NALIP's Family Fortune

By Judi Jordan, Latino Leaders Magazine

The National Association of Latino Independent Producers is like a family that never loses hope that you'll succeed. A steadfast, positive and productive organization that has inspired and sustained the mission of Latino filmmakers, writers and producers since 1999, it has weathered organizational storms, the economy and remained a friendly support system of entertainment folks dedicated to making programming for the American Latino audience. NALIP's yearly conference provides a collegial environment to hear the hard truths about the industry and look for solutions.  This year the tantalizing title "Spotlight on the Trillion $ Latino Market" reminded us of the potential, and the imbalance between our buying power and the lack of decision-making power we have in Hollywood. NALIP's statistics underscore the clear motivation, the solutions prove more elusive.  Short of tunneling our way under the Studio gates into the executive offices, there doesn't seem to be an open path into the inner power circles where the real decisions are made. In spite of the astonishing facts you will read after this rant, there is not one single Latino studio head, or even a direct second-in-command being groomed for the eventual gig. For all of the 'conversation' about diversity in the creative ranks, the ultimate game change comes from the top; which is completely Anglo-run with the exception of recent shocking [and hotly-contested, by other would-be heirs to the throne] appointment of Kevin Tsujihara to CEO of Warner Brothers. It would be a brilliant move to appoint a Latino-American,  given the future of America's media consumers, but with less than 3% Latinos as studio and network 'creatives' [writers, directors, producers] in Hollywood, it's highly unlikely that the C-spots will go brown anytime soon.  Are they aware, do they know what we represent in profits?  Oh yes. Hollywood lives and breathes numbers.  They know exactly who's watching their programs and buying movie tickets. So, do they care what Latinos want to see? Not really. We have to make them care. Our dreams of seeing noble, educated, successful Latinos doing good things in the world are sidelined by sneaky maids, sleazy gang bangers, corrupt border cops, a teen dad  and a loud, busty Columbian. This is their image of the modern Latino, and what they deem appropriate portrayals for mass-consumption programming. Our 'brand 'is in trouble–it needs a serious reboot. As Charles Garcia, co-chair of Latino Rebels Foundation, dedicated to wresting control of the distorted Latino image in the media, states; "Power is never given; it has to be taken."  Even Oscar-nominated star of  "A Better Life",  red-hot Demian Bichir, now cast as detective Marco Ruiz in FX's The Bridge, admits in a recent an interview with industry journal The Wrap; "It's hard to change those [negative ideas] because there's a way Mexico has been perceived throughout the years. If you change it, or show Mexico as a beautiful place, which is the way it is, maybe the audience won't buy it, so they throw in a little filth. I don't think that's fair, it's just the way Hollywood works." Sorry, Demian, but we can't continue to shrug this off. We have the economic clout to change that.

One in six Americans is now Hispanic. The size of the U.S. Hispanic population worldwide ranked 2nd only to Mexico with 50.5 million to 112 million respectively. Forbes magazine has called the Latino market the "New Media Jackpot", and Hispanics' spending patterns help to determine the success or failure of many youth-oriented products and services; 65 percent of U.S. Hispanics are "Millennials," ages 22 to 35.  Nielsen Media has determined that Latinos represent an overwhelming 28 percent of today's heavy moviegoers, that they buy more tickets per year than any other ethnic group, and constitute the fastest-growing segment of the overall movie-going population.   Twenty-six million U.S. moviegoers are Latino, most commonly between the ages of 12 and 34, and are 100 percent more likely than the national average to be considered "frequent moviegoers."  Latinos also watch more television and consume more media [radio, online, magazines and newspapers] than any other ethnicity, yet Latinos comprise less than 1 percent of executives in Hollywood. Latinos are estimated to expend over $1 billion on U.S. filmed entertainment, and $1 trillion in general market-buying power.

So why are we treated as second class-citizens when it comes to being heard? It's not for a lack of trying. NALIP has stellar panels with diversity executives who represent the top Studios and Networks. They listen, encourage and enthused, return to their companies. Lucky writers and directors get meetings, and sometimes even get hired. But the result seems to be the same; insiders–Anglos write and direct 97 percent of the shows that get on air. Films are different, and offer more Latino voices, but they are typically low budget [with the obvious exception of Guillermo del Toro], and personal stories which pose the 'niche' problem, is it too personal, or even too familiar,  but not escapist enough? Latino filmmakers are finding the balance, and in the 14 years of NALIP, Latino projects gestated by members have progressed to Sundance and numerous festivals, domestic and foreign. NALIP-endorsed projects have aired on PBS, SiTV and HBO, Showtime, among several mainstream TV outlets. The yearly event attracts 500 executives, TV and film creatives, actors and producers from the entire United States, including Puerto Rico, and Latin Americans living in the US. Executives from Time Warner, HBO, You Tube, Google, Sony, ABC/Disney, NBC, CBS, PBS, Fox, SAG, AFTRA, DGA, WGA, PGA, CNN, HGTV, Travel Channel, NPR, Scripps and the Sundance Institute listened to ideas from attendees chosen for the 'LATINO MEDIA MARKET' , but even the execs admit that the progress is a slow process, and out of sync with the growth of the Latino population.   The shrugs and 'our hands are tied' excuses have run their course; it's time for bold action, from inside and out. I've watched the progression from optimism to realism, from tentative to tenacious as it grew obvious that despite the presence of well-intentioned mid-level Studio executives and friendly TV 'suits' hired to find 'diverse' talent,  there would be no magic carpet rides from networks, studios, production companies or casting entities. The inner doorways remain blocked despite appearances and Latinos began to sense that, despite the obvious market for our product, we were destined to be outsiders unless we found a way to seize the market. It's a trillion-dollar goldmine with very experienced security at the gate. You need to know the password, and until now, it has eluded us.

