Founder & CEO of Areu Bros.Studios, Ozzie Areu, a Cuban American, in front of their sign at their film studio that was the former home of Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Ga.
(Tami Chappell/For The Times)
Growing up in Burbank as the son of Cuban immigrants, Ozzie Areu never dreamed of a career in Hollywood. The big film studios just a few miles away from his family’s modest home were remote walled-off compounds, so removed from the hustle and grind of his family’s day-to-day life that they felt like another world.
Areu wanted to be a cop. But as he likes to say, God had another plan. After taking on a job as a security guard at Warner Bros., he got the film bug.
More than 25 years later, Areu presides over one of the nation’s largest Latino-owned and operated film studios: a sprawling 60-acre site in Atlanta that he plans to turn into an inclusive media campus that champions Latino, women and other underrepresented groups in entertainment. Areu Bros. aims to venture across multiple platforms – not just motion pictures and TV, but digital streaming, music and gaming – with storylines that go beyond old Hollywood stereotypes and shallow tokenism.
“Minorities want to see ourselves in different roles – not just the mechanic, the gardener, the maid,” said Areu, 47, a smooth, genial George Clooney-esque businessman. “I feel I have a unique opportunity to build a media company made up of people who reflect the world that we live in.”
The inside of a soundstage at Areu Bros.Studios film studio in Atlanta, Ga., November 25, 2019. Areu plans to replicate Tyler Perry’s success as he builds the nation’s first major Latino film studio and plans to create opportunities for Latinos and other minorities.
(Tami Chappell/For The Times)
Ironically, the Areu complex is not in Los Angeles, where Latinos make up nearly half of the population, but in a poor, mostly black neighborhood of southwest Atlanta. That’s because Areu has taken over a studio that was previously owned by his former boss and mentor, Tyler Perry, the director, actor and producer who has amassed an estimated $600-million fortune making commercial blockbusters for a largely black audience.
After working for Perry for more than a decade, Areu left his job last year as president of the studio in the hope of extending Perry’s business model across a broader cross section of minority and female voices.
Areu, though, is quick to stress that he does not want to restrict himself to Latino or female audiences.
“Our stories aren’t going to just be Latino stories or stories around women,” he said. “There will be some, but even in those stories, you’re going to need white American males and you’re going to need a little bit of everything. The most important thing is the substance and authenticity of the story.”
While it may seem startling to see a Latino in the Deep South play a leading role in advancing diversity in the entertainment industry, it makes logical sense, said Benjamin Lopez, head of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, a Los Angeles based non-profit that supports Latino writers, producers and directors.
Not only has Areu gathered a wealth of knowledge as he helped Perry build his media empire, but Georgia is one of the nation’s
leading film production locations with a solid infrastructure of experienced crews and a burgeoning community of actors, bolstered by generous tax incentives for film and TV production.
“His studio is a breakthrough, watershed moment for Latinos in the U.S. and globally,” said Lopez, who has worked with Areu over the last year, recommending emerging Latino voices. “What he’s doing is investing in US-based Latinos and giving this generation of talent a shot in the arm, an opportunity to prove themselves and show their work is profitable. That’s going to signal to the studios: Guess what? This dude is taking a chance already. He’s first dollar in.”
Areu follows a small but growing number of Latinos who have set up film production companies in the last few decades. In 1991, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez co-founded Los Hooligans Productions, now named Troublemaker Studios, a film production company in Austin, Texas. In 2001, Jennifer Lopez co-founded Nuyorican Productions, which produces film, TV and online content in Los Angeles, and later went on to form Believe Entertainment Group, a New York based digital entertainment company. In 2005, Eva Longoria started UnbeliEVAble Entertainment, a film, television and documentary production company in Los Angeles.
Yet Latinos continue to lag behind in Hollywood. While about 18% of U.S. residents are Hispanic or Latino, a report released this year by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that in 1,200 top-grossing films released from 2007 to 2018, just 4.5% speaking or named roles went to Latino actors. Only 4% of those films were made by Latino directors and 3% by Latino producers.
Stereotypes were also rife, the study found, with about a quarter of top-billed and all Latino-speaking characters across 200 movies cast as criminals and 17% as poor or lower income.
Still, there is growing momentum to push diversity.
In the last few years, a flurry of movies with diverse casts – “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,””Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” – have found commercial success at the box office.
A few big blockbuster musical films coming out in 2020 – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” based on his Tony Award winning show and Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story” – will center around the experience of Latino Americans. Three months ago, Eva Longoria was hired by executive producer Samuel Rodriguez to direct “Flamin’ Hot,” a biopic about Richard Montanez, a Mexican immigrant and janitor who created the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos snack.
The prospect of building a film studio for minorities in Georgia is not without potential risks.
Houses along a street available for filming at Areu Bros.Studios film studio in Atlanta, Ga.
(Tami Chappell/For The Times)
A fledgling company with only about 12 full-time and 8 part-time employees so far, Areu Bros. is not likely to produce original content until the second quarter of 2020. A core part of Areu’s business plan is renting out his lot, which has 150,000 sq. ft. of multi-use space, five sound stages, an 11-home suburban backlot, four administrative buildings and more than 30 hair and dressing rooms, to big corporate studios.
While Paramount Pictures is wrapping up the shooting of “Coming 2 America” right now at the Areu Bros. lot, the future of Georgia’s relationship with Hollywood is in question after legislators passed a restrictive new law that bans abortions once doctors can detect fetal cardiac activity, before many women know they are pregnant.
The law has yet to take effect – abortion rights advocates filed a legal challenge – and Stacey Abrams and other key local activists who oppose it have urged film studios to remain in the sta