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Meet The New Boss: This Is The Most Important Woman in NY Film. And She’s Really Cool.

Meet The New Boss: This Is The Most Important Woman in NY Film. And She’s Really Cool.

Just two months after Mayor DeBlasio appointed her commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, veteran POV executive Cynthia López addressed the Minority Independent Producers Summit (MIPS) yesterday morning at HBO.
During her time at POV, where she most recently served as executive vice president and co-executive producer of American Documentary and the critically acclaimed documentary series “POV,” López was responsible for all aspects of the organization’s development, including programming, community engagement communications, marketing and digital strategies. 
As commissioner, it is López’s job to encourage films and television shows to shoot in the city and to expand educational and training opportunities for the film and television industries. She has also said she will focus on investing in new projects to diversify and build a more inclusive entertainment industry. 

As NYC film czar, López will continue to push for diversity in the industry, as she made clear during her keynote address.

Here are some highlights from her keynote:

We need to work together.

One of the exciting things about being in this room today is just looking around the room and seeing Latinos, blacks, Asians, whites—every configuration together, which is why I think it is really important to think about a diverse agenda in the future. We need to be in this room together to formulate an agenda that makes sense for all of us who are committed to diversity in the industry.

Shonda Rhimes and Robert Rodriguez set great examples.

I always look at a glass half full, not half empty. So when I think about TV, for instance, and I think of Shonda Rimes and what she’s been able to do with “Scandal.” It’s like everyone wants to know what’s happening in Washington, what’s happening at the White House. Sex in the White House has always been a theme for so many years….I run home as much as I can and watch “Scandal” because being in politics, I kind of want to know what’s going on!

This is a great example of the importance of having a black woman have her authentic signature on her TV show. It is totally impressive.

When I think about film, I think of Robert Rodriguez and what he’s been able to accomplish. I’ve seen all of the “Spy Kids” and every time I think of the secret passwords being in Spanish and “abuelita” opening a new world… And I have kids who are not Latino who are like “abuelita, abuelita!” Those kind of ethnic and cultural nuances are things that we need to embrace and things that, if you look at the industry in terms of economics, are two examples of things that are really floating to the top as excellent and we can really see as prime examples.

When pitching stories, keep your target audience in mind.

I don’t see it as “Oh gosh, we are in this horrible situation and there’s nothing we can do.” Well, that’s not true. I think we need to, as diverse ethnic groups, figure out how best to work together. But we need the research, we need to understand what the other side is. Of course, in terms of television — and I used to say this when I was at POV, you know, when you are pitching a film, or you’re pitching a documentary, you really need to understand who you are speaking to.

And I’ll offer you an example, because I was for 10 or 12 years at Sundance taking pitches from people and I can’t tell you how many times Latino filmmakers would come up to me and say, “I have that immigration story that you’ve never seen,” and I thought to myself, “They don’t understand that I’m seeing 287 immigration stories. That’s not how they should start a pitch. Because I am the most difficult person to pitch a Latino story to. I watch everything that’s out there. I really think strategically about what’s spins on in mainstream, what spins on in PBS. So I’m really thinking about how we pitch executives is also very important.

There is a fine line between being true to yourself and executives.

Authenticity is really important. I find — at least with my many years at POV and working at PBS — that these are the stories that really resonated with me as an executive. For example, there’s this filmmaker, Shola Lynch, she’s done many things, but most recently the Angela Davis piece and she did a film called “Chisolm ’72.” As a signature of her work as a young black, independent filmmaker, she’s made a choice, and she says, “I want to produce stories about important women in our history in the black community that have not gotten their due, if you will, in the national media. So when you look at her work it is so specific.

I think when you are authentic you will figure out a way to get hired in the industry.

Produce your best work.

Don’t let anyone define who you are—that’s really important to me…I think, “How can I contribute to the field in a unique way? How can I produce my best work?” I was a kid who would get a 99 or 100 on a test and I would run home and my mother would look at me and say, “Did you learn anything?” and I would go, “Don’t ask that. I got a 100 on the test.” And she said, “If you didn’t learn anything it doesn’t matter.”

