an interview with the Associated Press he said, “There are many people who want to meet with me right now.” Let’s hope it stays that way.