On Friday, inspirational and controversial film “Flamin’ Hot” debuts worldwide on Hulu and Disney Plus, purportedly telling how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came to be as it recounts the rise of Hispanic family man Richard Montañez from janitor to marketing executive at Frito-Lay.
The fast-paced and charming story, from a script by longtime screenwriter Lewis Colick (“October Sky”) and Linda Yvette Chávez (“Gentefied’), comes via faith-film producer DeVon Franklin (“The Star”) and Latina first-time director Eva Longoria.
The movie’s biggest issue is that — similar to past feel-good family flicks such as “Cool Runnings“ and “The Greatest Showman” — key aspects of “Flamin’ Hot” conflict with the factual record. That’s according to a lengthy Los Angeles Times investigative exposé published in 2021.
In other ways, “Flamin’ Hot” reflects realities of faith often absent from major studio biopics. According to a recent Pew Research study, 64 percent of Latinos nationwide report affiliation with Christianity. The film creators’ close ties to the Latino community, including input from real-life Richard and Judy Montañez, resulted in the family’s Christian beliefs showing up on-screen.
“Faith being a throughline was very important to us,” Franklin told me in an interview. “From Richard to Judy to Eva and so many others, the people behind this wanted to portray the Latino community and Latino families with the dimension that you rarely see in film.”
The faith focus is particularly notable in a film released by Searchlight Pictures, a unit of Disney. In recent years, the entertainment giant has faced financial challenges as many faith-driven families have felt betrayed by the company’s descent into activism on social issues.
Franklin has spent years challenging Hollywood’s trend of bypassing the faithful.
“Hollywood needs to know there are millions of families out there that want content that can uplift and inspire them, and respects their beliefs,” he said.
A Spicy Blend of Fact and Fiction
Filmed in New Mexico, this inspirational dramedy has a larger scope than a typical direct-to-streaming feature — with 44 principal cast members, 875 extras in several scenes, and a narrative depicted over several decades.
Viewers are introduced to Richard as a boy in the 1960s, one of 10 siblings who grew up in a migrant labor camp in the small town of Guasti, near Ontario, California.
During his teen years, in an economically distressed community, Richard got involved in a street gang that sold drugs. Later, following his marriage to girlfriend Judy, the birth of their first child is depicted as a turning point, giving Montañez new drive to make a better life for his family.
Hiring managers are skeptical of the former gang member, until a Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga gives him a chance as a janitor. The snack wars of the 1970s and ’80s are in full swing during this era, with many of his coworkers affected by rounds of layoffs. Montañez puts in long hours — and also seeks to enhance his skills.
A mentor played by Dennis Haysbert (“24”) trains the janitor to operate the plant’s high-tech manufacturing machines; the Times investigative report notes Montañez was promoted to machinist in 1977.
The L.A. Times report confirms that Montañez developed some snack foods during his tenure at Frito-Lay and introduced strategies to reach Hispanic consumers. But it debunks that Montañez formulated the Flamin’ Hot blend of spices or ever presented it to PepsiCo Chief Executive Officer Roger Enrico, events depicted in the movie.
It even quotes a Frito-Lay statement calling Montañez’s version of events an “urban legend.” (After pushback on the Times report, Frito-Lay’s parent company PepsiCo walked back that phrase in a follow-up statement but did not fact-check any details in the investigative story.)
Franklin concedes the film goes beyond Montañez’s account. “He likes to have fun with how he tells the story,” Franklin said of the film’s subject. “At times, he gets carried away.” The producer visited Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano, Texas, and met with key staff to get the full story. Revisions to the script integrated multiple points of view in key moments.
“Richard had this idea of helping save the factory by marketing this spicy product to his community,” said Franklin. “He started as a janitor and ended his career 40 years later as one of the most celebrated executives within the company. That is historic and it’s also indisputable.”
Reaching Underserved Audiences
Amid these events, the faith journey of Montañez is portrayed as complex and dynamic. His father has a harsh view of God that initially pushes the boy away.
“At the beginning of the film, Richard doesn’t see the value in prayer or belief in God,” said Franklin. “Ultimately, when he finally surrenders to God and he prays for the first time, things start to happen.”
The producer is no stranger to thoughtful faith movies. At Sony, he developed hit films “Heaven is for Real” and “Miracles from Heaven.” More recently, Franklin produced “Breakthrough,” about a boy’s inexplicable recovery from drowning. And he played the role of a skeptical reporter in this spring’s “Jesus Revolution,” which earned over $52 million at the box office.
For him, “Flamin’ Hot” serves as an analogy to that struggle. “We hear Richard tell Frito-Lay execs, ‘Listen, if you bring my people in, I guarantee you it’s going to work.’ It’s similar to how I meet with studio heads and preach the gospel of this underserved faith audience.”
This lighthearted drama brings to the screen an authentic portrayal of a Latino family that nonetheless plays it loose with the origin of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (and Montañez’s role). Most viewers will take away themes about vision, love for others, and a persevering work ethic.
“We would not know the Flamin’ Hot brand today if it was not for Richard Montañez,” said Franklin. “His vision was to save the jobs of his co-workers at that factory — motivated by a heart of service to be his brother’s keeper.”
Rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug references, “Flamin’ Hot” is streaming worldwide on Hulu and Disney Plus on Friday.
This article has been updated since publication.