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To Open Minds, They Opened Checkbooks

The team behind 'Luminarias' went to the Latino community to fund a film that shatters stereotypes.

April 18, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer

Veteran actress Evelina Fernandez had an interesting pitch for her friends and neighbors: If you want to see a positive film about Latinos, help pay for it.

To her surprise, nearly everyone she, her husband Jose Luis Valenzuela and producer Sal Lopez approached bought it. So, with the help of Latino doctors in Texas, lawyers in Arizona, dentists in Los Angeles, entrepreneurs in Orange County and many other non-Hollywood types, Fernandez was able to make her movie "Luminarias."

The story, which was performed as a play at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1996, was written by Fernandez and deals with four Latina working professionals coping with dating in the racial and cultural mix of Los Angeles.

The movie, made for less than $1 million, was funded entirely by individual members of the Latino community. The common denominator among all the investors was a desire to see a film about Latinos that avoided stereotypes and a growing frustration with Hollywood studios' lack of Latino-themed movies.

"The pitch was, 'Listen, if we want to see Latino movies, we as a community have to do them for ourselves,' " said Fernandez, who stars in the film as an attorney. "In the past, we would wait and wait for someone to say, 'I'm going to give you $2 million to make a movie,' and years would go by waiting for someone to give you that money."

To begin filming, Fernandez, Lopez and director Valenzuela founded Sleeping Giant Productions--the name refers to the idea that the Latino community is in a political and economic slumber but eventually, through sheer numbers, their political, economic and social power will increase.

Valenzuela and Lopez went about garnering the money for the picture one check at a time, taking a year and a half to collect all the funds. They targeted parties attended by rich Mexican Americans; they made phone calls to their dentists, their doctors, their friends and neighbors; and they asked their families to help out.

At critical moments when the producers feared they would have to shut down production for lack of financing, their friends and family would kick in enough money to keep the project alive.

"I felt like George Bailey from 'It's a Wonderful Life,' " said Lopez.

The investments ranged from $500 to $40,000, and a majority of the investors were Latinas. Many said they could identify with the characters in the story.

"When I read the script, I said, 'Oh my God! It's my story!' " said opera singer Suzanna Guzman, who grew up in East Los Angeles. "They never asked me to contribute--I asked them, 'Is there any way I can be a part of this?' I have a feeling this whole venture was that way--that people saw it, loved it and when they were given the opportunity to contribute they jumped in."

Contributors like Dr. Santiago Gutierrez and his wife Linda from Laredo, Texas, who made the largest investment--$40,000--say they do not expect to get their money back but hope that it will send a message.

"It is frustrating that [Latinos] are going to become one of the biggest moneymakers not only for Hollywood but other industries and we don't seem to have a voice," Gutierrez said.

"Luminarias" was completed last month, but the filmmakers are still searching for a distributor.

*

There are many stories of young first-time directors doing whatever it takes to finance their first pictures, from Robert Rodriguez of "El Mariachi" selling himself as a subject for medical research to Miguel Arteta of "Star Maps" taking four and a half years to raise half a million dollars.

But it is rare to find seasoned professionals financing their pictures in such a grass-roots manner. The cast--which includes Scott Bakula of TV's "Quantum Leap"; Cheech Marin; Lupe Ontiveros, who appeared in "As Good as It Gets"; and "Star Trek's" Robert Beltran--worked for standard wages. The crew worked on a deferred payment plan.

Fernandez, who is in her early 40s and starred opposite Edward James Olmos in "American Me," has been in the film business for more than two decades. Over the years, she has grown weary of being cast as the mother of a gang member or a maid or a feisty Latina in yet another Hollywood picture. Valenzuela, 46, is a longtime theater director who is currently the artistic director of the Latino Theatre Company in Los Angeles.

The story, which Fernandez pitched to studios for several years to no avail, involves four women looking for love in a city where finding a mate sometimes includes having to jump over many cultural and racial hurdles. All of the female characters are dealing with what it means to be Latina living in a predominantly Anglo culture, while surrounded by people of different backgrounds.

After confronting their own prejudices, each of the women ends up finding love with unexpected partners--among them a Korean, a Jew and an undocumented Mexican waiter.

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