News & Updates
You met Jasmine in Agrabah, Elsa in Arendelle, and soon, you’ll get to meet Elena, in Avalor. The latest addition to Disney’s growing princess brand will be coming to a television screen near you later this summer when Elena of Avalor premieres. We’ve already gushed about all the great Latino actors who’ll be lending their voices to the upcoming Disney Junior show, but those lucky enough to attend the NALIP Media Summit in Los Angeles last week got an exclusive first look at Disney’s first Latina princess.
Not only that, they got treated to a conversation with the minds behind the show. Moderated by Ellen Leyva, co-Anchor of ABC7, the panel included producer Craig Gerber (who also created Sofia the First), writer Silvia Olivas, composer Tony Morales, character designer David Cardenas, as well as executive vice president of Disney Junior Worldwide Nancy Kanter.
In the discussion that followed the screening, Gerber and the Elena crew talked about how the sprightly character came together and how they’ve embraced the idea of remaining authentic when coming up with her Latin American-inspired world. Find some more highlights from the panel below.
On the Show’s Origins
Nancy Kanter: Craig had done some other projects with us and when he started to tell us this story of this princess who turns to her kingdom to save it from the evil queen and the journey she would take, one of the questions that we always ask each other is: What is this world going to look like? Who is this princess going to be? And we knew that the Latina community had been wanting, hoping, expecting us to put out in the world a Latina princess. And one of the questions we ask ourselves a lot is, why not? And the question we asked is “Why not make the kingdom that she comes back to be a kingdom that would be influenced and represent Latin and Hispanic architecture and culture and music? And why not have that princess be, in fact, a Latina? And that’s really what we did. It’s a matter of that perfect meld of a great idea and an opportunity that would have real elements for the Latina community. But also [the chance to] put out there a fantastic message for girls and viewers around the world about what it means to be leader and [to] build that within yourself and rely on your friends and family.
On Crafting a Strong Latina Role Model
Craig Gerber: Well the most important thing for us, and for me, was to create a character that could be a really good role model and who would embody the traits of leadership that kids (girls and boys) could look up and try to emulate. Not someone who is perfect but someone whose heart is in the right place. Who’s courageous, bold and resourceful. In crafting her character we knew that Elena would be in charge of this kingdom and she’d be ready to rule — you see her position on that in the first episode — but realizes that she has a lot to learn. Hopefully we’ve created a well-rounded character. That was important for us. We really wanted to make sure that as this was going to be the first Latina Disney princess that she would be a character worth watching. And also we wanted to make her kingdom a fairy tale world like only Disney could create but inspired by Latin culture. Something that would look fresh and unlike any kingdom Disney had created before.
On the Show’s Latin American Inspirations
Craig: The first thing that we did was a lot of research. Well, actually before that we assembled a team. You know we wanted to make sure that we have a crew that was very diverse. Who had a lot of people who had personal experience like Silvia, and a whole crew who came from different backgrounds. Especially who are Latino, who would bring their heritage to their show. Then we dove into the research of Latin American mythology and folklore and really create this kingdom. We studied the architecture, we studied the art, the music. Every category. We also brought consultants, several cultural consultants as well as a music consultant to really go into greater depth so that we could create something that was new and fresh but that was very authentic.
Silvia Olivas: [I drew inspiration from] my whole life. I loved the grandparents — they are based on my own. You know, when I grew up I just I really knew that my grandparents had this whole world life before me. I thought it was so cool. I really believed that they had so much wisdom. And I always listened. So Elena believes that her grandparents have so much to say that she puts them on her council. And I love that they’re so feisty. My grandmother loved to put on red lipstick, watch telenovelas, and my grandpa played guitar. That’s what I wanted — you’ll see that guitar a lot!
The stories we pull from Latino traditions and mythology and holidays, and one specific one is the Day of the Dead episode. In my family all the tías have candles lit all year long — we truly believe that when you pass away your spirits are still there. So we really wanted to show that in an interesting way in the show and in the Day of the Dead episode. That day Elena learns that one of her powers is that she can see her ancestors who have passed away on the Day of the Dead. It’s a bit of magical realism. I was talking to Craig — we have a song in each episode — and I wanted a really fun, happy merengue. And he’s like “A happy song about the dead?!” And we talked about it and it end up working really well.
David Cardenas: A lot of the magical elements were drawn from Latin America. For example, all the magic that Mateo uses comes from Mesoamerican writing or just symbology in general. For the creatures themselves we take a lot of inspiration from myths and legends. And there’s a lot of pressure to be as faithful as possible to these tales. But at the same time we really want to make something new and something unique to our own world.
On the Show’s Music
Tony Morales: The music is very special to the Disney universe and that took sometime to figure out. As you saw here each episode has two musical parts. It’s got a score which is the Disney universe through a Latin influence filter. And then the songs: featured songs that are inspired by each episode’s storyline. This one, “Ready to Rule” was a mariachi-inspired song. My influences for the underscore of the series has really drawn from folk music of the Latin world. Mostly because the melodies and the rhythms lend themselves to the storytelling and the energy.
On Giving Elena a TV Show Rather Than a Movie
Nancy: Well, I think if you look what TV looks like today, you’re starting to see it be the equal to film. If you see the actors who are drawn to television, the scope, the style, the richness, the quality of television, we absolutely believe that the distinction between movies and TV is fast disappearing. For our audience of kids we don’t get to tell them just one story. We’ll get to tell them a hundred and plus stories. And we get to build a richer character, a richer world, a variety of stories. And we’ll really be able to draw them into this story every day because they’ll be able to watch it everyday.
