The Producers

Latino mediamakers take 'next steps' in San Antonio

Actor Ricardo Montalban received a lifetime achievement award at the NALIP conference.
Actor Ricardo Montalban received a lifetime achievement award at the NALIP conference.

You could call 2002 a banner year for Latinos in film and television. Feature films like Frida, Real Women Have Curves, and the arthouse hit Y Tu Mamá También proved that Latino-oriented films can attract a broad audience. The George Lopez Show, Welcome to Tucson, and American Family on broadcast television, and Resurrection Blvd. (now canceled), The Brothers Garcia, and the cartoon Dora the Explorer on cable have done much to not only increase the visibility of Latinos on television, but to do so with positive images. This is in stark contrast to earlier, intractable images of Latinos as gangsters, maids, whores, and gardeners.

Times have changed; that was the consensus at the National Association of Latino Independent Producers conference, which was held in San Antonio, Nov. 7-10. The conference was the fourth in the organization's short but dynamic existence. Started in 1998 as a small ad hoc committee, NALIP quickly blossomed into an advocacy organization promoting Latino film, media arts, and artists of all genres. Today, NALIP has more than 4,000 members and chapters across the nation.

While the conference theme, "Taking the Next Steps: Television, Features and Media Arts," acknowledged positive changes in the industry, change, as several conference speakers noted, should not be confused with an all-access pass.

"Studios want projects with bright, fresh perspectives, but they also want to know if they're going to make money," said panelists of the "Anatomy of a Feature Package" plenary with Mike Grillo of Dreamworks SKG (American Beauty), attorney and executive producer John Sloss (Lone Star, Waking Life), and producer David Valdés (The Green Mile).

As was the case with the rise of the African-American entrepreneurial class 20 years ago, Hollywood has been taken by surprise by the rise of Latinos as an audience with spending power. In comparison to other ethnic groups, Latinos spend more money for entertainment, particularly on pay-per-view services, DVD and video rentals, and movie purchases. The realization of Latinos as an untapped market has created a wake-up call in Hollywood. However, there is confusion and ignorance about what a Latino audience wants, according to the panelists. This ignorance has provided an opening to those filmmakers whom Hollywood sees as providing access to the Latino market.

"There is a Hollywood gate," said Valdés when asked if there is a barrier to new filmmakers (Latinos or otherwise) wanting to break into Hollywood. "But there's no guard at that gate." And passing through the Hollywood gate doesn't mean clear sailing. Filmmakers still "got to have the goods," along with passion and persistence, key traits for any successful filmmaker.

"When we were thinking about our panel, we thought it should really be called, 'No, You Can't Do That; It's Impossible,'" joked Barbara Martinez-Jitner, an executive producer and writer for the television series American Family (PBS). She and director Lorenzo O'Brien spoke on the "Study of a TV Show" panel, sharing their head-spinning journey through network television during the creation of American Family for El Norte Productions. Martinez-Jitner, along with El Norte executive producer Gregory Nava, were committed to making their Latino-themed drama true to the characters and situations they knew growing up in East L.A. But in Hollywood parlance, East L.A. means gangs, drugs, and drive-bys. "That's such a small element of life there." Nor does it mean "putting a brown filter over Friends and calling it a Latino show," said Martinez-Jitner. Yet, both of these situations were requested when creating the series. After many, many discussions and a staunch adherence to their vision, American Family became a product El Norte is proud of. The show has been renewed for a second season, but with success came pressure.

"In a sense, we were creating a new genre," Martinez-Jitner said. "And from the beginning [director Gregory Nava] said, 'We can't fail -- we cannot fail.'"

Filmmakers were encouraged not to ignore TV as a potential market for their work. While the TV "Movie of the Week," a one-time staple of network television, has receded, cable networks like Showtime, Lifetime, A&E, TNT, and, most notably, HBO, are providing forums for new films.

Other conference events included video and interactive slams, a media lab, and special award presentations. Elizabeth Avellán (Los Hooligans Productions) was recognized for outstanding achievement as a producer. Actor and media advocate Ricardo Montalban and producer Eduardo Moreno received lifetime achievement awards for their long and distinguished careers, as did cinematographer John Alonzo (Chinatown), who recently passed away.

For information on NALIP and upcoming projects and events, visit their Web site, end story

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NALIP, National Association of Latino Independent Producers, Elizabeth Avellán, Barbara Martinez-Jitner, Gregory Nava, El Norte Productions, John Alonzo, Ricardo Montalban, Eduardo Moreno, David Valdés, John Sloss

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