Quick answer: Not much. But it’s too easy, not to mention unproductive, to bemoan and criticize awards shows for their lack of recognition when it comes to Latino writers/directors. Unfortunately there isn’t much of an eligible pool for these big awards shows to consider (why that is -for another post). Also, for those new to my blog; I define Latino strictly in the American generation/context, not international, and I focus on creators (writers and directors). Now lets celebrate who we do got because it’s pretty cool that of these few American Latino writers/directors in the Golden Globes mix, they happen to be all WOMEN!
Although it is the showrunner/producers who accept the Best TV categories, the writers and directors of the nominated shows obviously are part of what makes the show stand out. To that end, lets give props to the ladies that contributed to the critical success of these nominated series:
In the Best TV Drama series category, there is Jessie Nickson Lopez, staff writer on Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS. The young Columbia University grad was raised between Canada and the U.S. and has Venezuelan roots. After a brief stint at ICM followed by being staffed on A&E’s short lived The Returned, she worked as assistant to Moira Walley-Beckett (Breaking Bad EP/writer) on STARZ ballet drama, Flesh and Bone which was nominated for a Golden Globe last year in the Best Television Limited Series category. Stranger Things debuted this summer to much acclaim and hype with eight episodes. She wrote episode 6: The Monster. The show will be back for season 2.
In the Best TV Comedy series category, Mexican-American Linda Mendoza has directed 4 episodes over the course of the 3 year old series BLACKISH from ABC. Mendoza has been directing hit television show episodes on the regular ever since The Chris Rock show on which she directed 13 episodes during 97-98 season. Except for her 2003 feature Chasing Papi for Pantelion, she has stayed entrenched in the television business.
WINNER ********Also in the Best TV Comedy series, Panamanian Janizca Bravo directed an episode of another new show that came in hot this year, ATLANTA. Her episode was Junteenth. Bravo has a great eye and very soulfully brings a dark comedy to her work. She has directed a number of short films as well as a virtual reality project about police brutality that was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival. She is about to premiere her feature debut, Lemon at this month’s Sundance Film Festival, so you’ll be hearing a lot more of her in the next few weeks.
As mentioned, award shows can only be as representative as the eligible pool so to be fair, what features and television shows were eligible and were snubbed THIS YEAR? I regret to say I lack hard data and to be honest I’m not as well versed in the television landscape as I am in the indie film world (new years resolution!). A few I do know who we’re technically elegible bear mentioning; Danielle Sanchez-Witzel who is the showrunner on The Carmichael Show on NBC didnt get any GG love. Empire which was nominated last year has a writing room that includes Carlito Rodriguez who is also co-producer. He previously wrote on the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers. Orange is the New Black which boasts a killer Latina cast who didn’t get recognized- includes Marco Ramirez as writer. The Get Down includes Jacqueline Rivera as staff writer who also directed an episode. While Gina Rodriguez gets her third nomination (and sole Latina acting nominee) for her acting on Jane the Virgin the show didn’t get any love this year (It was last nominated in 2015 the year of its debut). The show consistently engages Latina scribes, Emmylou Diaz and Valentina Garza, and director Zetna Fuentes. In previous years Hulu’s hit show East Los High received a number of daytime Emmy Awards but the Globes never recognized the show which was created by Carlos Portugal and included a robust number of Latino writers. NBC’s Shades of Blue wasn’t nominated which includes writer Benjamin Lobato who also wrote on USA’s Queen of the South another show that premiered this year. Peter Murrieta wrote on TV Land’s Lopez show. Just recently premiered, so not part of this year’s submissions, Netflix’s One Day at a Time counts Murrieta as a writer and notably Gloria Calderon as showrunner (next year?)
Last year we had Ricky Gervais prophetically introduce Eva Longoria and America Ferrara as folks our future president wants to deport. Conceptually (painfully) funny to prove a point/Brit rub it in move, except both are American citizens. The ladies proceeded to do a bit on people mistaking them for other famous Latinas. Among this year’s presenters, Zoe Saldana who plays Ben Afflecks love interest in his period gang drama Live by Night is the only American Latina on deck. The Dominican American is known to speak flawless Español. Her body of work is fascinating in that she’s managed to play Black, Latina and now simply blockbuster actor (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar). Saldana has a production company Cinestar which she runs with her sisters and has a first-look deal with South Shore Television and Pantelion Films, the U.S. joint ventures of Grupo Televisa and Lionsgate. Hopefully they manage to bring up and work with some talented Latino creators.
