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Who's Boosting Box Office Numbers? Report Says Latinos

<em>Cesar Chavez </em>pulled in $3 million at the box office last weekend and did noticeably better in areas where the farmworkers advocate was most active.
Courtesy of Lionsgate
Cesar Chavez pulled in $3 million at the box office last weekend and did noticeably better in areas where the farmworkers advocate was most active.

According to a recent report published by the Motion Picture Association of America, Latinos went to the movies in 2013 way more often than other ethnic groups in the U.S. relative to their population.

Last year, Latinos made up 17 percent of the population but accounted for 32 percent of frequent moviegoers (that is, folks who went to more than one movie a month). Blacks represent 12 percent of the population and were 12 percent of frequent moviegoers in 2013. Asians (and other minorities) — who make up 8 percent of the population — were 7 percent of frequent moviegoers.

(Frequent moviegoers are a key metric for the movie industry today because most theater owners get much of their revenue from repeat business. Concession stands and the astronomical price of that bag of popcorn you bought is a part of that, no doubt.)

In 2013's box office, whites were underrepresented overall, in part because of a high percentage of African-American and "other" moviegoers who purchased more tickets in 2013 than 2012. (The MPAA groups Asians with "others.")

Chris Dodd and John Fithian, who head the MPAA and National Association of Theatre Owners, said we're seeing these increases because of 2013's diverse roster of films, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

"The year 2013 in the U.S. brought the highest-grossing Spanish-language movie of all time with Instructions Not Included. Perhaps even more telling, more movies in 2013 featured more black actors in important roles that drove more patrons to the theaters," Fithian told theater owners at the CinemaCon convention. "That's why we saw substantial growth in moviegoing for African-Americans and other minorities."

But Instructions Not Included was just one film, and the trend of heavy Latino moviegoing goes back several years. In 2012, Latinos bought a quarter of all movie tickets sold, according to Nielsen data. Yet that same year, researchers at the University of Southern California found that of the 100 top-grossing films, only 4.2 percent of the speaking characters were Latino.

All this still doesn't get to why Latinos account for so much in box office earnings. This Nielsenreport says that Latinos are more likely than non-Hispanics to view heading to the movies as having some "positive cultural significance" — as a way to spend time with family or friends.

Since 2009, the number of Hispanic moviegoers has increased to 20 percent while the numbers of African-American and "other" moviegoers have stayed relatively the same. The percentage of white moviegoers has decreased slightly during that same period.

If we want to break this down further, we can look to the top-grossing films of 2013. Man of Steel, the reboot of Superman, drew in the most ethnically diverse audience. Its box office numbers show that 50 percent of Man of Steel moviegoers were white, 15 percent were black, 16 percent were Latino and 19 percent were Asian or other.

Blacks, the MPAA reports, contributed 22 percent of the box office revenue for Iron Man 3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, on the other hand, had a more heavily Caucasian audience than the other blockbusters; whites contributed 64 percent of its box office earnings.

So what movies will draw ethnically diverse audiences this year?

Cesar Chavez is in the news lately and earned $3 million at the box office this weekend. The film, which critics have generally spurned, is still, like many other biopics, considered a "must-see." refers to the movie's reception as having "disparate results" and that it "lured a strong following in areas he was active." (Chavez is being shown in limited release at 664 theaters around the country.)

Earlier this year, I wondered if 2014 would be the year that folks stopped being shocked that people of color watch films. To make that point, I looked to films that had largely minority casts or were marketed to audiences of color. This report suggests that even more evidence is elsewhere.

We consider movies like Instructions Not Included and Cesar Chavez as indicators of Latino (or minority) moviegoing — but should we? The MPAA findings hint that the indicators for the power of the Latino audience are all over the box office, not just concentrated among "Latino" films.

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