Hollywood, California (CNN) -- In Hollywood's chase for America's new No. 2 demographic -- Latinos -- Carmen Marron stands front and center.
Marron is an upstart director with an improbable rags-to-film-festival-success story that begins in a Phoenix public elementary school where she was a guidance counselor to struggling Hispanic youths.
Witnessing inner-city youngsters bereft of positive models and encouragement eventually led her on a seven-year journey in which she and her husband sunk much of their life savings into a little movie with a big message:
Yes, kids, you can overcome the worst of circumstances and become the person you've always dreamed to be. Just go for it.
"We spent a lot of our savings, which was challenging because I didn't know anything about filmmaking. I never wanted to be a filmmaker. It's crazy when I talked about it," said Marron, a Chicago native who now lives in the Los Angeles area.
"San Francisco, Boston, San Antonio, Texas, Chicago, New York -- wherever we were, the people all related to the story, the inspiration: Yes, you can. Si, se puede. Kick yourself out of the rut and make a change," she said. "You're always going to have obstacles."
Her film, "Go For It!" played well on the indie circuit, garnering audience awards at Dances with Film Festival in West Hollywood, California; Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival; San Antonio Film Festival; and Cine Las Americas in Austin, Texas, Marron said. The movie was an official selection of the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival.
It was an audacious debut for a director with no filmmaking experience.
But the recognition didn't end there for her film about a young Latina who triumphs over gritty, harsh experiences as she seeks entrance into a dance school.
Marron's film arrived in Hollywood just as studios were taking a second, harder look at projects with dominant Latino themes.
That's because the latest census now shows Latinos as the nation's second-largest group -- an exploding population whose count has exceeded the 50 million mark.
Those numbers confirm a lucrative market for Hollywood. The kingpin indie studio Lionsgate recently partnered with Spanish-language media company Televisa to form a new Latino indie studio, Pantelion Films, which makes Latino-themed movies for Hispanic audiences in the largest U.S. cinema chains. The films will be in English or Spanish.
Pantelion made Marron's English-language film one of its first releases this year.
"When it comes to films, there hasn't been a Latino film business so to speak," said Paul Presburger, CEO of Pantelion Films, which describes itself as "the first major Latino Hollywood studio" and "the new face of Hispanic entertainment."
"It's not that Latinos aren't going to movies. They are more frequent moviegoers. Between 20 and 25% of movie tickets at the major chains are being bought by Latinos. So they are going to see Hollywood films," Presburger said.
But, he added, "they're underserved in terms of movies that speak to their culture and speak to them."
The effort hasn't been without challenges.
Pantelion doesn't have the mega-marketing budget that big films may receive, Presburger said.
"After our first film came out, some felt it didn't do well, but I've gotten industry people congratulating me. It's difficult to go out with a tent pole when others have $10 million budgets for marketing," Presburger said.
Pantelion's first film of the year, "From Prada to Nada," earned $3 million at the box office earlier this year, Presburger said.
"We felt for our first out-of-the-chute film, we performed according to our expectations, but it's a market that has to build," he said.
The studio will back four to five wider-type releases a year, all of them to be English except for one, Presburger said.
Pantelion is also planning to do six to eight Mexican Spanish-language films a year as well, he said. One in the works is "Saving Private Perez," a comedy about a group of Mexican organized-crime folks going to rescue the leader's brother who's in the U.S. Army and captured in Iraq. The film was a box-office success in Mexico, and Presburger wants to release it in the United States with English subtitles, he said.
But Presburger has discovered that the Latino community's tastes are hardly monolithic. Cuban-Americans may not understand Mexican films, for example, he said. Spanish-speaking immigrants may not share the preferences of "fully acculturated" Latinos, he added. The community also has different economic levels.
"People look at the size of the demographic, but it's not homogenous," Presburger said. "People say what a huge opportunity and it is a huge opportunity, but you have to find movies with universal themes rather than micro-target within the niche. That's my challenge every day.
"We are just starting to find them in terms of movies that speak to them," he added.
One film historian in Hollywood, Marc Wanamaker, said Hollywood has always had a Latino star to appeal to mainstream audiences: Gilbert Roland since the 1920s, Cesar Romero since the 1930s and Ricardo Montalban since the 1940s.
But studios deliberately chasing Latino audiences are a new wrinkle, Wanamaker said.
"Now there is a big Latino population," Wanamaker said. "It's just practical. It's a practical thing to make money. It's a market that they're tapping into."
For her first film, Marron drew inspiration from Phoenix public school students when she worked as a counselor on behalf of a nonprofit behavioral mental health organization from 1999 to 2001.
She has always empathized with inner-city kids. She herself grew up on Chicago's Northwest Side neighborhood of Logan Square, an established community of Puerto Ricans and Mexican immigrants. Her late father, a street sweeper for the city of Chicago, and her mother, a homemaker, came from Mexico, but they met in Chicago and had six kids, she said.
"I chose to work with the most dire school district with high dropout rates," Marron said of her work in a Phoenix elementary school.
"They really didn't take education seriously. They really didn't look up to people in their community. They looked up to people in television and entertainment. That really shocked me. I decided to write a script and screenplay and tell stories and characters that kids would identify with and hopefully inspire them through the story," she said.
The result was a PG-13 film with a Latino cast, featuring Aimee Garcia as the struggling junior college student who wants to enter a formal dance school in California. Garcia is a Chicago native of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent who was a television regular on "George Lopez" and will be a regular on the series "Dexter." Her character's name just happens to be Carmen, too.
Marron made the movie in 19 ½ days in 2008, shooting the exterior scenes in Chicago and the interior ones in a Los Angeles studio.
"Go For It!" is a dance drama about a Chicago Latina's success in overcoming self-doubt and pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer, despite harsh obstacles such as her best friend in denial about her abusive boyfriend. She struggles with her immigrant parent's misunderstandings of her dreams.
Some people in Hollywood told Marron, "Don't make a movie with a Latino cast -- just one Latino in it" and "Make it rated R and make it with violence and profanity," she said.
"I didn't want to go with it," she said.
"The representation of Latinos in Hollywood has been bad. When these kids go the movies, they get this type of reinforcement," she said. "I'm trying to create role models for them."
Marron, however, has seen her own set of challenges.
Her film opened in more than 200 cinemas across the United States in May, against stiff competition of this summer's blockbusters, such as the sequel "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."
As Presburger put it, the box-office results for "Go For It!" were "disappointing." The film will be released on DVD this summer and on television and cable television.
On a recent afternoon, when she joined Latinos and other youths in a downtown after-school program called Art Share Los Angeles, Marron remained irrepressible and undaunted.
She's already planning a second movie.
"In hindsight I realize how difficult it is, but as I was doing it, I really didn't know," Marron said inside the art district warehouse, where students were working up a sweat in a dance class, much like the protagonist in her film. "But now that it's happening, I'm really grateful and I'm pumped and I just want to keep doing more and more."