In the Best Original Song category, musical star Lin Manuel-Miranda was nominated for his work on How Far I’ll Go with Mark Mancini and Opetaia Foa’i.
If you are like me, you make local film festival plans last minute, which makes my annual WTF is Latino at LA Film Festival post not so much late as just (still) in time for you to make a few movie selections this weekend and next week. The festival started last Wednesday, June 1 and runs through Thursday June 9th. PDF of schedule here.
In full disclosure I am a Programming Consultant for the festival. These aren’t reviews as much as hopefully an insightful guide. My purpose in this series is not only to spotlight Latino writers/directors and monitor representation, but also to challenge notions of WTF is Latino. It is a U.S. context classification that is vast; a generational and geographic diaspora. The term Latino is often mistakenly appropriated to international filmmakers/talent from Spanish and Portugese-speaking countries. Alejandro Gonzales Inñaritu is not Latino or a Person of Color guys. I’m talking about ‘Merican – Latinos.
The biggest change at the LA Film Festival is that it has moved from DTLA’s L.A. Live Regal Cinemas to the West side in Culver City’s Arclight Cinemas. The festival has scaled down considerably from 2014’s nearly 200 features to this year’s 56 feature-length film lineup. It underwent a programming department shakeup last year, the result of which it achieved an unprecedented shift towards more inclusive representation. The festival also established a strict world premiere requirement outside of a few special screenings and the Buzz section in order to give new films a shot. For the second year in a row the festival remains leader of the mainstream festival pack with keeping true to its diversity mission. 43% of the films in competition categories are directed by women; and 38% of the films are directed by people of color. 86% of the films in competition are directed by 1st or 2nd time directors.
About the U.S. Latino rep – there’s 5 US. Latino feature-length writers/directors I can identify which comes out to roughly under 10%. In front of the camera the program includes co-starring/cameo roles from established actors like John Leguizamo, Eva Longoria, Lauren Luna Velez, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Judy Reyes, Emily Rios as well as hot rising talent like Gabriel Chavarria, Yvette Monreal and Victor Almanzar.
LOWRIDERS directed by Ricardo de Montreuil, written by Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker.
Everyone agrees that the film’s theme made this the perfect LA Film Festival world premiere and while I’ll take full credit in pitching the film to the festival, I certainly cannot take credit for giving it the prestigious Opening Night slot which speaks to Festival Director, Stephanie Allain’s mission of centering underrepresented films as festival headliners. About the film’s pedigree: The film was conceived by Hollywood producer Brian Grazer who grew up fascinated with the lowrider culture. Grazer enlisted Peruvian filmmaker Ricardo de Montreuil to direct, who with his super talented Colombian DP Andres Sanchez, captures the landmark bridges, hills, hotspots and avenues of El Sereno, Echo Park, Elysian Park and Boyle Heights. But its LA born and bred legendary tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon and photographer Estevan Oriol, listed as executive producers, along with co-writer Elgin James, who lend the film some cred and streak of authenticity into this male-dominated club culture. In front of the camera is East Los Angeles native Gabriel Chavarria (East Los) who plays Danny Alvarez, the graffiti artist son of a an OG lowrider club member. Cast is rounded out by Italian stallion sweetheart Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) who plays his brother, Guatemalan-American Tony Revolri as a friend, Academy Award nominated Mexican actor Demian Bichir (A Better Life), Eva Longoria and Yvette Monreal. The Grazer/Blumhouse production, which is said to have cost around 5 million, has yet to announce a release date let alone a trailer or social media campaign.
A bittersweet tale about a fascinating and flawed man who comes to an unsettling realization about his impermanence. Set in Merced, California where Mexican-American filmmaker Reyes is from, Lupe Under the Sun is slotted in the World Cinema competition. I listed this film as one of my top 10 films to watch out for in 2016 so I’m so excited to see it get its first festival premiere. While it makes sense to tag the docu-fiction film under immigrant struggles, don’t get it twisted. Reyes’ sophomore film smartly eschews politics and portrays a personal and deeply moving character’s existential crisis.
