Lights Out for New York International Latino Film Festival

By Michael J. Feeney, New York Daily News

A film festival that helped launch the careers of hundreds Latino actors and filmmakers has reached the end of its reel, and now the co-directors are offering conflicting explanations for its demise.

Calixto Chinchilla announced this week that he is closing the curtains on the New York International Latino Film Festival. The festival founder chalked up his decision to end its 13-year run to "economics."

"It certainly wasn't a fly-by-night decision; it was a decision that was well over a year in the making," said Chinchilla, 35, the festival founder. "I cried over it."

Chinchilla said the costs of booking theaters, printing festival brochures and paying for everything else that was needed to produce the event led to the demise. He didn't want to downsize the weeklong festival, which drew an audience of 25,000 at its peak.

"It grew because the need was there, and the demand was there," he said, adding the festival didn't end because of a lack of community support.

A day after the story was published online, Chinchilla's partner disputed his claims, saying the annual showcase didn't have to end.

Elizabeth Gardner, who was co-executive director, insisted that the festival could have gone on.

"I chose to leave the NYILFF, and Calixto opted not to continue without me," Gardner told the Daily News on Friday.
 
Gardner, who said she left the festival for "personal reasons" and because it was "too consuming," denied Chinchilla's assertion that the festival had become too costly.
 
"To be clear, although the economy has been a challenge for all companies including NYILFF, this was not a decision based on economy, nor the company's financial status, which, in fact, is healthy," said Gardner, who wants to pursue a career as a movie producer. "We end with neither debts, nor liabilities."
 
Chinchilla declined to respond to his former partner's claims, and said he stood by his explanation for dissolving the festival.
 
Whatever the case, the discontinuation leaves a major void in the city's cultural landscape. 

The New York International Latino Film Festival grew to such a degree that it started to attract A-listers including pro athletes, actors John Leguizamo, Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel, and hip-hop heavyweights like 50 Cent and Fat Joe.

More importantly, it helped scores of actors and filmmakers - many city products - to get their careers up and running.

"The festival started my career," said Michael Diaz, an actor and filmmaker from Washington Heights also known as "Juan Bago" — a name he said he picked up during the annual festival, in which he showcased three films.

"The festival gave me the vision and inspiration to make films," Diaz said. "And the networking and all of the great people at the festival gave a lot of filmmakers an awesome resource (for) future projects."

In 2011, Bronx writer Dominic Colon won the short film script competition for his project, "Crush," the story of a gay teenager who reveals his orientation. HBO, the contest sponsor, later aired the film.

"It was a huge opportunity that they gave young filmmakers," said Colon. "I almost feel like someone passed away. We need to mourn this."