Sudnance ’18: Latino Reel – Holding Up the Screen

Latino Reel cites 2016 as “the worst year in terms of Latinx onscreen visibility, despite Latino people accounting for about 23 percent of ticket sales.” Addressing this, the Latino Reel panel at Utah Film Commission on Main asked, how do we plant the Hollywood dream in more Latinx kids? The resounding answer was simply: “They have to see it. You cannot be what you cannot see.”

Panelists Carmen Rita Wong, Founder and CEO of Malecon Productions, Tanya Saracho, Playwright, Yvette Yates, Actress/Filmmaker, and Michelle Knudson, manager and producer at MXN Entertainment joined moderators Robyn Moreno, Co-President of Latina Media Ventures, Latina Magazine and Ben Lopez, Executive Director of NALIP, to discuss opportunity, diversity, and representation of Latinx talent in the entertainment industry today.

Ben Lopez opened the panel by recounting a conversation he had with Sundance Film Festival programmers several years ago, about what they felt was a lack of competitive film submissions from the Latinx community. Lopez felt strongly that the content existed, but the programmers simply didn’t know where to look. He consequently founded NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers), and Latino Reel, a showcase event held during the festival, and made it his mission to amplify Latinx stories, at the festival, in Hollywood, and beyond.

Similarly, Michelle Knudson, a talent manager, recalled receiving a request for a young Latinx queer writer. She realized she didn’t have that person on her list – everyone she had to offer was of the dominant culture. That moment shifted her professional focus to finding and nurturing Latinx talent. “In recent years,” she said, “there has been an enormous shift. I feel it in the rooms I have been in, in the calls I am getting. It’s been tremendous.”

When Tanya Saracho was building her company by targeting Latinx talent, she was repeatedly asked “Why would you do that, don’t you want the best people?” to which she answered, “I have the best people!” She spoke about the need for unity, and how the community at large has come together under the current administration, citing a “consciousness about how we are looked at.”

Yvette Yates, after years of frustration at being offered only what the panel referred to as the “Maria roles” – typically maids, victims, even prostitutes, always with a heavy Spanish accent – co-founded Impossible Dream Entertainment with husband Shaun Redick. Together they asked, “How do we find [Latinx] talent, and bring those people into the conversation?” Funded by private equity, Impossible Dream has the independence to target and develop diverse stories that counter a reductive understanding of Latinx culture. “We are a kaleidoscope,” Yates says, “We are a diverse palette. There are cartel stories, but there are other stories as well.”

Carmen Rita Wong cited her experience as a board member for Planned Parenthood and other organizations, and her success at helping diversify these organizations because she “had skin in the game.” Robin Moreno echoed this, “We are holding up the screen,” emphasizing that one quarter of movie ticket buyers are Latinx. “What Hollywood will not do for us, we will do for ourselves.”

The multi-prong approach that NALIP has used to move the needle includes networking and educational opportunities, mentorship, incubators for writers and directors, and most importantly, nurturing relationships and partnerships with others working toward the same goal. When Ben asked the panelists how they would advise their younger selves, their answers echoed the sentiments that fuel the NALIP initiatives, including aiming high, speaking up, especially in our present socio-political climate, committing to creating content, demanding opportunity and compensation, and building connections. “And when do we declare victory?” Ben asked. “Never, we keep going!” was the resounding reply.

Contributing writer, Diana Whitten, writes, makes art, and directs film.