11:55 directed by Ben Snyder and Ari Issler, written by Victor Almanzar
The title is a sly evocation to a 3:10 to Yuma type western duel in that it sets an increasingly tense timer from Marine Nelson Sanchez’s early morning return back home to that night’s arrival of a bus carrying a dangerous antagonist who blames him for the death of his brother and is out for revenge. Dominican-American Victor Almanzar who is a real life Marine, stars and co-wrote the film. The story is tight and oozes tension from the get as his homecoming is quickly overshadowed by the looming danger which conflicts with his genuine desire to move forward with his girlfriend and protect his sister and niece. Bomb performances by Victor and Elizabeth Rodriguez as well as John Leguizamo who plays a veteran in a wheelchair (damn he is good at drama). About the directors, both cinematographers in their own right, Ben Snyder notably was a Story Consultant for documentary The Wolfpack and did additional cinematography for Nas: Time is Illmatic, while Ari has shot music documentaries like Brothers Hypnotic and the Hip Hop Project.
The film had its first world premiere screening Thursday night so if you missed it I urge you to join the campaign to demand an encore screening slot. I hope it happens. This is a must watch as its an incredible feat of collaborative and guerilla filmmaking. It is a ridiculously authentic and compelling feature of interweaving slices of Black youth in Brooklyn led by one college-bound 18 year old Caesar Winslow’s pursuit of romance across Brooklyn.
When I asked Rivero how he defines his cultural background, he said Hip Hop. Which is a good reminder how each person identifies with their own distinct cultural upbringing (Okay he’s got a grandfather from Cuba).
Emily Rios (From Dusk til Dawn tv, The Bridge, Quinceañera) plays Alia Shawkat’s punk no nonsense best friend in the film adaptation of Paint it Black written by Janet Finch. It’s notably quite an impressive and dynamic directorial debut by actor Amber Tamblyn. The film is premiering in the U.S. Competition.
Lauren Luna Velez has a deliciously wicked role as police chief in the ultra-fun action violent cult comic adaptation Officer Downe about an L.A. supercop who is killed in the line of duty but is resurrected to clean up the streets. The joy ride is directed by M. Shawn Crahan (Slipknot) screening in the NightFall Section.
Judy Reyes (Scrubs) is called on to soothe the anxiety of a young girl’s first period and welcome her into womanhood in comedy Girl Flu written and directed by Dorie Barton, screening in the LA Muse section.
and now MISC: A couple of my recent festival faves and must-see’s if you can catch them at the fest.
KICKS, the pulsing and striking directorial debut of Justin Tipping is co-written with Joshua Beirne-Golden. Both of whom incidentally wrote an original script for Lowriders at one point and ultimately received co-producer credit. The Oakland set film stars stunner talent Jahking Guillory who decides to go after whats his (the Air Jordans he bought himself which he was jacked for) ultimately sending him on an irrevocable path torwards confronting what it means to be a man in his social construct. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. #KicksFilm
JEANS OF THE JONESES – saw this really witty matriarchal comedy at SXSW by first time filmmaker Black Canadian Stella Meghie starring Taylor Paige as a hopeless in love, adorably searching writer.
Follow the latest scoop @LAFilmFest, check out their YouTube videos for daily coverage and interviews, and for more info go to website or call box office: 1 866 Film Fest.
Heading to the Westside so stay tuned for more via my twitter handle: @IndieFindsLA
People always ask me how I got my start in film festival programming and the answer is volunteering at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. Back in 2006, I was a miserable, zombie-eyed assistant to a Hollywood studio producer the likes of the tyrannical boss in Devil Wears Prada. When LALIFF took place I always looked forward to volunteering whenever I could because that is where I woke up to the multi-cultural flavor, intensity and originality of International Latin American Cinema and became part of the spectrum of saucy Spanish language-accented conversation. I discovered a whole community of young, brown and beautiful Latinos hustling their craft. So I decided to take a leap of faith by pursuing and accepting a short term position as Programming Assistant at the Festival. I willingly accepted the lowly wages, and for the first time entered into the highly stressful and unstable world of the non-profit festival seasonal world, where I still reside. Unlike the white-bread, diluted projects I had written script coverage on over at the studio. I was thrilled to work in a film realm that offered true cultural exchange and offered unique points of view. Back then LALIFF was at its peak as a 14 day filled fiesta of films and events and over 100 features (cut to last year’s 42 features). It was such a memorable sight to see audiences line up past the Egyptian Theatre’s deep courtyard all the way down to the Hollywood Walk of Fame for films like the Colombian blockbuster movie, Soñar No Cuesta Nada, Mexican documentaries like En El Hoyo from established documentary master, Juan Carlos Rulfo, or the emo goth punks who came out for the high octane documentary on Alex Lora frontman for legendary Mexican rock band, El Tri. Screenings were packed and the celebration was epic. I continued to attend the festival in the years following, up until last year’s Quinceañera edition when I was surprised to see someone other than the Festival’s Executive Director, Marlene Dermer introduce films. It was none other than Edward James Olmos himself, aggressively pleading the audience to become a member of the Latino International Film Institute for the sake of sustaining LALIFF. It was a cry for help that seems to have gone unanswered.
