Flamin' Hot Cheetos Follows Air Jordan Into Movieland

Jesse Garcia in “Flamin’ Hot.” Photo by Emily Aragones. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios


Mark down 2023 as the year of feature films telling the origins of brand marketing mega-success stories.

In April’s “Air,” now available on Amazon Prime, we learned how Nike developed its Air Jordan basketball shoes.

And today Hulu and Disney+ premiere “Flamin’ Hot,” a heartwarming biopic about a Mexican-American PepsiCo/Frito-Lay janitor (Richard Montanez, played by Jesse Garcia) who ends up inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos -- and gets promoted to PepsiCo director of multicultural marketing.

In fact, “Flamin’ Hot” states (spoiler alert: this is told on-screen at the film’s end), Montanez is now “known at the godfather of Latino marketing” whose “genius launched an entire industry of spicy products.”

And Montanez states in a voiceover that starts the film, “I’m the guy who helped bring the world the most popular snack it’s ever seen."

“We hope you enjoy this incredible true story,” first-time director Eva Langoria said in a filmed intro to “Flamin’ Hot” that played last weekend before a free outdoor preview screening in Brooklyn.

Yet the film itself never quite claims that the story’s true. (The marketing tagline, from 20th Century Studios’ Searchlight Pictures, is also evasive: “The flavor you know. The story you don't.”)

But “Flamin’ Hot” sure makes a viewer long for some Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

And that may be enough for Frito-Lay. When the movie was first announced two years ago, the company told the Los Angeles Times Montanez was not “involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market… That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend.” A few days later it backtracked a bit for Latin Heat, attributing the success of the product to teams that included Montanez. 

Frito-Lay now shares the following statement with CPG Insider: “The film ‘Flamin’ Hot’’ is Richard Montanez’s story, told from his point of view. His contributions to Frito-Lay are highlighted throughout the film, specifically his insights and ideas on how to better serve Hispanic consumers and engage the Hispanic community, a legacy PepsiCo continues today. We are grateful to him for that, and hope people enjoy the film.”

One undisputed fact: Montanez did eventually become PepsiCo’s vice president of multicultural sales & community promotions. He retired in 2019.

If nothing else, “Flamin’ Hot” provides a great deal of unpaid media exposure for Frito-Lay – as Amazon’s “Air,” did for Nike in telling the story of how Michael Jordan married Nike to spawn Air Jordans.

“Air,” directed by Ben Affleck, was promoted in trailers as “inspired by true events.”

BUT Nike, like Frito-Lay vis a vis “Flamin’ Hot,” wasn’t involved at all with “Air’s” production.

So we’ve got two movies providing a lot of publicity for products -- one CPG, one apparel -- despite no input from the brands themselves.

No wonder Nike founder/chief executive officer Phil Knight reportedly told Affleck after a screening that “you got a lot wrong.”

Whether that applied to the story itself or to Affleck’s portrayal of Knight, we don’t know.

We do know that both “Flamin’ Hot” and “Air’ go out of their way to credit, respectively, Knight and PepsiCo chairman/chief executive officer Roger Enrico (played by an almost unrecognizable Tony Shalhoub) with the wisdom to give the final greenlights to the starring brands.

Both films also feature product pitch meetings with the higher-ups, by Montanez in “Flamin’ Hot” (“Latinos represent a vast untapped market for Frito-Lay,” he informs Enrico and cohorts) and by Nike's Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the protagonist of “Air.”

A much-reported point of contention with “Air” is its depiction of Vaccaro as the person who brought Michael Jordan to the firm. Many say credit should go to Rob Strasser, then Nike’s vice president of marketing, who is also depicted in the film, played by Jason Bateman.

Ultimately, though, the absolute “true facts” may not matter much. It’s undoubtedly the movie’s version of both stories that most people will remember, because they are so colorfully and entertainingly presented, with the added power of “the big screen” -- even in a streamed version.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That line from the 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” can be taken too far in the realm of journalism, but in the world of marketing, it’s probably a good "truism" to remember.

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