The theme of this year’s NALIP 2013 conference was “Spotlight on the Trillion $ Latino Market”, but it seems the only tangible currency the Latino community shares is the ‘trillion’ perspectives on the subject. Pushed to pierce through the brown and loud cacophony overheard this weekend, I’ve come up with; On one side there is a tedious concern of defining our hybrid identity and segmented Latin descent/US geography, which plays into the subsequent frustration over tackling our representation within the commercial mainstream marketplace. On the other side, there exists a newer generation of transcultural artists asserting a very specific identity that informs their work, and their greater concern is building awareness and access to an audience within and outside the specialized outlets and innovative digital distribution platforms available. Of course there were a lot more thoughts vocalized and an opposing range of game plans and visions for the future put forth, but the following is what I absorbed and takeaway from this weekend. Before I launch into it though, it is necessary to acknowledge and appreciate the herculean efforts of NALIP, the non-profit organization of volunteers, staff, operations, board members, partners and participants who produced this year’s conference. If nothing else, the community is unified by the love and passion of the arts.
The Opening and Closing plenaries offered proof the conversation is at least moving forward in spite of the generalized and misleading titles of the sessions. The reason being is the caliber of forward-thinking speakers and artists who question the implications and who tended to offer a different perception and context to the subject.
At the “Overview of Media Trends and the Trillion $ Latino Market”, the panelists were David Chitel, New Generation Latino Consortium; Steven Benanav, Flama; Alex Fumero, ABC / Univision’s Fusion and Margie Moreno, Mun2. The very first thing they all said was that this was an extremely complicated market. Their job is to figure out how to break down what part of this trillion-dollar market can realistically build an audience. “We are using a misconception to our advantage. Especially when it comes to content”, Alex Fumero said. Even though its kind of corny how these targeted outlets wrestle with coining a demo moniker (YLA, BCA, NGL, Urbano, Hispanic Millenial), it is indicative of how desperate they are to reach out to the young Latino (18-34) audience in a fresh way. They are adopting a doors-wide-open, you-dictate-us approach with their programming. Most importantly, they do not pander nor underestimate their audience. Fumero invited anyone with programming pitches to email him for the network that will launch late this year (____). On one condition: He insisted that they must send a trailer, or some kind of video clip that demonstrates the type of content they aim to make. “There’s no reason you can’t go out and shoot something on your phone”, he said. Margie Moreno from Mun2, Telemundo’s younger sister which started 8 years ago, said, “We don’t let language dictate our content”, a sign of how much more embracing they are of a fluid bi-cultural identity than any other traditional outlet. Flama, is a new digital platform from Univision launching this fall. They have an open submissions call for all kinds of content. Submit your web series and projects at FindYourFlama.com Already in the works is a scripted show called Salseras about two childhood best friends who become fierce rivals in their college campus salsa dancing competition. And then there is NGL, which instead of taking up one kind of channel space, is positioning itself as an aggregator and source of all the “New Generation Latino” content out there on the net. You can submit your web series to get featured on their site and gain some of the ad share they generate by integrating and offering categorical content to brands and advertising companies.
When it came time to take questions from the audience - (which inevitably usually come in the form of comments rather than questions), I can’t help feel that Dennis Leoni, NALIP Founding Trustee and television writer (Resurrection Blvd) invalidated these innovative and exciting ventures when he said that while it is great that these specialized outlets exist, “I want to play in the big leagues”. Where is NBC, ABC, CBS, he asked? The panelists addressed his frustration by reminding all of us about the nature of the beast; studios and networks do everything in their power to hit the biggest number possible. Even if they find a voice as exciting as John Leguizamo who most definitely has an established fan-base, (and who apparently had three pilots none of which were picked up this season), if they don’t see it play broad (safe), they see it as a risk.