Earlier this month, Edward James Olmos announced that LALIFF which had previously announced its dates for a five day fest from August 16-21, would not be returning for its 2012 edition. The announcement which had an almost pre-emptive positive sounding spin and deliberately left out any reason behind canceling simply stated “…the next edition of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) will be in the summer 2013, marking a new era for the organization and the Los Angeles Film Institute (LIFI), the non-profit organization that produces the annual festival. LALIFF will present landmark anniversary screenings and will host membership/networking events.”
In the previous weeks, filmmakers had submitted their precious films and with them the hopes of screening at a festival which may have been their only outlet. A number of films had already been invited and even confirmed. Mere days before their start date, longtime seasonal staff had been notified their job fell through. No doubt such a sudden decision was an extremely painful and difficult to make, of the last resort variety. The abrupt news that the preeminent Latino film festival in the mecca of Hollywood was not happening sent many of us in the latino community reeling. First I was saddened, then alarmed. Other than the LA Times piece titled Fundraising Shortfall causes LA Latino Film Festival Cancellation, I was dissatisfied with minimal coverage in the following days given such a landmark festival was in trouble. I began to reach out to filmmakers, industry, staff and other film festival directors to get reactions and figure out how to rally support. As the story organically shaped into a tribute piece, for me it also naturally stemmed questions like, ‘Why has such an important festival contracted instead of expanded over the years?’, ‘Besides making a donation, how can we come together and become the life support it needs right now?’ “Are the challenges it faces insurmountable or can we rebuild our reputation? “How do we make a Latino Film Festival commercially viable?” I know, clearly too much to cover in one post but all ideas worth touching on that I hope I can engage you to comment and kickstart dialogue.
Erase una Vez
So the story goes as I’ve been told by old school vets, in 1996 the city of Los Angeles’ cultural commission approached a few high profile and influential Latino Hollywood players like Moctezuma Esparza, (Maya Releasing producer/ exhibitor) and Jerry Velasco (President of Nosotros, the oldest Latino Media advocacy group, and owner of the Ricardo Montalban theatre in Hollywood ), to meet the demand of the Latino population and create a Latino Film Festival. It was Edward James Olmos, who was becoming more and more popular due to his starring roles in such bi-cultural cross over pioneer hits like American Me, Mi Familia, and Selena, who stepped up to lead the charge. Together with Marlene Dermer, who at the time was at Paramount, the two founded LALIFF which in its 15 years of existence has become THE most invaluable and critical platform for Latin American and American Latino talent. As Marlene Dermer puts it, ” LALIFF has nurtured and supported the work of Latino actors, writers, producers, and directors who have gone to become internationally recognized, to work with Hollywood studio films, and have become award-winning filmmakers. Since 1998, the Festival has had over 25,000 LAUSD students participate in their powerful Youth program in which kids are bussed to the Festival to walk the red carpet, be dazzled and inspired by established artists who they can identify with and share their same language. It became an institute, LIFI, in 2005 and one of its goals through the Youth Program is to support younger generations to find a voice in film, to see film as a possibility after graduating from school, and most important promote literacy in our community.”
A festival serves a number of different constituents who are all equally integrated and important, from nurturing audiences, providing acquisition opportunities and talent for industry, and of course the filmmakers who provide the content. Many thanks to the filmmakers who shared with me their experiences and thoughts.
Josefina Lopez (Real Women Have Curves) who has served as a juror at the Festival took the time to send me an email in the middle of shooting her new movie on location to say “I was very sad to hear about the festival not happening this year… It was always a dream of mine to submit a film and have it be the opening night film. I really hope this is only temporary but I have been aware of the tremendous struggle it has been to keep the festival going each year. I really hope it continues soon so when my feature is ready I can make one of my dreams come true and have it screen at LALIFF.” When not making her own films Lopez has established herself as a mentor to many young artists and revitalized a space in East LA, Casa 101 that puts on live theater and she is also the founder of The Boyle Heights Latina Film Festival.
