May 23, 2015

Film & Entertainment

Taking a reel risk with Miami's Panamax Films

Lilly Rockwell | 3/31/2014

Eight years after starting his Miami-based film studio Panamax Films, James McNamara has learned tough lessons before proving there is an audience for Spanish-language films in the U.S.

During last year's Labor Day weekend, a small California-based film studio named Pantelion Films released a Spanish-language movie called Instructions Not Included.

The film, which told the story of a single father raising his daughter, starred Mexican TV star Eugenio Derbez, who also supplies the voice of the donkey in the Spanish-language version of Shrek.

To the surprise of Pantelion executives, the movie became a hit, earning $50 million in the United States and $50 million during its run in Mexico. It has become the biggest-grossing Spanish language film released in the U.S, smashing the $37.6 million record set by Pan's Labyrinth in 2007.

"Instructions Not Included proved without any possibility of a doubt that a massive, unbelievably profitable market exists for Spanish-language film," says Pantelion Chairman James McNamara, a former Telemundo executive.

Eight years ago, McNamara created a Miami-based film studio called Panamax to demonstrate that Spanish-language movies could succeed in the U.S. ["Lights, Camera, Accion," February 2008] McNamara reasoned that since Hispanics in America gobble up Spanishlanguage TV, magazines, books and newspapers, it stood to reason they would flock to theaters to see movies.

By 2009, McNamara had hit the tough realities of the movie business headon.He was financing the movies with his own money, "which everyone told me I was crazy to do," he says with a laugh. There was front-end haggling between the distributor, Lionsgate Entertainment, and Panamax over scripts, budgets and actors. For any movie to Be a hit, it needed the perfect recipe: A great script, substantial marketing, the right release date and talented actors familiar to Hispanic moviegoers.

"I had this great deal of enthusiasm and blind optimism," McNamara says. Though his movies, because of their relatively small budgets of between $100,000 and $1.5 million, typically yielded small profits, "I realized that I was never going to turn a big profit," McNamara says.

So he agreed to a new partnership that involved none of his own money.Panamax and its distributor, Lionsgate, would essentially morph into Pantelion Films, which was a combination of Panamax, Lionsgate and media conglomerate Grupo Televisa, which produces popular telenovelas.Pantelion would be headquartered in California, and McNamara would stay on as chairman in Miami.

Pantelion released its first film in 2010, From Prada to Nada, and 13 others since then. McNamara believes that Instructions was successful in part because Derbez, a star to Latino audiences, worked tirelessly to promote the movie.It helped that Univision, a major Spanish language TV network, has a partnership with Televisa and gave the movie and Derbez plenty of promotional time.

"The movie business is inherently risky, stacked against the little guy," he says."You will suffer a lot of losses, and those will ultimately be made up with a hit. It's like venture capitalism on steroids."

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