We watch our favorite actors struggle, great shows with Latino leads get cancelled prematurely, or worse, never aired, and we wonder aloud, why? We are 50.5 million voices — don't we get a say? At NALIP 2013, we learned that all three of John Leguizamo's  2013 pilots were dropped from network slates. A roar went up, the question was asked: "Who makes these decisions? " Why don't we get the same polling power about what we want that the general market receives on a constant daily basis? Dennis Leoni is the Executive Producer of the Showtime series "Resurrection Boulevard", one of the first quality Latino shows to air. Cancelled after two seasons, Leoni is consistently vocal in his disappointment of the state of TV for Latino content.  At NALIP, the answer– raw and real, comes through: It's because they don't want to. Studios and Networks want our butts in seats and our cable dollars but they don't want to green-light films or TV programming by and for Latino Americans, because they want us to consume what they want to make, for Anglo audiences, and with few alternatives, Latinos watch the programming that is available because we love stories; it's in our blood.  We enjoy sharing experiences as a culture, and they don't need to be 'Latino' stories, just Latino characters that acknowledge our place in America. There is a learning curve, even with the knowledge that there is an audience hungry for the right meal, served as they like it. The response has been to go to the folks who make it, don't ask an Anglo-American chef to make Peruvian, Brazilian, Spanish or Yucatan Mexican food. So we have to make our own food, and open our own restaurants. Clever off-shoots like FLAMA and FUSION offer alternative strategies for reaching what FORBES dubbed the 'new media jackpot.' Like with most 'jackpots' there is not a motivation for sharing, rather it is more about 'capture' and 'containing' audiences. That being the case, Latino media-makers must accept the fact that the long-anticipated handout from the studios is not forthcoming.  Lately, as shows about Latina maids, Latino gang bangers and Mexican-border murders of Americans are green-lit and John Leguizamo's more sophisticated show, based on his intriguing real-life on Manhattan's affluent Upper West Side, gets ditched, it's pretty darn clear that Latinos need to raise our collective voice about what we and our children want to watch, and find a way towards innovative strategies for reaching American Latino viewers seeking quality, inspirational entertainment.

NALIP has always acknowledged heroes in the Latino entertainment world and the passing of icon Lupe Ontiveros was particularly important to highlight as she was snubbed at the 2012 Oscars.  NALIP created an award in her honor, to insure that she will not be forgotten.  The first "Lupe" went to the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, founded in 1997 by Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Sonia Braga, Felix Sanchez and Merel Julia. The Foundation received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Advocacy presented by Heineken for their continuous efforts for increased Latino representation in the Hollywood community. The Estela "Rising Star' Awards went to talented young actress Gina Rodriguez, star of "Filly Brown," Ben DeJesus documentary filmmaker for his  "Tales of a Ghetto Clown," which follows John Leguizamo as he returns to Broadway with his one-man show, and to Aurora Guerrero for Mosquita y Mari, a 2012 Sundance Film Festival success story. All were awarded a $7,500 grant endowed by the McDonalds Corporation. Surprise guest Michele Rodriguez teased her friend Danny Trejo as he fought back the tears, picking up NALIP's highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award. Danny's pal, Ray Liotta good-naturedly posed for pictures with everybody in the room. And the family of Lupe Ontiveros openly wept as their mother finally received the honor due her.  Parties are great, but the heart of the NALIP national conference is the three days of workshops and seminars on film, television and documentaries, with informative case studies.

Panels included "The Million Dollar Screenwriting Workshop", "Reality TV: From Idea to Air and Beyond"  "Movie & TV Marketing Trends in the 21st Century Studio," "The Money Trail Agreements, Sell Your Film, Not Your Soul" and "Packaging your Documentary for Success."

In the encouraging "Entertainment Industry Writer Development Programs" panel, dedicated and knowledgeable ABC/Disney  Diversity VP Frank Gonzalez  and new ABC Drama Exec, Juan Alfonso, Karen Horne of NBC, Christopher Mack of Warner's Writer's Program, Fox's Chris Blythewood and NHMC's Nilda Muhr  discussed the opportunities that writing programs provide; when the positive stories we want to tell are finally picked up, it will be a great day for these execs who have invested so many in diverse writers over the years.  Waiting for those great scripts are actors like this found in the panel "The Next Generation: Latino Trailblazers" : Gina Rodriguez, Nicholas Gonzales, Jesse Garcia, Jeremy Ray Valdez and Justina Machado. This was an eye-opener, refreshingly direct actors talked about their frustration with what is being offered, projects they are excited about, the necessity to generate their own material and the effort required to stay relevant via Twitter and social media. Gina Rodriguez' acclaimed performance in the film, "Filly Brown" was nominated for the 2012 Sundance Grand Jury Prize; the film also featured the acting debut of late superstar Jenny Rivera.  Gina admitted being sensitive to "Not wanting to get famous off of Jenny's death", and not being sure about how to handle the surrounding media attention. These young artists take their role in the Latino community seriously, reflecting awareness of their part in the future of the Latino image. NALIP's mission to address the vital need for equitable Latino representation to the most underrepresented and largest ethnic minority in the country across all entertainment mediums continues to chip away at the barriers that confine the Latino stories, but not our spirit.