The Closing Plenary’s generic topic “Latinos and Media Stereotypes” was likewise immediately called into question by the panelists themselves, starting with Natalia Almada, this year’s NALIP conference Co-Chair and filmmaker. She mentioned that this concern with a type of representation is problematic and baffling to her since as an artist she is drawn to the complexity and difficult… and wants to look at the things that aren’t clear. Richard Montoya echoed the sentiment by saying he is not concerned and is actually unapologetic with whether his characters offer a positive portrayal of Latinos. “I don’t want to have that conversation.. I just want to drag you into the world and to tell stories best I can…Because it has an authenticity to it, a cultural specificity that rings true to the world but seldom gets underneath”. Meanwhile, Yancey Arias, an actor and producer, demonstrated how, by expanding the genre in which you are working with, where it doesn’t matter where a character comes from but the story and world, it is yet another way to subvert and challenge representation. The short film he stars in and produced, The Shooting Star Salesman, is a whimsical tale about a door to door salesman wearing a top hat and three piece suit who sells shooting stars. It will become available on iTunes in August. The filmmaker Kico Velarde is currently adapting it into a feature.
Reading from his laptop on stage, Richard Peña delivered a serious and illuminating context on the history of world cinema, festivals, and shared his personal connection to his Spanish/Puerto Rican identity as it informed his programming career. He’s always been attracted to films outside the purview, the margins. He struck the parallel that US Latinos are the new Jews of the United States, enjoying an insider/outsiders status which vantage and unique perspective could make for astonishing and novel discoveries about our world. The dilemma facing you he said, “Will you erase that sense of difference to an absolute minimum to cross over in to an even bigger market?”
While Richard’s discourse was introspective and left the room in thought , the second keynote on Saturday by Glenn Llopis played like a corporate motivational speech designed to pump up the audience full of Hispanic pride. Yes, he used that 70’s term, “Hispanic”. The author of a best-seller book titled, Earning Serendipity, he is the founder of Center for Hispanic Leadership. He’s basically carved himself out the role of the guy who corporations bring in to figure out how to reach the largest unidentifiable profit center. Overly enthusiastic, bright eyed and bouncy on stage, he showed us a flashy reel touting our numbers and potential power. It literally felt like he was holding up a mirror to us and saying,’Look how awesome and American, we Hispanics are!” Repeating phrases as if mantra’s like “Value your brand”, “Embrace your cultural promise”, “End of the niche,” I found the delivery patronizing, lip-service schtick and inappropriate. Now, in no way do I mean to diminish this man’s considerable accomplishments. He was the youngest business executive at Sunkist, he is a best selling author and a successful entrepreneur with a positive message. We can all relate to his Cuban father’s story because all of our parents’ experiences are character-building for the battles they waged as first generation, back in the day. His positive reinforcement of the immigrant mentality is noble, but so what. He speaks in general, self help, 12 step like morale boosting phrases, instead of offering practical strategy. He threw so much out there that something finally did in fact stick with me; “To change the conversation, you must lead the conversation and be consistent.” I can totally get behind that – but isn’t that like totally obvio?
THE PEN IS MIGHTER THAN THE SWORD
Wordsmith warrior, Richard Montoya is our de-facto leader charged with rescuing Latinos’ non-existent record in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (and across this great nation). Last Friday night’s private screening of his film debut, Water & Power was jam-packed inside the 400 seat theater at the AMC Citywalk. Howard Rodman, the screenwriter and one of Montoya’s Sundance lab advisors gifted the audience with a referential prologue of how classic LA noir has traditionally resisted filling in non-white characters, completely disregarding the makeup of this city – until now. Water & Power has a groundbreaking breadth of modern mestizo and mystical essence enhanced by Gingger Shankhar’s score and a soundtrack that includes Zack de la Rocha and Chicano Batman. The film’s transmission is undeniably enriched if one has an understanding of context/consciousness of LA and Chicano history. But even if you are unfamiliar with named identifiers like Pelican Bay, Lords of Dogtown, La Onda, Sureños, Frogtown muscle, there is some classic symbolism and brilliant metaphors to appreciate in this tale about two brothers locked in each other’s foreshadowed cataclysmic fate, all which takes place over the course of one night. In film, what is not shown onscreen is just as important as what is onscreen. Referring to the comments made to him about the lack of female characters in his film, Montoya responds, ‘This is what men behave like when there is not a strong female presence.”
“The ghosts of our colonial past haunt this continent”, Richard likes to say – and this is the prevailing night-time, tribal mood of this piece. He modernizes and personifies the noir genre’s shadows, dreams, underbelly fixes, secrets and implied provisos which precariously keep harmony during the day. The aerial views of the city are seen as if from our native American Eagle keeping watch over LA’s circulatory system; freeway arteries on which carbon-dioxide powered vehicles flow, and the unseen pipelines underground through which gravity powered water flows, barely keeping this land soluble. I have to say I was looking forward to Richard Peña as Q&A moderator to dive into the rich thematic context but curiously he only asked about the panoramic shots and once he gave the microphone over to the two young child actors to talk about their first acting experience, Montoya took over the Q&A.