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When it comes to getting one’s foot in the door of the entertainment industry, access is one of the perennial dilemmas. It’s true that with the advent of digital media, a surplus of content exists available for consumers to find. However, the wider reach of television is still a desirable form of distribution for content creators.
During this year’s NALIP Media Summit, presented by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), public media heavyweights PBS and Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) hosted a session focused on three Latino talents working in different media spaces, who benefited from their support and exposure. Hosted by Pamela Aguilar, Director of Programming and Development for PBS, and Luis Ortiz, Managing Director of LPB Media, the panel opened by showcasing clips from the channel’s current Latino slate followed by clips of the participant’s work. Veteran documentarian Hector Galan (Children of Giant), filmmaker Karla Legaspy (Gold Star), and multimedia creator William Caballero (Grandpa Knows Best) shared their creative processes and opinions on subjects ranging from current politics, to fluid sexual orientation, and cultural authenticity in their projects.
Both Aguilar and Ortiz made a point of letting attendees know how open and accessible their companies are. PBS, for example, is open to pitches from any creators out there who want to email or call the broadcaster. The fact that, as one panelist stated, “this is not your grandma’s PBS anymore,” has opened new opportunities within public media, such as PBS’ YouTube channel PBS Digital Studio. Direct interactions like these are not as common with networks or cable channels, but through their different partnerships, PBS can be a viable option for Latino filmmakers looking to broaden their reach.
Lastly, Ortiz spoke about LPB’s joint venture with PBS, Voces, which is the only Latino anthology series that showcases documentaries on Latino issues and Latino arts and culture. As the speakers attested, creating meaningful content that goes beyond mere entertainment is crucial to the advancement of Latinos in the media. It’s not just about what you make, but the messages it sends.
Check out some of the best moments from this inspiring NALIP session.
Pamela Aguilar on Injecting That Latino “Stuff” Into Our Projects
We are Latino makers that tell really powerful stories, that don’t necessarily have to be Latino stories. I’m a firm believer that if we are in the room, we are in the crews, we are writing, we are directing, we are producing, and we bring a little bit of ourselves to that piece; no matter what the story is there is that “stuff” that we come with and gets injected into projects.
Hector Galan on His Upcoming Project and the Power of the Latino Vote
This piece that I’m working on now on Willie Velasquez just kind of fell into place. I had the honor of meeting [the subject] back in 1983, when he was trying to get a million new Latino voters together to vote right before the ’84 election. I got very rare footage of him that nobody has. He died young from kidney cancer. What he started was this grassroots movement to empower people by getting them to register to vote. He went to a place that a lot of people weren’t going to so they could get representation. He went against the Texas rangers who kept Latinos and Tejanos oppressed. This is a piece on the growth and the power of the Latino vote. Latinos will be able to elect the next president of the United States in a very short while.
Karla Legaspy on Empowering LGBT Latino Youth With Her Short Film Gold Star
Gold Star is a narrative short film about a young girl who has a crush on her teacher. I think right now we are coming to terms with young folks, especially in LA, that don’t really think about having to identify themselves one way or another in terms or their sexual orientation. This little girl is singing a song to her teacher during her school’s talent show and gets backlash. She sees how horrible our environments are and how sometimes we challenge young people. We make them grow up and make them feel ashamed of some of the simplest things, like the innocence of your first crush.
William Caballero on His Innovative HBO Series Gran’pa Knows Best
This started off as a web series and was later picked up and licensed by HBO, it’s called Gran’pa Knows Best, and this show features printed and hand-painted 3D models of my Puerto Rican grandfather. It’s sort of an interactive show, so the premise is that the viewer is actually able to ask grandpa a question. You can email, send me a Tweet, or a Facebook message with a question and I will literally call my grandpa up, put the phone down, put a recorded next to it, and I’ll record the conversation. These videos become shorts branching out different topics such as, “Grandpa give me advice on eating healthy and avoiding junk food,” or “Grandpa, what’s your opinion on rap music?” Obviously, he has these really crazy opinions, but they are what you’d expect an 87-year-old Boricua to say.
Hector Galan on Being Pigeonholed as a Latino Creator
People like to pigeonhole you. People like to put you in categories, especially if you are working with a big institution like WGBH-TV, like I was. For a while I didn’t want to do Latino stories because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. It’s a battle that you fight with yourself. It took a long time. I did 11 programs, and it took maybe the sixth or seventh before I could do another minority program. The National Council of la Raza offered an opportunity but I turned it down because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. Until que se me prendió el foco, and I said, “To hell with that! I’m going to tell the stories I want to tell.” I realized that Latino stories are just as smart, just as good, and just as powerful as any other one. I know that there are some people out there who are going through those trials. How do you get away? You are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t.
Karla Legaspy on Writing Latino Stories That Are Universal
When I write, yes I do write a Latino, brown, woman, mostly queer perspective; but I feel that the notions of family, love, friendship, and identity are super universal. For some reason even if I decide that my lead character is a young Chicanita living in East LA or El Sereno, she’s still going to school everyday, has a best friend, they are both a little awkward, people don’t really like them but they have each other’s support. Those are all things that play really well with the same young person in Germany who is going through the same thing at school. So even though I do specifically try to show images of my community that I feel we don’t ever see, I also think that anyone can identify with the things we tap into.
