Latinos' Reality vs. Rhetoric

Eric Gutierrez is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Let's dispel a great misconception right now. Latino filmmakers are working in Hollywood. Directors Robert Rodriguez ("From Dusk 'Til Dawn"), Gregory Nava ("Selena") and Miguel Arteta ("Star Maps") among others are now clearly on Hollywood's radar.

That's called spin.

Every year journalistic groundhogs poke their heads out of the Hollywood trade papers to see how much longer the long, hard winter will last for Latino filmmakers. The stories invariably go something like this:

1. Latinos are still underrepresented behind and in front of the camera.

2. When Latinos do make a successful pitch, the Hollywood development system dilutes or destroys Latino-themed projects by changing culturally specific elements and transforming lead Latino characters into Anglos.

3. The few films about Latinos that are made usually suffer from non-Latino actors and directors with little feel for the material or culture.

4. The resulting films are then victims of misguided marketing, focusing exclusively on Spanish-language audiences instead of English-speaking Latinos and others in the mainstream.

5. Latino audiences therefore either fail to turn out in numbers proportionate to their demographic or are soon turned off by inaccurate portrayals in mediocre films. Mainstream audiences don't come at all.

6. The studios again feel justified in the misperception that there is no audience for films by and about Latinos.

7. Spring is just around the corner.

This public discussion about Latinos in Hollywood is a perennial blame game, with apologists and activists pointing fingers at studio development and marketing executives who "didn't get it" and audiences who didn't come. While such stories will continue to be written, they are increasingly beside the point to a growing number of Latinos serious about making movies.

That is not to say such discussion is inaccurate or misguided. Serious discrepancies in access and representation do exist. The maxim that no one knows anything in Hollywood seems especially true when applied to Latinos. Industry conventional wisdom is woefully myopic, based on ignorance, assumptions and a misreading of the facts.

However, despite the dismal statistics and cultural divide, there are hard questions and truths that Latinos have to face up to for themselves: what Latinos in Hollywood can do for themselves, how to break beyond the limiting definition of Latino films and filmmakers, and how to confront the be^te noire/chupacabra known as "quality."

The groundhogs don't report that in the face of the same old story, the discussion among Latino filmmakers has already moved on.

The first Los Angeles International Latino Film Festival, held last October, had all the Hollywood trappings: celebrities, Klieg lights, world premieres and an awards gala. For the filmmakers and their audiences it was a sound success, the organizers realizing each of their goals except the one dearest to the heart of their mission: to showcase U.S. Latino filmmakers to studios and distributors. The festival could have been held in Michoacan as far as most of Hollywood was concerned.

"We had some distribution companies come by, but that's it," said film festival producer and artistic director Edward James Olmos. The Oscar-nominated actor-director ("American Me"), known for his commitment to Latino film and filmmakers, was matter of fact shortly after the festival: "The studios are in it for money, not cultural diversity, and right now they don't see any big moneymakers. I don't think Hollywood will be making many Latino projects in the coming years."

Then, in early spring of this year, Hollywood claimed to have seen the light. The epiphany came from Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, who issued a report March 11 saying that Latinos have become the faster growing ethnic bloc of moviegoers in the nation.

The news spread through the ShoWest convention of exhibitors like buzz on "The Truman Show."

Suddenly, Hollywood was once again searching its soul and the bottom line when it comes to Latinos. The trade papers carried full-page ads meant to awaken Hollywood to what Olmos calls "the sleeping Latino giant." Rumors of a Latino division being established at one of the major studios passed through the grapevine.

Bill Gerber, former co-president for worldwide theatrical production at Warner Bros., was one of the executives quoted in the wake of Valenti's report, saying, "We're conscious of [the Latino] audience and the stars that appeal to that audience." Sony, Time Warner, Fox and Disney all announced a substantial commitment to Latino production. But where's the carne?

"There is no increase in the number of Latino films out there being developed or talked about or in the market place, so basically it's out of people's consciousness, despite this report or what people are saying," said Mike Medavoy, co-founder, chair and CEO of Phoenix Media Group, and one of the few credible voices putting the hype into perspective. "If it's not being developed, it's not happening."

Medavoy, a former chairman of TriStar and co-founder of Orion Pictures with a reputation for developing and supporting Latino work and talent, declared from the podium at the Third Annual Latino Entertainment Conference last September that, "Nobody in Hollywood is thinking about diversity. They don't understand it."

He is candid in his assessment that nothing has changed except the rhetoric. "The MPAA report doesn't say here's the pot of gold, it just says there might be gold out there."

The consensus is the studios are missing the boat--and the millions on board. Meanwhile, a new generation of filmmakers is forgoing pitch meetings and making independent movies as Latino as they want to be. They are thwarting the conventional wisdom and circular logic of Hollywood by doing what they can for themselves.

"The feeling is, 'Forget about asking Hollywood what they can do for us," " says Gabriel Reyes, whose public relations company, Reyes Entertainment, specializes in Latino-themed projects and talent and whose job it is to know Hollywood's mind-set and how Latinos can circumvent it.

"Studios still don't get it, so the only way to go for now is low-budget, independent features," says Bel Hernandez, publisher of Latin Heat, a trade publication for Latino film professionals and president of the recently formed Latino Entertainment Media Institute.

Meanwhile, industry watchdogs report the disheartening statistics such as the 1996 Screen Actors Guild study citing Latino representation at a scant 4% for both men and women in film and television. A Directors Guild of America report due out early next month is expected to reflect similarly depressing employment figures for directors.

In the face of such strong empirical evidence, it's unpopular to point out that Latinos themselves haven't done all they can to make the professional and artistic gains of the African American or gay filmmaking communities, for example. To some, that's called blaming the victim. What they and the media reports fail to realize is that the role of the Latino filmmaker has changed from victimized wannabe to working professional.