Multi-hypenate (actor/director/producer), Douglass Spain (Star Maps, Resurrection Blvd) actor/producer/director has had several films premiere at LALIFF including a short he directed, ONLINE. “That year”, he says, “I spent everyday at LALIFF and got to know so many talented people which led to fruitful collaborations. I’m Latino and I’ll own up to that. LALIFF owned up to it as well. They created a platform that gave Hollywood an opportunity to see how diverse we Latinos are; How rich our stories are and how financially successful they can be. I guess it wasn’t enough. Funding and support… that’s the real reason this festival isn’t coming back in 2012. When Edward James Olmos asked me become a member and pay the fee, I did it without hesitation. LALIFF 2012 is where we had hoped to premiere our new film Mission Park. To end on a high note, LALIFF had the best freaking parties in town, period. It’s true about us Latinos, we love to have fun especially on set. Whenever we get a chance to celebrate, we are there. LALIFF was a place that brought all of us LA Latino Filmmakers and from the world over together to celebrate great cinema, music, dance and life. I don’t think it’s the end for LALIFF. I’m hoping it won’t be. In September 2012 a new film festival will emerge in Chicago… Mexican Film Festival of the Americas. Mission Park has been invited to premiere there. This goes to show that when one door closes another one opens.
Meanwhile, Alfredo de Villa (Washington Heights) who has had five features and premiered his very first short film at LALIFF reminded me of the vital role of film festivals in general – “Festivals can provide a cultural antidote without alienating its own base….they expose audiences to something different and contribute to a different strain of thinking.” In talking about the overall fragmentation of the Latino population fragmentation he points to the 29% of Latinos living at or below poverty level who are in effect, ‘stranded by the experience as we know it’.” The Mexican American experience of which roots in the US goes backs centuries is vastly different than the Central American wave of the 80s. And so on and so forth. ” We are still defining who we are so how can we become a political force? That is what is missing, the community is all over the place and as filmmakers we’ve been catching up rather then responding or identifying it before it happens.”
Gabriela Tagliavini whose second film, romantic comedy, Ladies Night opened the 2004 Festival, premiered her opera prima, “The Woman Every Man Wants” at LALIFF in 2001. Last year she showed her film, Without Men, which turned out the stars like Eva Longoria and La reina, Kate del Castillo on the red carpet. Gabriela says, “I would have never gotten so much press and exposure if it wasn’t for them (LALIFF), and I live in LA! People that come from all over Latin America with their indie movies in Spanish would never see the day of light. Plus, there’s the networking. Everybody mingles at the courtyard of the Egyptian, meet, compares notes and laugh.They had these lunches at the top studios to introduce the Latino filmmakers. I got to meet the CEO of Warner Brothers, Nina Jacobson when she was at Disney and Mark Gil when he was at Miramax. This is an opportunity that no other film festival does for their community. It’s too bad that my new film “The Mule” staring Sharon Stone which is about Immigration in the Mexican-US border won’t be able to be shown at LALIFF this year. I wonder what’s going to happen to all those other fantastic films that we might never get to see.”
There are many other filmmakers I did not have a chance to connect with who I’m sure would echo the sentiments of the networking and industry opportunities LALIFF has given them on top of the audience reach it provides.
Industria and Networking
Over the years, the industry component and exposure to studios that LALIFF use to facilitate seems to have diminished. It used to serve as a mini-market of sorts with its industry office library of Latin American films which offered studio execs the opportunity to come in and pore over hundreds of titles to consider for acquisition. On the other hand the invaluable hub of networking with one’s peers remains the Festival’s biggest strength and community builder . The collaboration that grows out of those dancing parties has brought countless artists together. Eddie Ruiz, who produced the short film, Mad Doggin was at the Festival last year remarked that while it wasn’t incredibly industry-centric in the way a filmmaker might seek a job for hire, the incredible social aspect of meeting like minded talent re-invigorated him, the audiences gave him a sense of affirmation, and in general he appreciated the environment that encourages the mantra of persistence of vision. and no matter how hard it is, to keep making your films.