William Caballero on Inspiring Other Latinos to Tell Their Stories
Working in this medium has allowed me to forge forward in this new niche because nobody is really using this technology to tell our stories. One of the best compliments I get from people who see this is: “My grandpa is like your grandpa,” and this comes from Latinos, white people, black people, Jewish people, all different cultures. I think that’s really stunning.
I approached LPB with an idea that changed throughout the process of receiving the grant. The next project I’m doing I’m calling it Storybored U, and the idea is that it’s going to be a web series that will educate and empower young diverse millennials to tell their stories through film, through creative writing, through spoken word, through music, and things of that nature. It features 30 printed miniatures of myself. Now I’m transferring myself into this protagonist and it will have my voice.
It’ll hopefully be a really great YouTube series that will empower the viewers to feel confident that their stories matter, because I feel that most people who look like us are so nervous because we turn on the TV and see so many people who don’t look like us. They have a monopoly on why their stories are important, but the reality is that we all have something to share.
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Did you catch that rom-com with the Asian male lead? Or that horror film with the ensemble cast of Black and Latina women? Well, you probably didn’t – because diversity in movies is severely lacking.
That doesn't mean Hollywood movies don't pay lip service to diversity. But there are several ways in which films appear to serve diversity while they actually ghettoize, patronize, or otherwise marginalize characters and actors of color, making them subordinate to white ones. We'll show you just how later.
Hollywood's lack of diversity was on full display when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences failed to nominate a single actor of color for Oscars in both 2015 and 2016, sparking the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite). Minorities accounted for a mere 12.9 percent of lead roles in 163 films surveyed in 2014, according to the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report. Diversity in film casts has decreased even more since the last report.
Because characters of color are rare on screen, when they appear, they carry " the burden of representation," which means that they are a symbol or representation for an entire community, Frances Gateward, assistant professor of media theory and criticism at Cal State Northridge, told ATTN: via email. "For white people, this is not a problem, because their roles are so varied and so numerous that audiences do not see them as representatives of the white community, but simply the individual characters," Gateward said.
"For many, film and popular culture may be the first introduction to a culture," Gateward said. "So once we get past the problem of invisibility (no representation at all), we have the issue of problematic representations. And it is not just stereotypes: It is the way characters function in the overall narratives."
Here are five ways that movies trick us into thinking that they are more diverse than they really are:
1. People of color are featured only as tokens of diversity, with no story of their own
Tokenism is when a character of color’s sole purpose in a movie is to support the white characters or to act representative of an entire race. Tokenism adds a veneer of diversity but is no more than "a kind of 'Uncle Tomism,'" Gateward said:
"It provides a kind of hip 'coolness' to the white character and shows that he/she is not racist. But the person of color is there just to support the white character, usually emotionally, or to provide comic relief. In fact, you can even do this without even having people of color in the movie. Filmmakers can, and often do, use Black music for this purpose. Make white people sexier by using R&B, such as in "Something's Gotta Give." [In the recent release "The Nice Guys,"] Black '70s soul music is used to add to the atmosphere and tone of the film and to enhance the two white male leads' masculinity and level of funkiness."
Or take Lil’ Kim's and Gabrielle Union’s characters in the 1999 movie "She’s All That." Lil' Kim barely has any lines, and she and Union’s main role is to support the storyline of the main character, Laney Boggs, an artsy white high school student played by Rachael Leigh Cook, VICE reported.
2. People of color get screen time but not as much dramatic agency as white characters.
A movie can exhibit hyper-tokenism: A person of color has increased screen time, dramatic involvement, and presence in promotional images. But only the white characters have full dramatic agency by the end of the film, Indiewire observed.
A prime example? "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Finn, a Black character serving as a symbol of racial inclusiveness for this franchise reboot, is knocked unconscious during a climactic battle scene and remains unconscious for the rest of the film. Indiewire discussed the most destructive aspect of hyper-tokenism:
Hyper-tokenism seduces the Black audience to remain loyal to white film franchises and white-controlled film studios, who are only exploiting that loyalty as a means of increasing the box office of their white films, with little to no intention of increasing the budgets, number of productions, or worldwide distribution of Black films.
Gateward said that this is a particularly infuriating but common way that people of color are denied their humanity in movies, citing the blockbuster film "Interstellar" as another example:
"We see Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey missing their loved ones and being missed by them. Lots of tender close-ups and lots of tears. But we don't see any kind of familial relationships for Romilly (David Gyasi). No one mourns him — either for the sacrifice he makes in leaving Earth or even when he is killed."
3. People of color get only certain stereotyped roles.
If you’ve seen a Black actor in a film, it’s likely that he played a police officer or an FBI agent. This is an example of giving actors of color only certain types of roles. From Morgan Freeman in the 1997 drama “Kiss the Girls” to Kevin Hart and Ice Cube in the 2014 comedy “Ride Along,” the role of the Black police officer or detective is a role that often goes to Black actors. But relegating actors of color to one type of role is not progress.
Black officers tend to be scenery in films more often than not. Depictions of white police officers dominated the police crime genre, appearing as the lead or joint lead in 89 percent of such films, while African-American officers were leads in only 19 percent of such films, according to an Indiana State University study.
