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Latinos to Hollywood: Listen Up

Symposium: Actors, others insist that industry pay more attention to an underrepresented group.

May 06, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ and KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Filmmakers, television producers, actors and political leaders sent a strong message Wednesday at a Screen Actors Guild symposium, insisting that the significant underrepresentation of Latinos in film and TV must change and that Hollywood executives need to pay attention to the country's changing demographics.

The symposium was prompted by a SAG report released Wednesday titled, "Missing in Action: Latinos In and Out of Hollywood."

It concluded that the economic clout Latinos wield as the fastest-growing segment of the film and TV viewing population--spending about $10 billion annually on entertainment--has not paid off with more or better roles for Latino actors. The report found that Latinos, who constitute 10.7% of the U.S. population, got only 3.5% of available roles in guild productions in 1998.

Although the event, held in Beverly Hills, drew more than 200 people, there were only a few studio executives and no major network executives in attendance. Instead, the audience consisted mostly of casting professionals, talent agents and struggling actors.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) was among those who attended. "The entertainment industry [must] realize there are 31 million people [Latinos] out there floating around, looking for someplace to hang on," Becerra said. "It's not rocket science. It's just good business sense."

"Essentially, we're preaching to the already converted here," said writer-producer Jeff Valdez.

Real change will not come, said writer-director Jesus Salvador Trevino, until the major decision makers in networks and studios join the discussion.

"Part of it is putting the networks on notice that we are here," said Trevino, whose credits include "NYPD Blue," "Chicago Hope" and "The Practice."

Money will play a major role in effecting change, said Michael A. Fernandez, associated-brand manager at Miller Brewing Co., which has an active advertising campaign aimed at Latinos on both English- and Spanish-language television.

"Why corporate America woke up wasn't because they suddenly wanted to be altruistic," he said. "It may have started out as a politically correct thing, but it continued because it's good business."

But studios executives are under great pressure to turn a profit, which is harder to do when playing to a niche market, according to several members of symposium panels.

"The pretense of art is found in very few offices around town," said Mike Medavoy, chairman of Phoenix Pictures, who addressed the pressure on studio executives to turn a profit. "Money is what counts."

Few Latino actors are not major international stars who can assure studios a return on their money.

"Studios are not interested in selling a message. They are interested in making entertainment with a broad appeal," said Ted Perkins, director of foreign distribution and marketing at Seagram Co.'s Universal Studios. "Don't call them Latino movies anymore--just make movies."

Another obstacle is marketing, said Mark Gill, West Coast president of Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax Films, noting that Latinos are dispersed throughout English-language TV and radio and Spanish-language media.

But members of the final panel agreed that the most important factor in improving the state of Latinos in entertainment is hard work.

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