The Hidden Workforce

Latinos working behind the scenes in Hollywood

By Mike Gonzales
Published on LatinoLA: March 6, 2002

The Hidden Workforce

Many books have been written regarding the impact of Latino filmmakers and actors in Hollywood.

In each of those books and articles, the same heroes re-emerge: Eddie Olmos, Robert Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez, Gregory Nava, etc. When I started working in the film industry, originally as an art director and now as a screenwriter, I noticed other people of color working behind the scenes.

Also as an academic, at both Biola University where I hold a tenured position as Associate Professor of Communication and at USC School of Cinema-Television, as an adjunct in production, I took note of more and more Latinos seeking to make a difference in the entertainment industry.

Thus began my quest to pursue a Ph.D. in Cross-cultural Education with an emphasis in empowerment theory and how it is applied in formal and informal learning in the motion picture industry.

As part of my research, I conducted focus groups with Latino film students and film professionals. I interviewed and observed case studies on teaching styles in film production and tried to understand if there was link between higher education and Latinos, in particular, in the entertainment workplace.

The following is a summary of a survey I conducted through an e-group called "Latinos in the Industry." I estimate that out of the just over 300 people who were registered with the e-group, at least 150 work directly in film. :

Overall there were 87 respondents. The results were tabulated with the following results:

56% were Mexican-American, 11.5% were Puerto Rican, 10.3% were South American, 5.7% were Cuban American and 9.2% were listed as other.

57.5% had a bachelor's degree. 18.4% hold a Master's. 14.9% have 2 years of college. 5.7% hold doctorates and 3.4% indicated high school was their highest education.

80.9% worked mostly for independent production companies. 19.1% worked for major studios.

31.3% worked in Hollywood for 10 years or more. 38.8% worked in the business from 4-10 years, 30% worked in the industry from 1-3 years.

73.3% indicated they mostly worked in production/post-production. 6.7% work in marketing. 5.6% in public relations. 3.3% work in distribution. 3.3% work in screenwriting. 3.3% work in finance. 1.1% in development. 1.1% in legal affairs, 1.1% in acting. 1.1% in artistic/creative positions. Although there are numerous Latino actors, the original solicitation and focus went out to Latinos working behind the scenes in Hollywood.

In response to the question, "The motion picture industry has offered me excellent opportunities for advancement". 21.8% strongly disagree. 32.2% disagree. 18.4% had no opinion. 20.7% agree and 4.6% strongly agree.

When asked, "I feel I have reached the highest level in my field," 55.2% strongly disagree, 31% disagree, 8% had no opinion, 1.1% agree, and 4.6% strongly agree.

When asked, "I feel my cultural background is a hindrance to my professional growth," 21.8% strongly disagree, 25.3% disagree, 21.8% have no opinion, 23% agree, and 8.1% strongly agree.

In response to the question, "I feel my cultural background is an asset to my professional growth," 4.6% strongly disagree, 13.8% disagree, 26.4% have no opinion, 29.9% agree, and 25.3% strongly agree.

When asked, "I feel my contributions to the motion picture industry are significant," 9.2% strongly disagree, 6.9% disagree, 16.1% are neutral, 36.8% agree, and 31% strongly agree.

When asked, "I have power to make a motion picture in Hollywood (direct, produce or greenlight)," 72.4% said they do not have power, 24.1% indicated they do have power. 3.4% had no answer.

When asked, "Others are usually promoted before me and race may be the reason," 17.2% strongly disagree, 13.8% disagree, 42.5% had no opinion, 19.5% agree, and 6.9% strongly agree.

In response to, "I am in my current position because of my cultural background," 21.8% strongly disagree, 34.5% disagree, 18.4% have no opinion, 20.7% agree, and 4.6% strongly agree.

Responding to the question, "I have found a good network of others working in film who are of the same cultural background," 4.6% strongly disagree, 27.6% disagree, 12.6% have no opinion, 34.5% agree, 20.7% strongly agree.

When asked, "In my opinion, Hollywood is opening its door to more Latinos and Latino-themed pictures," 20.7% strongly disagree, 16.1% disagree, 18.4% have no, opinion, 40.2% agree, 4.6% strongly agree.