Ben Odell, who most recently produced Girl in Progress, and is shooting Aztec Warrior with Luis Guzman, said, ” It’s tragic the thought of losing LALIFF”. Odell tells me that over the years he has met a number of talented directors that he would have never met if not for LALIFF, and many of whom he’s collaborated with like Sebastian Borensztein with whom he wrote and produced the 2010 Mexican thriller, Sin Memoria. He adds, “It’s particularly important to have the Latino festival in LA because it blends mainstream Hollywood, the US Distribution part with talent.” In talking about the big drum that is “Latino” he hinted at the programming challenge of lumping the everything in one category that defies sub-culture, in this case genre and audiences. “How do you fit in Latino art house movies from Peru and Chicano shoot ’em up movies all under Latino. It’s not the same audience”. I asked him what kind of festival would be most viable as far as getting our Latino talent industry exposure, to which he quickly asserted and used many examples of recent commercial genre films. It’s true, there is an influential big wave of filmmakers from Colombia, Cuba, Central America who grew up with Hollywood blockbusters and now want to make those in their own flavor. It reminds me of Alejandro Brugues the director of Juan of the Dead. One last observation worth mentioning is filmmakers not wanting to pigeonhole themselves as a “Latino filmmaker’. Might this play into the shaky support of some LALIFF filmmaker alumni?
Jerry Velasco, recently awarded NALIP’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Media Advocacy, says that upon hearing the news he immediately reached out to the organizers to say, ‘How can I help? Whatever you need I’m here.” If we let them go we’ll have to wait another four to five years to start another”, the implication that it takes a long time to establish a brand. “Lets help and continue and compliment. We gotta make it work in LA.” “It’s alarming,” he goes on to say, ” I’m worried about it losing momentum. Corporate America should be more conscious. We should support by contributing our contacts, dollars, get together and not let it die out. Let’s create a chain reaction….Think of all of those who LALIFF has touched. It’s alright to say, hey listen the film festal is in trouble. It has brought a lot of joy over the years”. What about some of Hollywood’s leading Latino talent? To them, Jerry challenges them to lend their money and vocal support. We are talking about la J-Lo, Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria etc.
Santa (Saint) Sacrifices made by staff and volunteers
Former staff were kind enough to share their years in the trenches, sometimes off the record, and more than one implied, “I’ve been taught that if you don’t have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all (I do not subscribe to that – if it is to motivate change, bring it). I asked the passionate, tireless and multi-tasker producer extraordinaire, Monica Sandoval who’s worked for LALIFF the past six years to share. “LALIFF stands for so many things. It has brought together so many people, so much creativity and so many opportunities. In a city such as L.A., LALIFF has been our flag. I discovered LALIFF as I hit the pavement hard, at full speed, although as a volunteer my first year, I had responsibilities’ like a staff member. I quickly realized this was greatly due to the fact that LALIFF was understaffed. As staff member the following year, I had become part of a hardcore family that spent hours without sleep, inventing innovative ways of using the few resources we had to make the festival as inviting and as extraordinary as possible. There is a lot of hard work and miracles, that go into carrying out this Festival. Then of course, there is LALIFF’s grim reality in regards to it’s core structure. There isn’t a year round team following up and maintaining LALIFF despite the many years its been around. I don’t fully understand why there isn’t a sponsorship coordinator working year-round. There are so many things that can be done throughout the year to maintain LALIFF alive. (on Marlene Dermer) …”I cannot imagine anyone else more passionate, more deserving, more appropriate for carrying out LALIFF than Marlene. BUT because of this, she hasn’t or maybe can’t let anyone else restructure, assist, give input, because this is too personal for her. LALIFF has been her lifelong mission and I truly believe LALIFF would not exist without her. LALIFF is in dire need of restructuring… I believe full heartedly that it was the best thing to do considering the circumstances and that this will ignite a shift in LALIFF’s history. There can only be new and exciting changes in its future. Hopefully people will realize how important LALIFF is and by missing it this year, will be prompted to actively support LALIFF and not just show up to ask to get into free screenings or parties…
Gabriel Sotomayor, a filmmaker and now Director of Programming at the University of Guadalajara use to work closely with Marlene was the only one on staff year round for a couple years. He argued vehemently that we, the community must put in to as much of what we’ve gotten out of LALIFF.
We are all in it together
On top of the love and passion fueled by alumni and staff there is also much goodwill and support from the community of non-profit art organizations at large:
John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival, which this year premiered two US Latino features, Mosquita y Mari and Filly Brown said, “There is a real value in showing films that represent a broad range of stories and cultures, as well as developing audiences for these films. Coming together as a community with like-minded passion is important and inspiring. We recognize that we are currently in a challenging fundraising climate, and with limited or no support from government agencies, it can be difficult for nonprofit arts organizations to thrive. We send our best wishes to the Latino International Film Institute and hope to see continued programming from the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival very soon.”