Repeated stereotypical roles greatly affect the ways people of color see themselves, Gateward explains. “Not only do [they] inform what people can aspire to be, it effects how society sees them," she said. She pointed to actress Lupe Ontiveros, who has played a maid more than 150 times, as an example of a stereotype portrayed over and over again in movies and television.
4. A Black actor gets a role that does not acknowledge obvious elements of race.
In the 1992 Western “Unforgiven,” Morgan Freeman plays Clint Eastwood's sidekick. He is whipped to death by a sheriff played by Gene Hackman in a scene that recalls historical lynchings, but without a whisper of a suggestion that his character's race has anything to do with it, The Spectacle said. At the time, film critic Roger Ebert didn't point out the element of race in his review of the film, describing the murder of Freeman's character as follows:
"The long final act of the movie involves William Munny's [Eastwood] desire to avenge the death and public humiliation of his friend Ned [Freeman], whose corpse has been put on display in a box outside the saloon."
Another way films ignore race is by portraying characters of color without friends, families, or communities, Gateward said. "If I remember correctly, the police detective played by Jimmy Smits on "NYPD Blue" died, and while in the hospital, the only people shown to visit him were the other cops. Similarly, it seemed incredulous to me that in "Monster's Ball," Leticia (Halle Berry) had no friends or family with her on the night of her husband's execution."
5. White saviors take up most of the screen time in a story about the oppression of people of color.
There are a few successful Black directors telling stories about Black people (Spike Lee, Forest Whitaker, Carl Franklin). But Hollywood still tends to tell stories of Black oppression from the point of view of a white savior or witness, The Spectacle reported. Consider Sissy Spacek in “The Long Walk Home” (1990), Barbara Hershey in “A World Apart” (1988), Donald Sutherland in “A Dry White Season” (1989), and Gene Hackman in “Mississippi Burning” (1988): All had more screen time than their Black counterparts. In such films, Black people are relegated to the background, even though the movies are ostensibly about the plight of Black people.
An exception to the rule: the 2014 movie “Selma,” which chronicled Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights, had a cast of mostly Black actors.
"There is a kind of narcissism [in] Hollywood about whiteness," Gateward said. "Even when the films are not about them, they are still centered. There is always the excuse that either these 'foreign' or 'other' cultures are so different that we need a guide to lead us through or that films with non-white people at the center do not sell overseas. We hear the same excuses over and over, yet there are always examples that prove this thinking to be wrong."
Here's what Hollywood is doing.
In reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy as a result of a majority of nominations going to white people, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in January that they would "commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020."
Earlier this week, The Academy followed through and made a record-breaking move to help fix its diversity problem, sending out a historic 683 new member invitations, 46 percent of those were to women and 41 percent went to minorities, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But there's still a long way to go. As The Los Angeles Times reports, these new invitations only bump the overall academy demographics from 8 percent people of color to 11 percent.
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During the annual NALIP Media Summit, the National Assocation of Latino Independent Producers organized a showcase of short films and works-in-progress created by some of the organization’s members. Highlights from the selected works included Blast Beat by Colombian-American filmmaker Esteban Arango, Spark by Mexican-born director Juan Martinez Vera, and the documentary short Through the Wall by Chelo Alvarez. Following the screening, the two-hour event featured a lively discussion of the important role that short form content still plays in emerging careers.
Carter Pilcher of Shorts International moderated the panel and explained a new contest created by his company and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation: The Hispanic Heritage Short Film Award Competition. The two organizations formed a partnership for this initiative to help recognize the best short films by Latino filmmakers in the US.
Interested participants have until August 26, 2016 to submit a narrative live action short no longer than 40 minutes. One selected winner will be qualified to compete for the Academy Award for Live Action Short, along with $10,000 and a trip to Washington D.C. to see his or her film screened on September 22nd, the night before the Hispanic Heritage Awards.
Pilcher explained that the initial idea came after witnessing the difficulties experienced by the filmmakers behind the film Contrapelo, a Spanish-language short shot in Los Angeles by Mexican director Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer. With Shorts International’s help, the film gained visibility and eventually made it to the Academy’s ten-film Awards shortlist — just a step away from an official nomination. With that it became clear to Pilcher and his colleagues that US Latinos making films in Spanish have a hard time qualifying for an Oscar because they are often considered international.
Centered on the sometimes life-changing opportunities that a short film can bring emerging filmmakers, the conversation included John Bloom, Chairman of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch of the Academy; filmmakers Carmen Marrón (Endgame) and Ricardo De Montreuil (La Mujer de Mi Hermano, Máncora); Charlie Gonzalez, Hispanic Co-Chair for Hillary Clinton; Monica Villarreal, Talent Manager; Ben Fast, Indigenous Media; and NALIP board member and talent manager Jairo Alvarado.
It’s a great time to make short films and the industry is eager for Latino content. As Pilcher noted, “If you want to be a really hot director you either have to be Hispanic or make a lot of short films.”
Here are some informative tidbits from this short-centric session.
Jairo Alvarado on the Business of “Show Me”
This is a business of “show me.” It’s no longer a business of “trust me.” I think that a lot of the time people are talking about, “What’s a diverse voice?” or “What does it mean to have a Latino story?” There is no more powerful way to answer than to show that. Shorts are a more attainable goal, to actually be able to do that on their own means, especially with today’s technology. I think NALIP wants to be at the forefront of that.
