March 31, 2006

NYT: Illegal immigrants making American culture less "vibrant," more lowbrow

Charles Lyon's NYT piece "Hispanic Films Have Yet to Catch the Same Wave as Hispanic TV" doesn't quite come out and say this, but it makes the same general point I've been noting for years: despite all the wishful thinking about how illegal immigrants are injecting "cultural vibrancy," Hispanic immigrants are instead boosting the market for and thus the prevalence of the worst junk prolefeed entertainment in America. I guess you could call it "assimilation" but it's a dreary prospect of assimilation to the lowest common cultural denominator.

This decade has seen some quality movies coming out of Latin America and Spain, but most of their fan base in the U.S. consists of upper middle class non-Hispanic whites. In contrast, 40 million Latinos in the U.S. have made almost zero impact on the movie business. In a half decade of reviewing movies, I've reviewed only one film made by Latino Americans ("Real Women Have Curves"). Even "A Day Without a Mexican" about how the whites, blacks, and Asians of California would fall apart if all the Mexicans disappeared was made by four members of Mexico City's cultural elite, not by representative Hispanic-Americans.

Lyons notes:

... one of the more confounding puzzles of the film world: the expanding Hispanic population in the United States, which totaled 35 million in the 2000 census and is projected to top 100 million by 2050, still hasn't created a market for Spanish-language pictures.

"A prosperous Spanish-language market hardly exists in the U.S.," said Jack Foley, president of distribution at Focus Features. "The Latino market in the U.S. is not changing. Latinos most enjoy English-language Hollywood entertainment. They want escapism and entertainment, exactly as the majority of American moviegoers demand."

Mr. Foley said films like his company's Spanish-language feature "The Motorcycle Diaries" and Lionsgate's "Amores Perros," as well as IFC's "Y Tu Mamá También," had worked in the limited independent art market. But he added that they failed to attract the broad, multi-ethnic Spanish-speaking population in the United States because most Spanish speakers here don't want to see specialized films.

Similarly, the exhibitor Cinemark USA, which in 2002 began the film series Cine en Español in a Dallas theater, found attendance to be lackluster. After less than nine months, Cinemark discontinued the series. "We just didn't have the numbers," explained Terrell Falk, Cinemark's vice president of marketing and communications.

Hispanic television, by contrast, has long thrived in the United States. Last year, advertisers spent over $3 billion on the country's top three Spanish-language television networks — Univision, Telemundo and Telefutura — according to TNS-Media Intelligence, which tracks advertising and marketing across print and electronic media. Moreover, popular telenovelas, like Telemundo's "Cuerpo del Deseo" ("Body of Desire"), can attract nearly two million viewers a night, according to data supplied by Telemundo, which is owned by NBC.

A couple of years ago, one of the other fathers of a kid on my son's baseball team was a very distinguished-looking actor from Mexico. He'd had quite a bit of success on Mexican television playing upscale roles, but his attempt to make a career in Hollywood in English-language television and movies wasn't going anywhere because he was too aristocratic-looking to play a plausible Mexican-American immigrant.

In response, he was trying to put together a Spanish-language version of the hit American legal series "The Practice," with himself taking the Dylan McDermott role as the lead lawyer. The law firm would be set in downtown LA and handle Latino-Americans' cases. His idea was to translate David E. Kelley's scripts into Spanish, and then commission the addition of new storylines to interweave with them of particular interest to Latin American immigrants in the U.S. (e.g., immigration law problems). He'd had a lot of meetings with the American Spanish-language networks like Univision, but they'd treated him like he was proposing they turn Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" into a TV series. "The Practice" isn't exactly "Upstairs, Downstairs," but the American Spanish-language networks researchers saw it as way too middle-brow for their low-brow audiences.

This was first brought home to me about two decades ago when I went to see a concert in Chicago by Los Lobos, the outstanding Mexican American rock group from East LA. If you were to play word-association games with American rock bands, the word "superb" wouldn't trigger too many names, but Los Lobos would definitely be one of them. The streets around the concert hall were jammed with Mexican immigrants in cowboy hats. But when we got to the show, it turned out all the Mexicans were going to the "Grupo Latino" night at the dance hall next door, and the Los Lobos fans were the same upper middle class white kids who would have turned out to see Talking Heads or Lou Reed.

A reader adds:

"Sounds as if America's distributors of high(ish) Spanish-language culture are having the same difficulties which occurred to Australia's taxpayer-funded ethnic TV station, 0/28, during the 1980s. Channel 0/28 was filled (as its successor, SBS, still is filled) with art house movies from every Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Iranian, and French auteur you've ever heard of and plenty whom even you probably haven't. Those who watched such movies were largely Anglo. Meanwhile the targeted ethnic audience was in fact watching unremitting prolefeed on the main networks."

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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