The Egyptian Theatre, home of the American Cinematheque which has served as the dazzling venue for LALIFF nearly every year, also expressed their support. Nancy Winters, director of Special Events said, “LALIFF has been an extraordinary organization to work with and we’ve been very proud to serve as a partner. We are saddened to see the organization struggle however its not unusual to see organizations.” In addition to its cinephile driven film programming, the American Cinematheque works with about 12 film festivals a year and in her 22 years there, Nancy has seen a number of festivals pop up and fade out. Other Latino oriented programming there includes their home grown Spanish Cinema series and The Hollywood Brazillian Film Festival (which Talize Sayegh former LALIFFer who founded four years ago – big mad props querida!)
While calls and emails to Eddie Olmos went unanswered, Marlene Dermer took the time to email me back. “We want people to know that we are regrouping and we are just taking a break from producing the festival this year, and we will return in 2013. We will continue to support Latino filmmakers with special screenings and other events. We will be announcing them on the website, to our members, and to the press when they are scheduled.Our mission is to support Latino films and filmmakers and serve our community, and that will never change even if we don’t celebrate a festival this year. We are positive about our organization, and believe that after 15 years, our community knows that LALIFF has offered audiences the best venue in the city to celebrate Latino films and artistry and in the process we created a cultural event for our community. Many don’t realize that LALIFF, which started in 1997, has expanded to work year-round with Youth Programs, screenings, and Preservation Film programs, among other things. All of these programs need funding, is not about the festival alone. Fundraising has become a challenge for all non-profit organizations regardless of serving Latino or non-Latino communities. We are a non-profit organization, and every contribution, regardless of the amount, helps us continue our mission. People can support us, by becoming a member.
Membership and Sponsorship support
Speaking of Membership. Okay, full disclosure, Up until a few clicks ago I was not a member of the Latino International Film Institute. (You can make a donation here, the festival’s actual membership donation page is wonky). You heard right, here I am, talking the talk, wanting to support the festival and I wasn’t even a member. See the pattern? I don’t doubt that there’s more than a few of you out there like me out there so let’s get it together people. This thing is bigger than us. Membership is from $50 – $500. Cultivating membership and making it worthwhile for folks is critical especially given the demographic the festival appeals to the most, LA’s hip, young starving artists. In talking with Calixto Chinchilla, founder of the West Coast’s big Latino fest, NY Latino Film Festival (which announces programming this week!!) I ask him, ‘Shouldn’t it be easier in this climate to get the support of corporate sponsorship since everyone is itching to tap the Latino market?, to which he immediately says, “It’s hard as hell. The cost of a festival isn’t getting any cheaper. Managing how to spend a decreased budget and sponsorships is more critical than ever and takes lots of savvy. Everyone is downsizing and competition for sponsorship is getting fierce. “It’s like Survivor of the Fittest!”. Activation, deliverables and reports must be stringently met. The NY Latino Film festival which from its inception has benefited from a strong sponsor relationship with HBO is no exception and has also had to scale down some. Calixto added, “I was sad to find out a big city like LA is in trouble”. He pointed out to San Diego Latino Film Festival, a festival he frequents regularly, which has managed to thrive and applauds Founder and Executive Director, Ethan Van Thillo and Artistic Director, Lisa Franek. “It takes a while to build a brand”. Calixto offered up the idea of putting together a summit for all Latino Film Festivals. “We should be open to having a dialogue, put aside our egos so we can find a way to have each other’s back. We hall have our best interests in mind and want to see us succeed.” I think its a good time to reflect and think about the future.” I agree wholeheartedly with Calixto. Just like he suggested at NALIP that a junior advisory board would rejuvenate and tap into the pulse of the fresh and younger and younger skewing energy pulse, it’s something to consider for LALIFF too. There’s a whole lot we can learn from the Old Guard and just as much they can learn from us. Why not form a mutually beneficial mix of old and new and spice it up some?