First-time filmmakers like Luis Meza ("Staccato Purr of the Exhaust"), Nestor Miranda ("Destination Unknown," a Sundance pick this year), Frank Aragon ("My Father's Love") and Arteta may actually be more significant indicators of future change than any MPAA report.

"We did not invite you here tonight to recite the same old complaints, cries of discrimination and dismal employment statistics," said Ricardo Mendez Matta in his opening remarks at a round-table convened last month by the Latino Committee of the Directors Guild of America.

Matta, co-chair of the committee, was speaking for the growing number of filmmakers who understand that getting a movie made is difficult for anyone with a vision outside the formulaic mainstream. Rather than bemoaning that Hollywood won't let them play, they realize that Latinos are simply one of several underrepresented groups facing formidable odds. They are changing those odds by focusing beyond the annual doomsday scenario.

"No one's pretending Latino representation isn't a concern or valid issue, but we are hardly unique," says director Victor Nunez ("Ulee's Gold"). "My fear is that we are so obsessed with our own absence that we forget that there are all types of people who aren't part of what Hollywood is all about."

"Latino filmmakers need to stop begging someone else to make the movie for them and just do it themselves," says Matta. "The resources are there."

Hernandez agrees. "We cannot point fingers at the Hollywood system or the major studios because I don't believe there is systemic racism," he says. "They will take whatever makes money, but since they don't know how to make money with us yet, we'll just have to make movies on our own until they trust us to show them how."

Another problem with media reports are the simplistic and often conflicting definitions of Latino filmmakers. Some of these filmmakers are responsible for the limited canon of Latino-themed pictures originating in Hollywood. Some have never made an ostensibly "Latino" film. Some began their careers in Mexico or South America. Others were raised in the United States on a steady diet of American pop culture. The wide range of cultural identities, artistic interests and personal aesthetics is a case study in diversity.

Some maintain that differences among Latinos are still not as great as those between Latinos and Hollywood's definition of mainstream. Others, like Nunez, wonder if "at the end of the day, can we really speak of a homogenous Latino filmmaking community? I'm not sure we can say what Latino means. I might know in California but not necessarily in Florida. The concept is in evolution."

In short, the definitions are problematic, focusing either on directors' ethnicity ("a Latino filmmaker is a filmmaker with a Latin surname") or the subjects of their movies ("a Latino filmmaker is someone whose movies are about people in our community"). Such definitions are too broad or too narrow, too complex or simplistic, often simultaneously.

Where do directors fit in like Guillermo del Toro ("Cronos," "Mimic") and Alfonso Cuaron ("The Little Princess," "Great Expectations"), neither of whom has made a Latino-themed film since coming to Hollywood? Neither Nava's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," to be released in the fall, nor Rodriguez's "The Faculty," from a script by "Scream" scribe Kevin Williamson, are about Latinos. Warner Bros. and Dimension, respectively, are marketing the films as mainstream entertainments.

Should Alison Anders, the white director of "Mi Vida Loca," be considered a Latina filmmaker because her movie about Echo Park Chicanas was authentically researched and cast? What about John Sayles, the writer-director of "Lone Star" and "Men With Guns," two sophisticated depictions of Latinos? Now that Nava is making a biopic about African American singer-songwriter Frankie Lymon, where does that put him?

As Latinos break free of what Arteta calls "the burden of representation," the old definitions seem more likely to reinforce the perceptions and limitations Hollywood places on Latinos.

Are such definitions still useful as tools for community building, or are they just so many activists dancing on the head of a pin?

Perhaps the most eloquent response was the silence of Nava and Rodriguez, both of whom declined to speak about themselves as Latino filmmakers for this article. Both directors are often credited for mentoring and hiring Latino talent in all aspects of their productions regardless of subject matter. But, perhaps most tellingly, both are working on new films. According to Rodriguez's unit publicist, the director is "past talking about that anymore. He doesn't think of himself as just a Latino filmmaker."

"Fair enough," says Medavoy. "I'd rather they just be called filmmakers, too. The logic is simple. What they want is to avoid doing only Latino films."

"It's not important how Latino our work is but how honest it is to our own personal experiences," agrees Arteta. "Our identities will [come through]."

If the role of the Latino filmmaker is to make films, the quality of those films remains a highly sensitive topic. Beyond the boosterism that greets the occasional picture by and about Latinos, filmmakers are hesitant to acknowledge the disappointing quality of some Latino films.

"Forty-five minutes into 'Selena' the biggest conflict was whether or not she could wear a bustier," remarked one filmmaker who requested anonymity. "That's not gripping cinema. But that movie was a watershed. You don't talk against familia."

Matta, one of the few to go on record, agrees. "When you're dying of thirst, a bowl of dirty water tastes great," he says. "There's no question that Latino projects have suffered from a lack of quality but go look at Scorsese or Coppola's first couple of movies. They're not that good. It's not fair to single out young Latino filmmakers who have made a bad movie and tell them they can't make another movie ever."

The media reports are not wrong, but they are shortsighted. Conflict and adversity make great leads. But that same old story is no longer the defining news to Latino film professionals who are finding new ways to make their films, forging careers beyond limiting cultural and artistic perceptions, and demanding ever greater quality in their work.

As Latino committee co-chair Matta explained in kicking off the DGA round-table, "We all know what [the obstacles] are, and we don't need to hear them again . . . Let's skip over those issues and move on to . . . the future."

And, with luck, future "Latinos in Hollywood" articles will update us on what Latino filmmakers are talking about among themselves because that is a significant part of the solution--and a missing part of the story.

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