Michael Peña stars as the titular labor leader

By Nina Terrero
March 28, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

A small production company called Pantelion Films became the object of admiration — and envy — for Hollywood studios last year. That’s because the joint venture between Lionsgate and TV conglomerate Televisa guided the Mexican comedy Instructions Not Included to a $45 million box office total, making it the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever in North America. The company attracted Latino moviegoers — who, according to Nielsen, account for 25 percent of movie ticket sales although they represent just 17 percent of the U.S. population — through a hyperlocal, bilingual marketing campaign that used everything from a tie-in with Mexican soda brand Jarritos to movie-star meet and greets at Latino grocery stores. “A lot of companies fail trying to reach Latinos because they view them as a very homogeneous group, and they’re not,” says Pantelion COO Edward Allen. “You need to approach and understand them on a local level.”

The next test of Pantelion’s marketing prowess arrives on March 28 with Cesar Chavez, its English-language biopic of the late civil rights leader starring Michael Peña. The company continued its trademark grassroots efforts, organizing college-campus screenings and making press-tour stops in cities with sizable Hispanic populations such as Phoenix, Austin, and Houston. Pantelion even hosted a screening for farmworkers in Delano, Calif., where Chavez organized migrant laborers in a landmark strike. The company also enlisted some political allies. “We decided very early that getting community leaders and politicians behind this story was key,” says Allen. To that end, Pantelion held screenings for San Antonio and Chicago mayors Julián Castro and Rahm Emanuel, respectively, and President Barack Obama made opening remarks at a White House screening on March 19. “During the whole promotion it’s been made clear how important this film is for the fight of many,” says director Diego Luna. “Everyone from the Latino community should know that this is part of our history.”