When asked, "Formal education was significant in helping me achieve my goals in the film industry," 16.1% strongly disagree, 32.2% disagree, 14.9% have no opinion, 24.1% agree, and 12.6% strongly agree.

The final question was, "I mostly learned what I know about the film industry from on-the-job training," 3.4% strongly disagree, 10.3% disagree, 7% have no opinion, 40.2% agree, and 39.1 strongly agree.

54% disagree or strongly disagree when asked, "The motion picture industry has offered me excellent opportunities for advancement.?

86% stated they disagree or strongly disagree they have reached the highest level in their field.

When asked, "I feel my cultural background is a hindrance to my professional growth," 47% disagree or strongly disagree.

When asked, ?I feel my cultural background is an asset to my cultural background,? 55% agree or strongly agree.

It is apparent that at least 50% find value in their cultural background yet I was not able to determine why. Also, a longitudinal study over a period of time would reveal if this trend is increasing or decreasing. I know I can speak personally and feel that my own cultural background adds depth and a particular worldview in understanding family values, communication between culture groups and individuals, and histories of people like me and others.

68% believe their contributions to the industry are significant yet 72% do not have power to direct, produce or green light a picture. This forces a follow-up question, ?Are Latinos in the entertainment industry mostly employed in middle-management and why??

When asked, "Others are usually promoted before me and race may be the reason," at least 41% disagreed or strongly disagreed. 26% agreed or strongly agreed. Nearly 43% had no opinion when asked this question.

56% believed they were in their position because of their cultural background, while 55% believed they found a good network of other Latinos working in Hollywood.

At least 45% support that Hollywood is opening its door to more Latinos and Latino-themed pictures.

A surprising response was 48% disagree or strongly disagree that formal education was significant in helping achieve goals in the film industry, while 79% indicated they mostly learned what they know in the film industry from on-the-job training.

It was refreshing to note that a large percent of Latinos working in film held college degrees, with one fifth of the respondents holding graduate degrees.

The fact that most respondents indicated they learned more through on-the-job training is not a new phenomenon. It is commonly understood that learners assimilate knowledge when his/her needs are most pressing. This also supports the theory that cognitive learning takes place where interaction and exchanges have immediate meaning.

Unlike other industries, there are no case manuals for ?how to survive and function in the Hollywood entertainment industry.? In addition, film schools traditionally emphasize skills training and do not cover the business of film nor do instructors focus on values based education. Learning about the film business from professors may and does occur but is not explicitly in the syllabus or description of most production courses.

In speaking with some Latinos who were asked to participate in focus group meetings, several declined the offer with one executive saying, ?I do not attend those meetings (referring cryptically of Latino/Hispanic coalition events)." Even though our respondents felt their cultural background was important to them and offered something to the mainstream industry, there is an idea that survival and acceptance in Hollywood means suppressing the cultural consciousness.

One result of conducting the focus groups was the contrast in optimism of Latino college students to make a difference in Hollywood juxtaposed with the war stories of Latino veterans holding their own in the industry. The general impression I got was not whether there was enough work, but that somehow others with equal education or less had passed them by.

If this is so, then where in the system did Latinos fall through the cracks?

One theory is that higher education got what it wanted -- the tuition monies and minority representation -- but it did a poor job at linking industry with education and empowering students to enter the marketplace as potential change agents in society.

A second result is that Latinos and others were excluded from the rules of how to play the game. Because Hollywood is a closed industry, the rules are not easily accessed and those who have talent must be willing to play by those rules even if they have an abundance of talent.

A third consequence is that Latinos and others have decided to build their own reality outside of mainstream Hollywood. With the advent of digital technology and non-linear editing, this alternative is becoming more attractive. Even in the realm of distribution, the internet and cable TV have become the new frontiers to market alternative product.

A more comprehensive summary is being prepared and will be submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In Hollywood, it is hard to be an activist when your main goal is merely trying to figure out the game, play it and survive.

About Mike Gonzales:
Michael Gonzales is an Associate Professor of Communication at Biola University and a production professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television, holding graduate degrees from LMU and USC, & completing his Ph.D. dissertation at Biola University.

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