John Bloom on Breaking Into the Industry With a Short Film
Making a short film is a very valid and viable way to get some attention and begin the long process of breaking into the industry. I say “the long process” because it never ends. Even now, as a filmmaker myself, you are always working on the next thing. So that’s just the nature of beast. But having an Oscar nomination is a good start. I’m fortunate to have had one myself back in 1983. I made a live action short and it got nominated. It got me in the Academy and is probably the reason I’m standing before you today.
Ricardo De Montreuil on How a Short Opened More Doors for Him Than Two Features
I shot my first film in Chile ten years ago and it was called La Mujer de Mi Hermano. It became a commercially successful film. It had wide distribution in Latin America and in the United States. At the time it was the biggest opening for a Spanish-language film in the States. At that point I thought, “I think I had a career now.” That really didn’t happen. I made my second film, Mancora, which was an Official Selection at Sundance Film festival. At that point I thought, “OK, now I’m going to have a career.” It didn’t happen. I was having trouble because those were two dramas and Hollywood wanted action.
Then I made a short film called The Raven five years ago, which was basically a chase sequence with a little bit of CGI. It went viral very fast. Literally, three days after I put it on YouTube I got a development deal from Warner and they said, “Don’t sell it. Mark Wahlberg wants to produce it and he is going to meet you on Monday.” Finally we sold it to Universal. They introduced me to Brian Grazer. Last year I made a film for Universal called Lowriders. It’s ironic how a short opened so many more doors for me than two features.
Carmen Marrón on Why She Wishes She Had Made a Short
I made a feature, I never met a short, but in hindsight I remember doing the festival circuit and I remember that there were so many doors that opened for the short filmmakers that I thought, “Gosh I should’ve made a short.” It took me five years, really almost close to seven, to make my feature. I thought, “If I would have made a short I would have started earlier.” Making a short for learning the ins and outs, the ropes, and really expressing yourselves without worrying about losing your livelihood, you don’t have to come up with a million dollars.
Charlie Gonzalez on Learning From Politics
The political life will teach a lot of things: it’s about networking, it’s about access, and it’s about who you know. You need a business plan too, but you need to know who you take that business plan to. You guys are creators of content, and content is king doesn’t matter what the medium is. If you are lucky enough to create something you still have to distribute it, get recognized, and it has to have value. That’s called inclusion in the big picture. That’s where I hope the advisory board will be able to assist in promoting short films. Short films are a means to and end, and it’s probably one of the most effective means to get to that end. That’s really about inclusion. Start with short films. Maybe that’s your whole career, but it may lead to other things weather you are the writer, the actor, or the producer.
Monica Villarreal on What Actors of Color Are Looking For In a Director
One of the things that we are seeing is that talent, for the most part, wants to have somebody that understands and is supporting the stories that they want to tell. Often times in the material that’s out there they are not often seeing fully 360 degree authentic human beings, and what we are finding is that it matters to have a director that is making and creating content that is resonating with the images and the words that they signed up to be an actor for.
When you look at someone like Alfonso Gomez-Rejón, who did Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and was a Sundance darling. There was so much buzz behind that movie. What we saw was there was an infrastructure set up at a place like Sundance that supported this person that made a movie. It was just about telling a wonderful story and leading from a place that really resonated with people from a human standpoint. That’s what actors of color are looking for too, but for some reason there is a blockage somewhere and things just aren’t connecting.
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Advocating for diverse representation in media has been at the center of the national conversation for some time now, but this sentiment seems to be limited to increasing the on-screen presence of people of color along with who’s working behind the scenes as directors, producers, and crew. That’s of course a crucial battle that must be fought, but one segment of this business that’s often forgotten is those who work as curators: critics and festival programmers. A positive film review or being selected for a key festival can be a launching pad for Latino filmmakers. It’s important that our voices be heard in those key roles as well.
At the NALIP Media Summit panel “The Curators,” attendees had the chance to hear first hand from Latinos in these positions who spoke about what makes a film stand out from the crowd and the importance of involving people of color at every step of the production and exhibition process.
Remezcla’s own Film Editor, Vanessa Erazo, served as the moderator and was the driving force behind the session coordinated by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. The selected speakers have all dabbled in multiple roles within the worlds of journalism and festival programming. At once tastemakers and champions of under-the-radar projects, their support can become a defining factor for films that would otherwise be buried under the marketing powers of Hollywood blockbusters.
Joining Erazo on the panel were: Alonso Duralde, Film Reviews Editor for the Wrap and Senior Programmer for Outfest; Claudia Puig, Film Critic at KPCC’s FilmWeek and former Film Critic at USA Today; Dilcia Barrera, Associate Curator of the Film Program at LACMA and Short Film Programmer for Sundance Film Festival and New York Film Festival; Christine Davila, Programming Associate for Sundance Film Festival and Blogger on Chicana from Chicago; and Moises Esparza, Programming Manager at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.
Here are some highlights from the lively discussion.
Erazo on the Importance of Curators of Color
There were a lot of conversations that happened in the past two years with the hashtag #OscarSoWhite and about diversity in media, and the focus of that conversation was on people of color being in front of and behind the camera, which is obviously very important but what was left out of that conversation is people who are curating films, people who are in positions to program a film festival, or to write a film review, to bring attention to these films. Maybe a director who is Latino or a person of color makes this film but what if a room full of programmers don’t see the value in the film or importance of this film? I think we need people like us in those positions to be able to speak up for these films.
