"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.