The 20-year-old biopic on Tejana star Selena almost didn't happen

Mar 25, 2017

When the movie "Selena" opened in theaters back in 1997, it was an instant hit. That first weekend, the biopic starring Jennifer Lopez rang up more than $11 million in box office receipts, making it the No. 2 film in the country.

It had only been two years since singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez died of a gunshot wound, and her most dedicated fans in Texas lined up by the thousands to buy a ticket.

On Friday, in her hometown, Selena fans celebrated the 20th anniversary of the movie with an outdoor screening hosted by the Corpus Christi Ride-In Theater.

Before the movie's 1997 premiere, for Latinos in the US and across Latin America, Selena was a huge star; her Tex-Mex mashups of pop, cumbia, rancheras, and R&B were regularly heard blasting out of car radios, at weddings, and at quinceañeras. But for the rest of the United States, her music — because she sang in Spanish — was virtually unknown.

Beyond chronicling Selena's start in the music industry (singing at her parents' restaurant as kid) and her eventual success in the Spanish-language market — No. 1 singles, multi-platinum records, and a Grammy — the glittery biopic also catapulted Selena into the mainstream. Suddenly, everyone knew who she was. Fans of the late singer went from being mostly Latino to a multihued rainbow of white, brown, and black.

The production team behind "Selena," themselves bicultural Latinos, set out to take a story that was deeply rooted in Tejano culture and transform it into something universal. They wanted the film to be just like the singer: Mexican and American at the same time.

After Selena's untimely death, her father Abraham Quintanilla received offers from several producers looking to secure the rights to her story. The man he said yes to, Moctesuma Esparza, may have never reached out were it not for the insistence of his teenage daughter, Tonantzin.

Esparza, producer of "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "Gettysburg," didn't know much about Selena. But his daughter knew all her songs by heart. Only a few days after the tragic shooting, she broached the subject of making a movie. “I remember telling him: ‘You should do a film about her.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, no.’ Right away he was like, ‘Absolutely not. I wouldn’t want to be part of any opportunistic or sensational story about such a horrible tragedy,'" she says.

Moctesuma feared it might be too soon. “My sense was that Hollywood would be interested in the crime story and the murder of Selena, and I wasn’t interested in that kind of story,” he says.

Tonantzin knew plenty of other producers would eagerly to jump on the project. But as a young Chicana who connected with Selena’s bicultural upbringing, she worried that the others might miss the mark. “I was very adamant that I wanted him do it because he is Mexican American and he would have the right sensibility to tell her story correctly and to give it that heart.”

Finally, after reading a biography about the singer, a lightbulb went off for Moctesuma. “I saw that the family was the driving force behind the success of Selena. Her brother, her sister, her father, her mother, had been touring and making music since she was a little girl, and building on the history of her father Abraham, who had had a band when he was a teenager.”

The story of the Quintanilla family was the story of the American Dream, of people who confronted racism with determination and reached success on their own terms. This was a story that could do Selena justice — and a way to stay true to his mission of making movies that broke with Hollywood’s stereotypical representation of Latinos.

It is notoriously hard to get investors to hand over money for a project involving an all-Latino cast. Movie studios are not risk-takers. They dump cash into franchises and sequels that are guaranteed to make their money back, and, with only a few exceptions, Latino films don’t draw big audiences to theaters.

When Esparza went looking for funds, he had one thing on his side: Selena’s fans and the millions of records they had bought. He explains, “There was already a demonstrated, proven audience for the movie, which is what any studio executive would care about.” He got the $20 million budget secured in no time. “Warner Brothers put up 100 percent of the money and it was the fastest, easiest financing of a movie of my career.”

Despite grossing about $35 million in domestic box office sales, "Selena" was one of the last times a major studio released a Latino film. After 13 weeks in theaters, and even with a built-in audience of superfans, "Selena" was only a moderate success. After factoring in advertising expenses, it's unlikely that Warner Bros earned a profit on the release.

But to Selena's biggest fans, especially bicultural Latinos like her, the movie was a deep and enduring portrait.

Vanessa Erazo is the film editor for Remezlca and author of "How A Teenage Fan Convinced Her Dad To Make The Selena Movie."

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI