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COMMENTARY

Latinos' Reality vs. Rhetoric

June 28, 1998|Eric Gutierrez | 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?

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