At a National Conference, 600 Consider the Current Wave of Latino Film and Television
by Eugene Hernandez
"We've just about taken over this whole hotel," boasted a board member of the National Association of Latino Producers (NALIP) on the eve of the organization's 6th national conference, this year dubbed "Catch the Latino Wave." About 600 Latino filmmakers and producers, some established and others emerging, settled in for three full days of panels, parties, and professional networking at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort in Huntington Beach, CA over the weekend.
With an estimated 44 million Latinos in the United States today, filmmakers and producers are anxious to find ways to reach that growing audience, while at the same time making a mark in the mainstream entertainment business.
This idea of a Latino "wave" is something that members and conference participants grappled with all weekend, struggling with how to build on the growing interest in Latino media and entertainment, but avoiding being forgotten as just a fad.
"I never bought into the notion of a wave," explained noted producer Moctezuma Esparza ("The Milagro Beanfield War," "Selena"), a founder of NALIP and leader of the group and in the community. "Gains have been created pretty much by Latinos -- this is a very tough business and nobody is going to promise you anything."
In addition to his numerous film projects with Robert Katz, Esparza is launching Maya Cinemas. Currently under construction is a 14-screen theater complex in the Northern California city of Salinas. Esparza is also one of the early investors in Sí TV, a one-year old English-language cable network for Latinos that already reaches 10 million people. It targets 18-34 year olds with programs like Esparza's "Circumsized Cinema," in which Mexican films are re-dubbed in English with new storylines.
Sí TV co-founder Jeff Valdez, a NALIP trustee who is both a former studio TV exec and also has a background in stand-up comedy, was honored at the conference with a prize for outstanding achievement at Saturday's gala. Documentary filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, who participated in an intimate conversation with a group of emerging Latino filmmakers on Saturday afternoon, was honored with an award for lifetime achievement as a producer. Also honored with a lifetime achievement award was Raul Yzaguirre, former president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.
NALIP, with chapters in 11 cities around the country, launched its first Latino Media Market at this sixth annual conference. The initiative brought pre-selected Latino projects and filmmakers together with funders. Throughout the weekend, national conference panel discussions explored pitching, co-productions, promotion, creating a film festival strategy, and more. A popular Saturday session was the morning discussion entitled, "Movies: How Do They Get Made?"
"It is important to dispel myths and stereotypes," explained David Ortiz, a creative executive from Warner Bros. who got his start in the film business in part through NALIP. Wearing a Pirates baseball jersey on Saturday as a way of challenging the expectations that people have for a Hollywood studio executive, Ortiz said at the session," The people that I work with don't know a lot of Latins... they have no idea what we're capable of."
The exec, who has worked on such projects as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The Chronicles of Riddick," "Blue Crush," and "Honey," first worked in advertising in Chicago, later moving to LA to work in the William Morris mailroom before getting a job with a producer at Universal and then being hired as an executive at Warner Bros.
Supportive execs from Hollywood and Indiewood stopped in for a number of weekend programs here in Huntington Beach. Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill, introduced by HBO's chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, joined Friday's luncheon to offer a candid keynote address.
Taking pride in projects such as "Frida" while he was president of Miramax, Gill encouraged NALIP members to bring their projects to Warner Independent. "Who wants to see a period movie about a Mexican lesbian with a moustache," Gill recalls being asked while trying to get "Frida" off the ground. "Apparently a lot of people," Gill answered on Friday. Now, Mark Gill is passionate about a book that he said he has been pursuing for 16 of his 18 months as the head of Warner Independent Pictures; he said he hopes to close a deal soon acquiring the rights to Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of drug-runners, "The Queen of the South."
Gill, also touting the recent acclaim for "Maria Full of Grace" star Catalina Sandino Moreno, praised the actress calling her "a major talent" and adding that he'd like to buy a book to develop for the actress to star in.
"It is possible to sell culture as entertainment," Gill emphasized to the large luncheon audience, saying that he will not be satisfied in his job until his company finds a greater amount of Latino work to support. Gill's colleague Tracey Bing, was among the roster of production and acquisitions execs meeting filmmakers and producers, while Zola Mashariki from Fox Searchlight also solicited NALIP projects. The two women, both African-American, are among the few people of color in such positions at Indiewood or indie film companies today.
During lunch on Saturday, Reverend Dr. Michael Eric Dyson roused the group with a stirring keynote speech aimed at fostering unity between Latinos and African-Americans, not to mention Asian and Native Americans.
"We're not third world, we're two third of the worlds population," he smiled, drawing applause. "It is lamentable the way we have allowed ourselves to be divided." Continuing, he told the crowded pavilion in Huntington Beach, to cheers, "You bear a burden. You have a larger historical stream and if you are gonna catch that Latino wave, you've got to see that Latino ocean."