Duralde on Why Festivals Need Diverse Films to Survive
Film festivals being non-profits make more of an effort to spread a wider net. Certainly now Outfest is probably one of the more diverse groups that I’ve worked with, but there is always room for improvement. Mainstream film festivals are looking to be diverse mainly because they have constituencies to serv and also they have grants to apply to the following year and they need to show that they’ve been diverse. When you are looking at something like Outfest or a Jewish Film Festival, that’s already covering a niche group, they want to cover as many voices within that subculture as possible.
Puig On How Being Latina Helped Her Get Her First Journalism Job
My first journalism job was actually, by virtue of being Latina, at the LA Times Minority Educational Training Program, which I believe is still there. I was talking to someone over there about how diversity goes in waves, they push for diversity and there was a big push happening at that time, which was a long time ago. Because of that program I was able to get in with the LA Times and stayed for 11 years. Then I went to USA Today from there. I watched the whole diversity thing ebb and flow in terms of interest in it. I was thinking about that because I was the lead critic, they had women before, but they had never had Latina.
Barrera on Her Role as a Short Film Programmer at Sundance
We receive about 12,000 submissions, 9,000 of those are short films. I’m part of a team that has to watch all those and choose an average of 60 to 70 shorts that we play. Instead of programming thinking, “We have to fulfill numbers or standards,” the team does value my presence as a Latina, as a female voice, as a person of color voice, and as a Mexican-American. It is a tough situation because there are a lot of debates that come up in that room. We are locked up in a room for two weeks and we have to make decisions.
Esparza on Being Undocumented and Finding Work in the Film Industry
Right after college I had a really hard time finding a job when I was in New York City, so I moved back to San Diego. I couldn’t find anything that fed my passion for cinema because of my undocumented status here in the United States. I decided to reenroll in graduate school and ride it out until some sort of immigration reform took place. Then the DACA program happened, so I applied for a job at the Media Art Center San Diego. I joined as an intern and I became good buddies with the old Director of Programming. We would just talk film all day long. Then I joined the screening committee and then I was asked if I wanted to be in charge of the shorts program. I said, “Sure, I’d love to,” and then I just grew into the position at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. Now I’m in charge of curating all the feature-length films you’ll see [at the festival.]
Davila on the Lack of Multiculturalism in Other Sectors of the Industry
There are other jobs outside the festival world where similarly there is a real lack of multiculturalism, and I’m talking about my current job on the digital short form series initiative for the television group at Warner Bros. I was sought out because of my experience in the festival world, specifically looking at US Latino films as well as Spanish language films.
Erazo on Giving Yourself a Crash Course in Film Before Starting Your New Project
If you are going to tell a specific story, I think it’s important to give yourself a crash course in film on that topic. The only way you can avoid repeating a story that’s been told over and over is to watch those films. I know sometimes people don’t want to corrupt their idea and don’t want to steal from other things, but you also don’t want to repeat something that’s been done. Maybe you think it’s really original but five years ago there was a movie that did that same thing. I have a friend who had just graduated film school and she made a short film about her family and it had to do with immigration, and not till later when she started watching a bunch of films she said to me, “My story is a story that’s been done, but I didn’t know that when I was making it.”
Duralde on the Search for Unique LGBT Stories
At Outfest this summer we are premiering a new documentary about being undocumented and queer in the Deep South, so for us that is a new topic. The thing that we get a lot of is the coming-out story. What’s been interesting to watch is getting those movies from parts of the world that we wouldn’t have expected it. I remember a few years ago we got a coming-out story from Bermuda. When you are dealing with countries that are still making a slow march towards LGBT equality, they have an interesting spin on it or a new way to tell it. For us, we are looking for movies where the coming-out part is a given, and it’s about what happens after. What other stories are out there about that experience? This year we have an entire section focused on Latin America because there are so many great ones that are coming out of Central and South America. Our international centerpiece this year is an Argentine film called, Esteros, which is about two guys reuniting in their 20s. They have been very close friends, tittering on a romance, as they were adolescents. One of them moved away and he’s come back. They are much older at a different place in their lives and figuring out if they can pick up where they left off. That’s a movie where the gay part isn’t the story. It’s only part of the story, but it’s really about this friendship. Generally speaking we are looking for stories where gay, lesbian, or trans is in there, but it’s not what it’s about.
Puig on Going to Bat for Films With Latino Storylines Like Sugar
I was on the AFI group that picks the Top Ten movies of that year that go down in the AFI annals. Back when I first started doing it we would all sit in a room and hash it out. It was a combination of filmmakers, critics, writers, and professors. It was a group of maybe a dozen or 15 people. We would throw out our top movies. One of the movies for the year that I was doing that, I think it was 2008, was a film that I really thought should be there, Sugar, about Dominican baseball players who are recruited to play in minor leagues here. It was not by a Latino filmmaker, it was by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, but I thought it depicted the experience really well. It was not on anybody else’s radar except for one other person in the room, and that other person was Sean Astin, who is a white guy, but obviously felt that this was an important film. We lobbied the rest of that group and we got it on the Top Ten for that year.