If I think about my current role, I never dreamed about working for Mayor DeBlasio and being in the current administration in this way. This was not how I thought I end up. But I think when you work really hard at whatever project you develop over time and are consistent and really strike a high quality and emphasize inclusivity, things will open for you. 

Don’t let prejudice change the way you view yourself.

I haven’t faced prejudice in my current capacity, if you will, but in the past I know that as a co-executive producer…I would go to certain places and people would always ask, “Are you the executive producer?” Almost assuring themselves that they were speaking to the right person. And I had to hold onto myself so many times, because I wanted to say, “What’s that say on the wall?” But I have to say that it is interesting as a person of color to come to the table with x amount of credentials, x amount of work…I’m 23 years in, right in my experience that still you would be asked—it’s this undertone: “Are you the person of authority? I wanna make sure.” I’ve always walked into these conversations and I know I’m the person of authority. You’re the one who has a problem, not me. So that’s the thing we also have to take ownership.

Set realistic goals.

Research whatever it is you are doing thoroughly. Every film, every television project, every digital media project or whatever you are trying to develop in creating your work — set realistic goals for the media that you are producing. I think that everybody wants to get into Sundance, every wants to go to Toronto, everyone wants to go to Cannes. Be realistic.

Not every piece that you produce may have those possibilities and know that’s fine, but set realistic goals for what you do want to accomplish with the media that you are producing. Be really authentic and know that things take time. I think that recently I keep getting people who say, “You catapulted, now you’re commissioner.” I didn’t catapult. It’s taken me twenty-something years to get to where I am. So know that things take time. Good stuff takes time. You know when you bake a turkey for Thanksgiving that it’s gonna take three to four hours. You’re not gonna get the turkey in half an hour. It doesn’t work that way. This is the same thing. In terms of documentaries, the average documentary that we aired on POV was between 5 – 12 years to produce. The longest doc that I was a part of took 25 years. That’s a commitment and a passion to follow a subject for 25 years. That’s amazing.

Take care of yourself.

Take care of yourself. I’m a strong proponent of that: You have to exercise, you have to go to therapy, you have to do all this stuff you need to do. I cannot tell you how many times a filmmaker is just at that point of finishing and they get really sick. I’ve seen it over my 20-year career. Just at the point of putting the dot at the end of the sentence and they have a heart attack. And you think, “That project took a piece of their life in a way that they didn’t really understand.” So I think that taking care of yourself simultaneously is really important.

There are great opportunities for New Yorkers starting out in film, television and media.

On behalf of the Mayor’s Office for Media and Entertainment, there are two programs I’d like to highlight. One is the “Made in NY” Media Center that is operated by IFP.  It’s in Dumbo. That center really is a place where entrepreneurs and people who want to develop digital content can work with organizations and individuals to develop projects. So on  one level, when I think about the opportunity that the digital environment offers for the distribution of our work, I think we are at a time that we’ve never been before. We can produce stuff, figure out creative collaborations with corporations and non-profit organizations and literally, people can get that via their iPad.

READ MORE: “Made in NY” Media Center by IFP Launches

We have a second program that’s for the production assistants and it is a 5 week training program for people who are unemployed, living in NYC and are looking for an entree into the industry as they are trained on how to work as a production assistant and the doors open, if you will, to how they navigate that system. And right now we have close to 500 production assistants that have been trained and they’ve worked on about 2,000 major feature films.

She’s still learning on the job — and has big ambitions.

I’m weeks into the job, so I’m still listening and learning, formulating opinions and evaluating before I make any changes to anything. All of us know how new people come into a process and they don’t understand what’s going on and they want to make changes and that’s not the way to go. I’m always about learning first and then figuring it out.
The industry in brings about 130,000 jobs per year to NYC. We want to maintain and grow that and we want to diversify who gets hired in those positions. So that’s a piece of my work that I’m trying to figure out. The other reality is that my office represents 7.1 billion dollars in revenue that’s spent here in NY as a consequence of these very large productions. So the balance is between these government processes, the industry, and what they need to produce films here — and our local communities and how they are impacted by these industries. We are bringing jobs to New Yorkers given that New York has an amazing talent pool.

I think the only way to the future is figuring out how to be a risk taker. And the government doesn’t like to make risky choices, so we have to be careful how we take risks. 

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