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Latino producers meet, pitch projects and lament
On a breezy afternoon in Newport Beach, hundreds of Latino filmmakers descended upon the swanky Island Hotel to celebrate "A Decade of Influence" at the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers' 10th annual conference.
For three days last weekend, the screenwriters, producers and directors attended panel discussions, pitched projects and mingled with like-minded professionals. Conversations varied, but participants agreed on one thing: Despite a noticeable improvement in Latino films and roles, there is much work left to do.
"There are a lot of victories, a lot of solid successes," said Kathryn Galan, executive director of the association. She pointed to television shows such as "Ugly Betty," "The George Lopez Show" and "Resurrection Blvd." as triumphs in the industry but lamented that many other segments of the film and television industry don't represent the 15% of the population that calls itself Latino.
"The inside thinks 'Three Amigos' is a diversity effort," Galan said. "Nothing reflects the voice of U.S.-born, English-speaking American Latinos."
Munching on sliced prosciutto and pieces of cheese at the opening reception, screenwriter Anita Palacios Collins expressed frustration at the attitudes of some non-Latino members of the industry.
"They don't understand our work a lot of the times," Collins said.
Collins trekked from Calabasas to participate in a writing lab. As a writer, Collins is especially frustrated that her actress daughter has been turned down in auditions because "she doesn't look the part."
"If you go in looking like a Latina, you don't fill that stereotypical girl-next-door role," she explained. "With the growing population in the United States, eventually the girl next door is going to be Latina."
Television, theater and film should reflect that shift, according to playwright Luis Valdez, a keynote speaker at the conference and founder of Teatro Campesino, a Mexican heritage theater in San Juan Bautista.
"It seems to me that the characterization of Latinos is not only very sparse, it's also very limited," he said in an interview. "In order to appreciate the demographic, you have to deal with people on a broader level. The stories that are being told are very cliché."
Valdez considers himself one of the lucky few who have struck gold with both mainstream and niche audiences -- he wrote and directed 1987's "La Bamba" and took his 1981 musical "Zoot Suit" all the way to Broadway.
Known as the godfather of Chicano theater, Valdez urged the new generation of Latino filmmakers to go beyond what's expected and chart new territory.
"We're still operating under very limited perceptions of history and people," he said. "We need comedy. We need to deal with the daily life of Latinos.
"There's business to be done, profits to be made."
Producer and conference co-Chairman David Ortiz seems to have mastered this concept.
The 32-year-old New York native has worked as a development executive for Universal Pictures, overseeing big-budget hits such as "Fast & Furious," " Wanted," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" and " Role Models."
The key to breaking into the mainstream, he said in an interview, is not pandering to a demographic but, rather, learning to accept it as a small part of a greater whole. He cited the new "Fast & Furious" as an example.
"You might not see Vin Diesel as Latino, but the young kids can relate to him," he said.
"Fast & Furious" did particularly well among Latinos, according to Universal.
Spanish-language accents and dialogue and south-of-the-border locales helped attract the large audience, but Ortiz suspects that Diesel's character, hero Dominic Toretto, was largely responsible for the pull.
"The whole vibe made it feel authentic and relevant," he said, referring to the music and car culture that drive the movie. "He's a rebel, a family man, outside the law."
Although the hot-rod franchise found success in Hollywood, some of those at the conference complained that opportunities remain limited for Latino actors and filmmakers -- a point borne out by membership figures in the major guilds as evidence.
Only 2% of the Writers Guild of America is Latino, according to diversity director Kim Myers. The Screen Actors Guild declined to provide an exact figure, but Rebecca Yee, the union's national director of affirmative action and diversity, says it has a similar problem.
"There aren't a lot of roles that are specifically written for Latino actors, and if there are, they tend to be stereotypical," she said. "And for nondescript roles, a lot of directors default to white actors. More diverse writers and producers are needed -- hiring executives also."
Waiting for this trickle-down effect might not be the only recourse, however.
Actor Hector Herrera specializes in Spanish-language voice-overs for big names such as Honda and NASCAR. A native of Mexico City who lives in L.A., Herrera studied theater on both sides of the border but had difficulties landing English-language roles because of his accent. That didn't deter him. Instead, Herrera played to his strengths and performs only in his native tongue.
"There's this perception that there are less opportunities because we're Hispanic or because we're Latino," he said. "I don't want to say or fall into this negativity that it's because we're a minority. We're not a minority anymore."