Back to Sponsorship – the other person who flipped the script on my naive thinking (isn’t it easier to get money for Latinos?) was the erudite Moctezuma Esparza. I realized I was asking wrong questions given my lack of historical plays out. Esparza says, ” Sponsorship has changed. Corporate demand is for measurable results. There was a time when sponsors and advertisers were all about impressions; how many people see xyz. The landscape is now changing, sponsorship is tied to Marketing which is tied to Programing. They are looking for direct results, increased sales. That presents a tremendous challenge for a cultural venue. Competition is intense. As a consequence there is a retrenchment in dollars to all kind of organizations. The criteria for allocation is changing.” At yet another point where I, the young kid, was quick to interject because I thought he was going to give one of those crossover success stories from 20 years that’s no longer relevant, he said, ” Twenty five years ago movies like, Born in East LA , Stand and Deliver, Milagro Beanfieled War, La Bamba, every two years these movies were being made, reaching a growing audience. For their cost they turned profits. But only about three filmmakers were making these films and there was not enough support from studios to create a habit for audience, a HABITAT. Structural changes are the challenges. It’s important to have an nuanaced understanding of the forces of nature instead to beating each other up. It’s not useful to say that latinos are not supporting each other.
Esparza who as executive producer has had many films screen at the festival says, “LALIFF has been an invaluable cultural platform that grew every year and seemed to grow in reach and reputation. LALIFF offers two powerful benefits; to filmmakers – access to a market and recognition, and second to audiences – the opportunity and access to extraordinary films not distributed online or in the US home video. “I look forward to LALIFF’s renewed commitment.”
Let’s be real
Let’s be real though. As important and empowering it is to recognize the milestone achievements of LALIFF, I believe there is value, now more than ever, for the community and especially those familiar with festivals who want to help (moi) to offer constructive feedback where there is room for improvement and to also offer our efforts, mobilize, and shake things up a bit. Not everything can be chalked up to lack of resources, right? What about consistency and leadership? I remember what Calixto said. A smaller budget requires skillful management and a constant shifting of priorities that continue to serve the mission. Then there are other details like, year after year I notice LALIFF does not announce its program until right before the festival. The publicity machinery needs time to massage interest in films most of the the public has never heard about. Also, in Hollywood where there is a vibrant community of arts and multi-media festivals competing for audiences wide scale awareness is key. Right now if you look on the Festival’s website, it still gives you the submission deadline. No indication of the announcement so one might not be able to tell that the Festival has been cancelled. Sure these may sound like details and tiny oversights and I’m not saying that this never happens at other festivals. But the difference here is the unchecked perpetual culmination of these oversights reflect a poor infrastructure. And these are relatively easy fixes that should be priorities because they go a long way. We could and should demand better from our Latino organizations. After all we have to work twice as hard to get ahead.
An active year round presence is required to make a festival grow. Only a couple staff members are year round, if that. That’s an enormously debilitating factor given the scale of the international festival. Who or what do the Board of Directors do? Are they doing all they can to power the festival?
Will the organization embrace and engage with the community on how to revamp the festival? I hope so and will stay optimistic until I see otherwise. Given the injection of new board member, the passionate Luisa Crespo, Executive Director of Academic Senate at UC Irvine, who has lent the festival renewed credibility and has committed to working with Marlene Dermer, I noticed a small but notable impact last year. International Industry maven, Sydney Levine has been an advisory board member for many years. Sought after by many festivals to lend her expertise on distribution and acquisitions, they are lucky to have Sydney’s participation as its immensely beneficial to emerging filmmakers at the festival.
Despite all of its trouble, one thing is clear to me; the audience continues to show up to LALIFF screenings- BECAUSE THERE ARE STILL FEW AND FAR IN BETWEEN VENUES THAT SHOW SPANISH LANGUAGE AND BI-LITERATE PROGRAMMING. And that is why I am renewing my support and commitment to the cause. If I am harsh at pointing out its flaws while applauding its achievements, its only because I want it to be as perfect as possible. I believe LALIFF will only grow strong with a rehaul set by the community.
I implore everyone who has been enriched by the festival to give tribute to the festival’s legacy. Whether they openly admit it or not, LALIFF is in trouble and the call to action is bigger than all of us. I encourage us to speak out and speak LOUD. Let’s tell the organizers what we expect and want from our festival and then help make it happen. While we won’t be seeing new work at the Festival, the organizers are planning a Retrospective program which they will be announcing soon on their website. Follow LALIFF on twitter and like them on Facebook. Share your network of talented peers, make a donation no matter how small, volunteer. Come to the Membership event today, Wednesday, July 25 at L’Scorpion (my favorite Hollywood tequila joint). If you can’t go, make a donation for whatever amount you want. If I can do it and I’m broke as a joke, so can you.