Barrera on Making Immigration Stories with an Edge
Immigration is very key to our story [as Latinos.] Therefore if you are going to make that your project then you really have to go all out and it has to be really good. We have a history of these stories and they have won Oscars. Sometimes I feel we are caught up in the idea that, “Oh a white person made that story, so I have to tell that story right,” but then there is the fact that we have hundreds and hundreds of submissions of the same thing. That’s fine, but stories with new approaches is what we are looking for, people that push that boundary and tell familiar stories in different ways. One of my favorite contemporary movies with a Latinas in the US is Mosquita y Mari by Aurora Guerrero. I have not seen anything like that again, and it’s not my story but I feel so connected to it. It’s just two girls growing up, feeling things, and being themselves. When writing stories be true to yourself and to who you are, as opposed to trying to make something you think people will accept into a film festival.
Esparza on the Lack of Latinos in Leadership Positions Even at a Latino Film Festival
When I first started working at the San Diego Latino Film Festival there were actually no people of color in leadership positions. You don’t have to be Latino to program films, just like you don’t have to be queer to work at Outfest, but my co-worker Juan and I, when we first got there were two of the few Latinos at this Latino Film Festival. We thought, “This is kind of hilarious, but we also have to make sure that we make our voices and perspectives heard because someone Latino needs to be leading.“
Davila on Looking for Directors Who Push the Boundaries of the Medium
As a storyteller you do want to get your most authentic story down, but then the approach film-wise is just as important because it is a visual language. You should feel very liberated about this and like breaking the rules with genre and the approach such as the doc-drama hybrid, or films that play with the narrative structure. Rick Perez who directed the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast knew that this was a story that perhaps a lot of people knew about the civil rights leader and he got that opportunity to make it. It took him quite a number of years to make but he knew that he needed to really good. For him that meant using all the tools of the cinematic language in order to make it feel different. One thing that I really appreciate about that movie is that something as simple as counting the number of days of his fast creates tension, a ticking timeline, or a sense of urgency. That was something brilliant. That was something that completely made that film stand out among many other documentaries that have tackled that story. He also focused on a very specific timeline of his [Cesar Chavez’s] life. It wasn’t a broad trajectory of this man. It’s about thinking what risks you could take in the visual language because there are really no rules. I think that’s a way to stand out, when you try something different.
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Al Madrigal may very well be the consummate entrepreneurial entertainer. His friends dub him the “business comic” while his colleagues at The Daily Show (where he was the Senior Latino Correspondent) nicknamed him ABS, seeing as he’s Always Be Scheming. When he’s not playing what he describes as the “ethnic friend” on sitcoms like About a Boy or Free Agents or prepping his latest standup special (his one-hour comedic documentary special, Half Like Me, premiered on Fusion last year), he’s working on his comedy network All Things Comedy and dreaming up a Latino Comedy Festival. Somehow, though, the prolific performer still found the time to talk about his career with candor at the NALIP Media Summit in Los Angeles.
During the conversation organized by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers and moderated by cartoonist and writer Lalo Alcaraz, the late-blooming Latino stand-up comedian and actor talked about how he went from making a career firing people to being the lead in Fox’s The Ortegas, a sitcom which co-starred Cheech Marin that never aired any of its six shot episodes, and how he found himself where he is today: an outspoken champion of Latino talent.
One message was clear throughout the lively discussion: there should be more Latinos on TV. “We really need to do something,” he said to those in attendance, “and I will take every single bit of help that any of you have to offer. I have business cards with my phone number on them and one of my nine email addresses. We will absolutely make this happen.” Once he started to talking about scouting and promoting new talent, connecting them with reps and helping them develop their own shows during an annual showcase for Latino comedians, you got a sense that he’s not gonna stop until complaints about lack of Latinos in American media feel like a thing of the past.
The charismatic San Francisco native had plenty of wisdom to dole out. But don’t take it from us. In his own words, here are 5 life and career lessons we could all learn from Al Madrigal.
Follow Your Passion
I started in San Francisco where I started to work for my parents’ family business. My mom has this amazing success story. She worked for $6/hr. She was a secretary and my dad was a teamster. And then my mom worked her way up the company. Bought the company. Quadrupled the company in size. I went to work for her immediately after. If you saw Up in the Air with George Clooney I used to do that. I fired people. I fired my first person at 19 years old. I worked at that company until I was 32. Started doing stand-up when I was 28 because I was crying at my desk. I mean, it was horrible. And I knew I didn’t want to do this. People always told me I was funny and I knew that I loved stand-up comedy. I gave it a shot and then in 2002 I went to the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. I was cast in a nationwide search for Latino comedian — for The Ortegas, which was a big kick in the tits. We were promised we were going to air after The Simpsons on November. We were an NBC show. But we moved to Fox. We shot 6 or 7 episodes. I bought a car for cash the day before we were cancelled. The day the episode order was cut, I caught the script coordinator crying. I was sitting in the stands in a pilgrim costume and I was in shock because I didn’t know what to do. And then I think I’ve been in nine network pilots as a lot of “ethnic friends.”
Find the Humor Where You Can
Network TV knew they had to color up the show. They didn’t care how they were doing it. There was no rhyme or reason for how they were doing it. I went in to audition for No Ordinary Family. It was an ABC show with Michael Chiklis about superheroes. The casting was this Chinese guy, me, and Michael Strahan. The three of us sitting on a couch. And I saw Michael Strahan walking around with his notes and that’s when I thought it was my time to toss it back to Michael Strahan. So I walked up to him, he’s this gigantic man, looked at him and said, “Hey! I think this means no more Brothers” — which was this show he was on. He looked at me and smiled that gap-toothed smile and I go “So let me get this straight: you have the subway commercials, you are on the Fox Sunday show, go out and then probably do personal appearances, you won the Superbowl, played in the NFL for ten years and now you come into MY house?” I looked at him and said, “I’M ethnic friend!” And he doubled over that.