AMERICAN LATINO WRITING PANEL
Carlos Gutierrez of Cinema Tropical, Bel Hernandez/Latin Heat, Juan Caceres/LatinoBuzz and I enjoyed an engaging panel about the relative lack of people and literature covering US Latino cinema. Bel refered us to the book and 2002 documentary 100 years of The Bronze Screen. A more contemporary look is Mary Beltran’s 2009 book called Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom. Still, I maintain that more recent films such as the groundbreaking epic, genre-defying film Sleepdealer written and directed Alex Rivera have not gotten its due in wider entertainment outlets (although it has become a major reference in the educational circuit). It’s interesting to note that back when LatinHeat was founded, they were among the first to feature La J-Lo circa Selena which broker her out and made her the international superstar status and entertainment empire she holds today. From her perspective many of the emerging performers and artists she covered back then are now mainstream, it’s only natural that her publication has gotten more Hollywood. LatinHeat continues to feature emerging and independent American Latinos like the Chamacas web series and the independent feature Mission Park and its wildly talented cast including Joseph Julian Soriana, Jeremy Ray Valdez and Walter Perez. Both Juan Caceres and I come from the film festival programming world and we talked about our desire to get these films out there regardless of whether they end up at our festivals. But there is a lack of volume and quality missing, and Juan made no apology about covering the exceptional films out there and not just because they are Latino. Although it has not been officially announced, it was hinted that the New York International Latino Film Festival is not happening this year. Rumor has it that the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival which took a hiatus last summer, is trying to happen in the fall.
THE ACTING TRAILBLAZERS
“If you don’t produce and write your own stories you are going to sit there and wait for the phone to ring”, Jeremy Ray Valdez said that Edward James Olmos once told him. Jeremy took this advice to heart and has recently produced and starred in his own film, Dreamer, written and directed by Jesse Salmeron. Nicolas Gonzalez who is a tour de force as “Power” in Montoya’s film mentioned he sold his house to keep his integrity – implying he did not take a lucrative job because he didn’t believe in the representation. Nicolas is in the upcoming one hour fantasy drama, Resurrection, which ABC picked up to series order this season. Justina Machado, who gained notable success on 6 ft Under also had a picked up pilot this season called Welcome to the Family on NBC. She talked about how she has carefully chosen her roles and has been able to do so because she is not the typical bombshell looking Latina (she looked bombshell gorgeous to me!). Gina Rodriguez was very outspoken about them coming together as actors and saying NO to any roles which were reductive and perpetuated stereotypes. Jesse Garcia who actively works in shorts, indies, blockbusters and theater, mobilizes a network of working film professionals on Facebook so they can support one another. This was one of the more livelier panels both on and off the stage. Old school folks in the audience talked about la envidia (jealousy), and cried out these young actors should be even bigger Hollywood stars. I think this mentality is kind of a throwback to the chicano civil rights activist days where we demanded acceptance and respect from the ‘establishment and powers that be’. But times have changed. Everything is more decentralized. Also, why give them that power? What is so productive about talking about the crabs in a bucket syndrome of how we don’t support each other’s projects? You can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to do and that includes begging traditional distribution models that there is an audience out there, and likewise begging audiences to support Latino film – especially when you frame it that way. So there are not any major Latino leading movie stars, so what? Is that the only barometer of success? To me success looks like what these fine actors are doing; focused on improving their craft, working their asses off, and choosing, effecting and sometimes producing their roles.
The awards show gala on Saturday was entertaining (although why they don’t offer complimentary drinks irks me, and probably reveals the lush in me) thanks to the energy of the host, Joe Hernandez-Kolski who came out like Gangnam Style PSY lifted on a pedestal held up by some sexy brown boys, making it rain fake bills on the audience.
