Hollywood studios appear to be missing the mark when it comes to representing one of their biggest consumers on the big screen.
"Studios are always looking for the next big thing. If they looked at the statistics, they'd see this is it," said Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.
Across the 100 top-grossing films of 2012, Latinos (who constitute 17 percent of the U.S.) are the most underrepresented group, with only 4.2 percent of speaking roles, according to the study.
And yet Latinos, on average, attended 9.5 movies in 2012, more than Asian (6.5 movies), African-American (6.3) and white audiences (6.1), according to Nielson's market research. In terms of movie tickets sold in 2012, whites (78 percent of the U.S.) bought 56 percent of them, and Latinos (17 percent of the U.S.) bought 26 percent, according to a Motion Picture Association of America report.
While overall attendance of new releases in 2012 was on par with attendance in 2011, Latinos are the only group who went to more movies in 2012 than they did in 2011, when they saw an average of 8.5 movies, according to Nielsen. Part of the reason for large Latino ticket sales is that they are, on the whole, significantly more likely to go to movies with family and friends, according to Nielsen.
The lucrative "Fast & Furious" films, set largely in Latino East Los Angeles, have been cited as evidence of the kind of revenue that a dedicated Latino fan base can generate. Latinos were credited for almost a third of the earnings for the latest in the series, this spring's "Fast & Furious 6."
And yet, Sanchez said, the studios are still wary of using Latino actors lest it affect a film's revenue. "With big budget films, studios take the actors who their research says deliver an audience," he said. But as Latinos have had fewer opportunities to take top roles, the research is lacking. Thus, Sanchez said, studios only take a chance on Latino actors in low-budget films.
And what few roles do exist often perpetuate stereotypes, the USC study claims. For example, it found that Latina actresses are more likely than African-American, white or Asian actresses to be depicted in sexy attire or partially naked.
As with "Fast & Furious," Sanchez said, "even if there are Latino roles, the movie's generally told through a white person experiencing a Latino environment. You don't see stories truly told from a Latino perspective."
But the industry has noticed the demographic in theater seats, even if it's not putting Latinos on the screen. Studios have started advertising more heavily to Latinos, especially via websites and in Spanish language media, according to Clara Rodriguez, who studies Latinos in the media as a professor of sociology at Fordham University.
AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the second-largest cinema chain in the U.S. by locations, is looking at where Latinos live when deciding where to build theaters, The Wall Street Journal reported. One such theater is currently under way in San Antonio, Texas.
"Your certainty of return on your investment is greater in a Hispanic-populated area than anywhere else," AMC Chief Executive Gerry Lopez told the Journal.
Sanchez contends that that return on investment could be even greater "if films had individuals that Latinos could connect to."
Stacy Smith, the author of the USC study and an associate professor at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, agreed, adding that mis- and under-representing Latinos in film could have widespread negative effects.
"Spending time with these popular films may send a message that only certain groups and certain stories are worth being told," she said. "When these movies are exported to international audiences, this becomes a global concern."