Be Nice to Everyone You Meet and Aim For Mailbox Money
I was in this show Free Agents on NBC that got cancelled and pretty much when it hit Deadline I got a call from The Daily Show asking if I wanted to join the show full time. Quick backstory on how I got The Daily Show: Cheech, our first day of shooting a pilot, he took me out to lunch. We go out to Santa Monica and he told me, “I’m gonna tell you two things that you need to remember: be nice to everyone you encounter, and you need mailbox money.” He said, “I own every album, I started directing the movies,” and he goes — insight into finances! — “every time I go to mailbox I get a check for $30,000, $40,000, $18,000.” He said, “You want as much mailbox money as possible. So own everything that you possibly can.”
I got that Daily Show gig because somebody asked me to do a guest set in Miami. And I said, “Sure, no problem.” I had no idea who the guy was. And that guy today is the executive producer of the The Daily Show who saw me do stand-up years later in New York and said that I’d be a perfect correspondent. We’d just have to ask Jon. He said we should write together and we wrote a piece [on undocumented workers in Texas] and Jon saw it and liked it. So I went back to my family and said, “Hey! I got a great opportunity! It’s in New York! Who wants to go?” And everyone said, “Oh, no. We prefer it if you kill yourself slowly and commute back and forth.” So everyone stayed in Pasadena and I flew back and forth for two and a half years.
Around 2011 I realized I didn’t want to be controlled by executives or by anybody else. I just wanted to make my own way. So I started — this is so ambitious — my own comedy network called All Things Comedy. We started as a podcast network. We have about 65 podcasts right now. All professional comedians. The list is amazing of all the people we have on our roster. We have about 6 million listeners per month. We just have our first investors to grow the network. So what I want to do, why I picked the name “All Things Comedy” is I do want to start my own digital network but where the comedians actually own it. All the comics that are participating would be profit-sharing and so when we take this on we will be branded entertainment. We are going to be our own content and eventually start the production company that goes along with this. To really be a home for all things comedy. It’s a gigantic pain on my ass but I work on it nonstop. It’s sort of a United Artists kind of idea. I really do feel like we’re all pretty selfish: we have our jobs and our families that gets in the way a lot. But if, again, if you come together, it’s amazing what can happen. So it’s something that I want to build.
When In Doubt, Do as NPH Does
I read this amazing interview with Neil Patrick Harris who said the best advice he ever got in Hollywood — and it’s been how I’ve been thinking since — was from a producer on Doogie Howser, M.D. He sat Neil with his family from New Mexico down and said, “We’re on an amazing run. It’s a great wave. It’s gonna be a short one. It’s gonna be a long one. But you are a surfer. And you’re going to enjoy the wave, enjoy the ride. And then it’s gonna end and you’re gonna swim back out. May have to wait a little bit but then another wave is gonna wave. Just enjoy the time in between and wait to catch another wave. That’s all this is and the hard work doesn’t make the waves come faster but don’t panic.” We’re all gonna have disappointments and you really can’t worry about. All of this is out of our control.
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How does it feel to know that after all the time, effort, and money you spend crafting a film, you might be the only one who truly believes in it?
Though it's not the positive, inspirational message we all want to hear, it's true: nobody really cares about your work. It's not because it's bad or because people are mean and out to get you; it's because we live in a time where the over-saturation of media causes the audience to have exceptionally discriminating tastes. In the past, when only a few dozen films would hit theaters (and there weren't a whole lot of leisure activities to choose from), being picky wasn't a luxury most audiences could afford. Now that the internet and digital filmmaking has democratized cinema, the influx of content is too much for anybody to keep up with, so viewers become increasingly selective.
So, what do you do? Choose between selling your camera or making films no one will ever see? Sounds kind of sad—and certainly not the kind of circumstances that would motivate many filmmakers to continue exploring their craft. There is one thing, however, that might keep the fire lit inside you to keep pushing through the impossible obstacles in order to reach the level of success you aspire to reach in your film career, and photographer Ted Forbes explores it in the video below.
So, it's not all doom and gloom; there is a light at the end of this exceedingly long and depressing tunnel. The idea that the world doesn't need any more artists—photographers, writers, or filmmakers—is prevalent, and it's easy to understand why this "bitter default" resonates with consumers and creators of content alike. But that dark precept is only partly true, because whether or not you believe the world does or doesn't need more artists, I think we can all agree that the world needs more work that matters.
This work, particularly these films, make us think. They challenge us, inform us, inspire us, and move us. They create awareness for causes and bring issues out from the darkness. They transform and entertain us. They give us something to talk about and something to do. And sometimes they just make us feel a little better than we felt before.
That is why you shouldn't give up. That's why you shouldn't sell your camera and hang up your dreams. If you've got something to say, you owe it to your beloved art form to say it. Yeah, the market may be dripping with videos and shorts and features made by filmmakers who may not be making "transcendent" work, or who may not be pushing themselves or the form to new heights. But it's not about them; it's about you. Are you that filmmaker? Is your work going to make us think? Is your work going to challenge, inform, inspire, and move us? Is your work going to be the thing people gravitate towards because it's unifying, transformative, or just plain entertaining?
Nobody cares about your film. But it's your job to show them why they should.
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