I was so thrilled for Aurora Guerrero being awarded the Estela Award (McDonalds $7,500 cash money) for Mosquita Y Mari. Bird Runningwater, director of the Native program at Sundance Institute broke ground by including this chicana’s screenplay inside the Native Lab, which reflects the out of the box thinking of Sundance’s development programs. Ben DeJesus a well liked, long time Nalipster was the other Estela Awardee for his behind the scenes documentary of John Leguizamo’s one man show Ghetto Klown. Tales of a Ghetto Klown, which premieres on PBS June 29, follows the workaholic performer upping the stakes by taking his one man show to his motherland of Colombia. It’s an admirable and impressive feat watching him immerse himself in the Spanish language, translating and re-writing his comedy.
Gina Rodriguez was absolutely humbled and gave a very emotional speech when she received La Lupe award in post-humous tribute to Latino community godmother and all around wise-cracking fierce spirit Lupe Ontiveros. Holding back tears, Gina said she doesn’t think she deserves the award now but that she would dedicate her whole career towards deserving such an honor. Watching the reel before she came up, where she auditions for Filly Brown by spitting out a rhyme, her magnetism was so clear and evident that she was born that way. As most artists, they have a natural talent that stirs within and an unmistakable calling to fulfill. Finally Ray Liotta was there to give Danny Trejo the lifetime achievement award. Right before, Michelle Rodriguez ran up onstage to add how much she loves her some Danny Trejo.
A true artists takes risks and challenges the status quo. What are the new heights we can achieve without sacrificing integrity and voice? What is wrong with working along the margins if the margins are getting bigger and they offer a unique purview? How do we give the public at large access to the exciting work out there? These are the questions I find to be most relevant. Because I don’t see the value or longevity offered in chasing after the big studio films/networks. They are traditional models that are imploding and on the way out. Rather, a more important question that relates to all artists is how can we make the films we want to make without being dictated on what sells? Why can’t we rid ourselves of an Us vs. Them scenario? As artists should we be so concerned why Latinos don’t go to Latino films? We have to remember the scale of our art and work in this decentralized world. Why must we dwell on the question of our cultural identity in such a dated way?
I think there is a slow but seismic progressive shift, and its exciting. It was only my second year so I don’t have comparison but as one of the panelists pointed out, he was surprised there were not more attendees in the room. What does that say? ”The conference has shrunk” said Erin Ploss Campoamor, producer of Cristina Ibarra’s amazing documentary, Las Marthas, who has been coming for years. Although I missed his panel, “How to get your film Beyond the Latino market”, Gabriel Reyes, a PR and marketing vet, referred me to one of the more current- thinking marketing firms called Latinworks a company who has literally invented words to describe the current climate of culture. They’ve trademarked words like “Foreculture”, meaning a new generation with a transcultural mindset, and have identified “Transculturation” as the new game in town, in which people deconstruct their initial cultural identity and start forming new connections between elements of cultures. Their identity is multifaceted fluid and situational.
While it’s part of marketing ploy, I have to say I dig it. I especially like the idea that “Ni de Aqui ni de Alla” (not from here nor there), is turning into “De Aqui y Alla” (from here and there). Embracing otherness is the best route towards oneness (Latinworks)
For me the most productive way to keep moving forward is first and foremost the ongoing development of our content creators, and encouraging our peers and next generation to pursue careers as film critics, programmers, media entrepreneurs any kind of cultural gatekeeper. What matters most is that we work tirelessly towards improving our craft, that we empower ourselves by trusting our distinct voices and collaborate with each other. The biggest challenge for NALIP is how to stay relevant and young. Even though they had a social media maven, Lizza Monet Morales reminding us to utilize our social media to get the word out, when I filter out the hashtag #Nalip2013, there is not nearly as much activity as a conference in this day and age should produce. Where are the millenials at this conference??
I met a few new filmmakers and discovered a number of exciting second features coming through the pipeline, as well as one very exciting narrative film project from a master documentary filmmaker – all of which I’m excited to cover right here on my blog. I come away more compelled than ever to bring awareness to the most original and culturally specific talented writer/directors out there by screening their work for film festivals and writing about their projects on this blog. I know I need to arm myself with further academic studies, specifically of the humanities/political kind, in order to draw parallels, articulate, and change the way we are talking about these films as necessary stories that are flipping and re-creating the cultural zeitgeist. Now more than ever I feel like a genuine part of the ecosystem.
Again, these are only my observations. I’d love to hear from you if you went to NALIP, and if you didn’t, por que no? por que si?