A Hispanic Hit at the Cineplex

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Fox Searchlight Pictures

La Misma Luna.

The No. 1 movie last weekend at Los Angeles' Landmark Pavilion theater, an art-house mecca, was the same as the one that drew the biggest crowds at the Block Orange, a 30-screen AMC theater in a sprawling Orange County shopping mall: a tiny, Spanish-language sleeper called Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna). A kind of Finding Nemo of border politics, Under the Same Moon follows a nine-year-old boy's travels from Mexico to the U.S. to reunite with his mother, an illegal immigrant who cleans houses in Los Angeles.

The Fox Searchlight/Weinstein Co. picture connected with both Hispanic and indie film audiences, earning $2.6 million, the highest opening weekend ever for a Spanish-language film in the U.S. Studios have long known Hispanic crowds will show up for their comedies and animated films. But the success of Under the Same Moon suggests the growing Latino moviegoing audience is under-served when it comes to films that tell their own stories.

"This is an audience that has yet to be tapped into," says America Ferrera, the Ugly Betty star who has a small role as a U.S.-born college student who takes Mexican children across the border. "Yes, they're in line for Spider-Man 3. But they're responding to a story that speaks truly to their experience."

Hollywood has good reason to court the Hispanic audience. Latinos buy more movie tickets per person than any other segment of the U.S. population. The median age of Hispanics in the U.S. is 27.4, nearly 10 years younger than the U.S as a whole, putting them squarely in the date-night demographic. "Studios are becoming more open to listening," says Ivette Rodriguez, president of American Entertainment Marketing, a firm specializing in marketing to the U.S. Latino consumer.

Some studios initially underestimated the diversity of the Latin market. "We talk about the Latino community as a monolith," says Nancy Utley, chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight. "But it's people from all different countries who've been here for all different lengths of time and some are English dominant and some are Spanish dominant."

Under the Same Moon has a character for almost everyone with some part in the Hispanic immigrant story. There's the boy, spunky Carlito (Adrian Alonso), separated from his parents by the border; the mother, Rosario; a disillusioned recent illegal played by telenovela star Kate del Castillo; Ferrera's second- or third- generation college student; a drifter Carlito meets picking fruit; a security guard with a green card and a shiny truck who courts Rosario; and the list goes on. "It speaks about life on both borders, why people feel the need to come over and what it's like for people while they're here," says Ferrera. "It speaks honestly about life in this country as an immigrant and that it never gets easy."

The movie has plenty of familiar faces — and voices — for Latin audiences. Ubiquitous L.A. disc jockey El Cucuy blares on the alarm clock, the rock group Kinky sings the corrido "Superman es Ilegal," and the band Los Tigres del Norte pick up a hitchhiking Carlito.

Based on focus group reactions, Utley knew she had a movie Hispanic audiences would respond to. Some people were even crying at the TV commercials, she says. "They said, 'I've never seen myself on screen before.'"

In addition to advertising in the Hispanic media, Fox Searchlight launched a grass roots marketing campaign. The company partnered with Jarritos, a Mexican soda drink, to host 55 screenings in 11 cities, hit more than 20 film festivals and gave out 30,000 phone cards with the film on them, telling audiences that if they liked the movie, call someone and tell them about it. They also screened the film for the Congressional Hispanic caucus, Hispanic church leader Sam Rodriguez and some service workers' unions.

The result was that Under the Same Moon surpassed the previous record for a Spanish-language movie, Ladron Que Roba a Ladron, by nearly $1 million, despite opening on fewer screens. This weekend the movie will expand from 266 screens to 400 before going wider still on April 4.