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‘Crazy Rich' success leaves Latinos waiting for their moment

"Crazy Rich Asians" is set to top the US box office again this weekend and a sequel is already in the works, an outcome that exceeded expectations and helped shatter myths about films with minority casts.

[LOS ANGELES] "Crazy Rich Asians" is set to top the US box office again this weekend and a sequel is already in the works, an outcome that exceeded expectations and helped shatter myths about films with minority casts.

That success - coming on the heels of "Black Panther" setting records with its majority-black ensemble - has another underrepresented group wondering when it will get its moment: Latinos.

Hispanic and Latino Americans are a big driver of the domestic box office, with the highest per-capita attendance at the movies last year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. They accounted for 23 per cent of tickets sold in 2017, even though they make up 18 per cent of the US population.

But they're largely absent from the big screen: 6.2 per cent of speaking characters in the top 100 movies in 2017 were Hispanic or Latino characters, according to the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. A romantic comedy or drama with a majority-Latino cast has never hit it big in the US.

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"The people in charge, mostly, are non-Hispanic people and they are the ones with the power to approve and greenlight Latino stories," said Jack Rico, a film critic and podcaster. "They decide not to."

The question now is whether those attitudes are changing. With the success of "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Black Panther" - along with other films such as last year's "Girls Trip" - Hollywood is catching on to the idea that diversity translates into dollars at the box office.

Latinos have made some inroads with shows like "Jane The Virgin" and the blockbuster "Fast and the Furious" franchise, which has featured several Hispanic characters over the years. And there was the Walt Disney Co animated hit "Coco," about the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead.

But in terms of live-action movies that center on Latino casts and Hispanic culture - as "Crazy Rich Asians" did for Asians and Asian-Americans - Hollywood has produced very little. The speaking roles that do exist for Latinos often fulfill stereotypes of immigrants or drug lords. Of the top 100 films in 2017, USC found that 43 had no Latino characters at all, and the study saw no meaningful change in representation over the previous decade.

Many of the successful Latinos working in Hollywood, meanwhile, have shied away from Hispanic themes and stories. While actors like "Star Wars" leading man Oscar Isaac are hugely popular, they're not as focused on Latino content, Rico said.

In four of the past five years, the Oscar for best director has gone to Mexican filmmakers. But it's been for films like Alfonso Cuaron's sci-fi thriller "Gravity" or Alejandro Inarritu's western "The Revenant."

Some studios have set out to harness Hispanic spending power at the box office, though. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp's formed Pantelion Films in 2010 with Mexican TV giant Grupo Televisa SAB, aiming to give wider theatrical distribution to movies for Latino audiences.

It recently remade the 1987 film "Overboard," putting Mexican comedian and filmmaker Eugenio Derbez in the role of the wealthy yacht owner. It became the highest grossing release for the label, collecting more than US$50 million in the US. (it cost about US$12 million to make). Two-thirds of the audience was Latino.

That compares with "Crazy Rich Asians," where about 41 per cent of the audience was white, 38 per cent was Asian, and 11 per cent was Hispanic, according to Warner Bros.

The secret to making a film with mass appeal is showing a character that people would aspire to be, said Paul Presburger, chief executive officer of Pantelion.

"If someone comes to me with a gang story or immigration story of the poor immigrant, I'm really not that interested," he said in an interview. "I want to be much more aspirational. That's the key for all of these movies."

More changes are afoot. Warner Bros. won a bidding war earlier this year for Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical "In the Heights," which is slated for release in 2020. The film centers on a bodega owner in New York's Washington Heights who is looking to retire to the Dominican Republic after inheriting his grandmother's fortune.

After "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Black Panther," the idea of putting together an all-Latino equivalent is a "no-brainer," said Ben Lopez, executive director at the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. "We are no longer a niche audience - we can carry a film domestically and internationally."

NALIP was part of a cross-cultural group that helped promote "Crazy Rich Asians" with Warner Bros.

Jeff Yang, co-host of the Asian-American podcast "They Call Us Bruce," said the ultimate goal is changing Hollywood's mentality. He has called on Asians who bought tickets for "Crazy Rich Asians" to also support films by African-American filmmakers, such as "BlacKkKlansman" and "Sorry to Bother You."

"We need to ensure that we are not just focused on our own inclusion, our own representation, but that we are about changing the way Hollywood sees itself and its business model," he said.