Flamin’ Hot tells the story of Richard Montañez, considered the “godfather of Hispanic marketing,” played by Jesse Garcia, a Frito Lay janitor who utilizes his incentive, ambition, and Mexican American heritage to steer the food conglomerate how to tap into the Spanish-speaking market resulting in the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos snack, and subsequent products to become a billion-dollar brand.
DeVon Franklin, president and CEO of Franklin Entertainment, produced the film, and making her film directorial debut, actress Eva Longoria, taking inspiration from Montañez’s memoir, “The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise From Janitor To Top Executive.”
The introduction of Montañez’s story comes at an opportune time as many Republicans in the House of Representatives ramp up legislation to extend the wall along the United States-Mexico border and enact stricter restrictions for asylum seekers. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a new anti-immigration law which goes into effect July 1, that “limits social services for undocumented immigrants, allocates millions more tax dollars to expand DeSantis’ migrant relocation program, invalidates driver’s licenses issued to undocumented people by other states, and requires hospitals that get Medicaid dollars to ask for a patient’s immigration status.” Florida businesses will also face severe consequences that employ undocumented immigrants, thereby serving a devastating blow to Florida’s state economy.
Montañez, when introduced to the conveyor belt where the snack food glides through so employees can inspect each morsel before being packaged, observes how the burnt ones the ‘burnt ones’ are quickly discarded; within corporations and society, “They always throw the brown ones away.”
The Republican party has an innate fear of the browning of America, and according to the 2020 Census data, the Latino population is “62.1 million Hispanics living in the United States.” The demographic is projected to increase to 111.2 million, or 28% of the U.S. population, by 2060.
As PepsiCo chief executive Roger Enrico, expertly played by Tony Shalhoub, astutely observes, “The Hispanic market is the future, and this [Montañez] is going to lead us there.”
But rather than seeing this designated population as individuals who contribute to the national GDP, they instead want to limit their entry into the country even though many states rely on their labor and skills.
Hopefully, Montañez’s story will make American citizens pause and reconsider how to develop more sensible and rational avenues to create pathways for illegal immigrants to gain work permits, green cards, and a path to citizenship. During the late 1980s, Frito-Lay miniature snack items lagged behind their competitors. However, while Montañez attests he came up with the concept for the Flaming Hot Cheeto brand, the Los Angeles Times article calls into question the validity of his story.
In April 2020, chief marketing officer Rachel Ferdinando spoke in a CNBC video about Flaming Hot products and said, “Richard’s insights into the Hispanic consumer really helped us shape and think about how we should talk to that consumer,” adding that his awareness of Latino market “was something we relied on very heavily.” Through a concerted effort of Frito-Lay executives, the company released the new snack line in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Houston, not Southern California, where the film takes place, according to the New York Times.
“I met Richard and Judy back in 2017, I was like, ‘Wow, all that you went through and all that you endured.’ He had this vision for his family and also, for the company. Richard, even to this day, is seen with a Pepsi bottle in his hand. For him to feel that loyal to his company and to want to serve them, his family, and his community after all that he went through, I knew I wanted to help me tell his story,” Franklin told Deadline.
Yolanda Baruch: How did you come across Richard Montañez’s story?
DeVon Franklin: About seven years ago, a mutual friend of mine and Richards texted me and said, ‘Hey, I have your next movie, and I didn’t believe him. But I said, ‘Okay. He told me he wanted me to meet with Richard Montañez. So I set up a meeting with Richard, and his wife, Judy. They came into my production office, sat down, and started telling me their story. Richard started as a janitor and had this idea for this spicy product that could appeal to his community because he’s the son of a Mexican immigrant and didn’t think the company was doing much to reach the Latino community. He said, ‘Look, if we had a spicy product, I could market it to my community, and it would help increase jobs’ because he knew [what] his people wanted. So he was given that opportunity, and next thing you know, [it] becomes a billion-dollar brand. He goes from being a janitor to becoming one of the company’s top executives. Hearing that story, I immediately said, ‘Yes.’
Baruch: Actress Eva Longoria makes her directorial debut and previously stated you initially hesitated to hire her; how did she win you over?
Franklin: Her understanding of what this needed to be, she always talks about the movie’s north star being authentic. She has a Master’s degree in Chicana/o Studies. She understands this world inside and out. She did an unbelievable presentation, which talked about the tone, how the set should look, sound, and how it should feel. She gave one of the best director presentations I’ve ever experienced, and taking into account that she had never directed a movie before; she made it known that she was the director; that was a difference. She wasn’t acting like she wanted the job. She was already acting as if she already had the job.
Baruch: You held a screener for the Latino community at Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. What was their response?
Franklin: Oh, my goodness, they loved it. It was awesome. It was such a great night. We just had an incredible celebration. I did not realize then how important this movie would be for the Latino community. I did initially when I started putting the film together, and I didn’t think much about that. I thought, wow, this is a story I’m passionate about, but to see how it impacts the Latino community positively. It was very gratifying, very, very gratifying. And I’m just so blessed to be a part of this.
Baruch: There were so many elements of how he was going through the world; how he is treated by American society parallels the Black experience. Did you feel a connection in that regard to his story?
Franklin: Sure, absolutely, without a doubt. In my journey to success in Hollywood, there have been [instances] of discrimination, racism, and unconscious bias that I’ve had to deal with. So, those elements in the film are similar to the [details] that Richard experienced; it was very important to include those things because the path to success is not a straight line and requires a lot of endurance to persevere and prevail.
Baruch: With the success of movies featuring BIPOC leads like The Little Mermaid and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and with this movie which undoubtedly will be a success, do you think Hollywood will see how diversity can positively impact its bottom line?
Franklin: Isn’t that the hope? Look, I’m certainly not cynical about our business. Our business is sometimes resistant to change in this way in fully embracing the power of representation and inclusion. So my hope is that the success of the films you just laid out, along with the hopeful success of Flamin’ Hot will, once and for all, open up the minds and hearts of those that are in power in Hollywood to give more filmmakers, writers, directors, producers, actors, that are BIPOC the opportunity to, tell our stories, and not just do it as a one-off, but do it because it’s part of the business plan.
Baruch: With conservative Republican leaders signing many anti-immigration bills into law, discuss how important it is to show these stories of diversity and how they can help show the value immigrants can bring to this country.
Franklin: The interesting thing about the movie is that Richard is the son of a Mexican immigrant, but he is American, and that’s an interesting dichotomy, what it means to be American. Being American is multiracial; there are [many] ethnicities that makeup what it means to be American. When people see this film, they will see, specifically, the Latino community in this movie is a powerful community. Hollywood doesn’t always portray that community in the truth and the depth in which they live. I think Flamin’ Hot goes a long way to do that.
Baruch: To piggyback on that statement, Holywood doesn’t always show those stories. What are your thoughts on how to rectify that issue? How can they start showing more authentic representation of Black and Brown populations?
Franklin: At some level, much of it has to do with the success of Flamin’ Hot. The good news is the buzz about the movie seems strong, anecdotally, from what I’m hearing in the industry and from different industry colleagues that have reached out to me. They’ve heard about the movie and how good it is, and that helps because, at the end of the day, the more that the Hollywood decision-makers start to see like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, there is something here that’s different than how we usually run business, and we need to program for the Latino audience, for the black audience, and all the various segments of the BIPOC audience and do it more consistently and do it more wholeheartedly. The success of Flamin’ Hot and how well it does on Disney Plus and Hulu will be the way to get that done.
Baruch: There’s some controversy around Richard and his claims about inventing the Flaming Hot Cheetos. Frito Lays debunked his allegations in an L.A. Times article. Did you speak with other employees who worked with him when the Flaming Hot Cheetos products were launched to verify Richards’s story?
Franklin: Years ago, before the article came out, I met with the Frito-Lay and PepsiCo executives and understood the timeline and the story, so we had already incorporated so much information into the script. So when the article came out, it didn’t affect us creatively because we were already cognizant of how his storyline was developing and how that coincided with what was happening at the company. The movie tells the true story, which is great. So anybody that wants to know how it all worked can watch this movie, and it lays out how all these things ultimately work together.
Baruch: Randy Gonzalez, 33, and his son Brice became a TikTok viral sensation. Unfortunately, we lost Randy Gonzalez in January. What was it like to work with Brice, and how is he doing?
Franklin: Brice was amazing. When we shot the film, he was six years old. Even at six, he was a consummate professional, knowing his lines taking direction and being so fun on set. Brice is one of the best kids I’ve ever met. I love him dearly, and he’s doing well. I saw him recently, and his father’s death is so tragic, yet, Brice still has his head up. He puts one foot in front of the other and shows up for work. He’s been on NBC’s Lopez vs. Lopez Show and helping promote Flamin Hot. So he is an incredible, dynamic young man, and I’m very excited to see how he develops as he gets older.
Baruch: Richard was a janitor that became an executive; what are your thoughts on how obstacles provide the opportunity for faith?
Franklin: I don’t know that you can have faith independent of the obstacles. Obstacles test and then prove faith. When you’re looking at having an idea, vision, or dream, the obstacle makes you think that faith without works is dead, and we walk by faith, not by sight. So the idea that I have faith or belief in something I don’t see is only enhanced in the face of an obstacle because the obstacle tends to block whatever our goal is. But they’re there to strengthen our faith if we allow it.
Baruch: How many spicy snacks did you eat on set?
Franklin: You know what, I’m not going to tell you (laughs). I ate too many; that’s the answer.
Baruch: What do you want audiences to take away from this story?
Franklin: I want audiences to take away hope and inspiration; all things are possible to those who believe. [Richard] is a real guy; he’s a real superhero. He did all this, so I want people to watch this and say, ‘Wow, Richard Montañez can do it. I can do it, too.’
Flamin’ Hot is streaming now on Hulu and Disney Plus.
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