The Right Stuff

Strategy, vision pay off as filmmaker's project is selected for LALIFF

By Petra Davidson
Published on LatinoLA: July 9, 2002

The Right Stuff

When the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival (LALIFF) first came onto the independent film festival scene in 1996, a mere 42 films were shown over a five-day-period. Only a year later, the festival proved to have become a bittersweet success when the attendance was so overwhelming that those who hadn?t reserved their tickets in advance had to be turned away from some of the final screenings.

By 2001, the festival had grown to showcase 110 films and, in addition, offered lectures and workshops, drawing a crowd of more than 20,000 people. Only time will tell if audience members will have to be turned away again this year when LALIFF opens its doors at the Egyptian Theater on July 19th.

No Independent film festival has yet achieved the perfect organization of foreign festivals like Toronto or Cannes, not even the much better known American equivalent Sundance, and LALIFF is no exception. Its Web site has only recently been updated to provide festival information - a mere month before its doors are about to open for the first showings, and some filmmakers whose works will be shown at LALIFF are still looking for their final instructions.

But while it may still scramble in regards to organization, LALIFF provides something else in abundance which Hollywood itself doles out sparingly: a venue for Latin, Spanish and Portuguese talent in the world of filmmaking, despite the fact that the Latino movie audience accounts for 15% of domestic box office receipts (according to a study by the Motion Picture Association of America). While this may not seem much at first glance, it translates into an average of 9.9 films viewed per capita during the year compared to 8.1 films per year for white movie-goers.

Yet a minimal number of Latino films are produced by Hollywood studios annually, leaving the exploration of Latino social, economic and cultural forces to the makers of independent film, and while LALIFF is not the only Latino film festival around, it has quickly become the largest and is the only one that takes place right at the source of America?s filmmaking empire.

Gustavo Mercado, a 35-year-old Latino film school graduate currently residing in New York, hopes to someday take on the challenge of having his film projects realized by the big hitters of filmmaking, but for starters, he has to find the connections only a festival like LALIFF can offer. Mercado realized the specific potential of LALIFF after carefully researching a various number of film festivals, even before he shot his short "Sensitive", which is scheduled to be shown at this year?s event.

Mercado took into consideration the publicity each festival got, its location, its history, reviews it got, even checking out individual films selected for prior versions of each festival, and LALIFF scored highest with the upcoming filmmaker.

?[The choice of] LALIFF ? was a no-brainer,? says Mercado. ?They are simply one of the most prestigious Latino festivals in the world, and their location makes it ideal to get your stuff seen by very important people.?

It doesn?t take a lot of research to recognize the potential of a festival brought into existence by actor, director and producer Edward James Olmos and Marlene Demmer, an experienced independent producer, both also part of the decision-making team. In addition, the festival managed to procure premier sponsorship through Blockbuster Video this year, a company which recently has placed a good number of independently-distributed films on its shelves.

Mercado concedes that, of course, every filmmaker hopes his project has the right stuff to be picked from the hundreds of submissions, but ?then again,? he points out, ?the film should represent your vision first and foremost and not cater to what happens to be the latest trend.?

Luckily, what happens to be the latest trend seems to coincide with Mercado?s vision which has come to the screen with "Sensitive", an 18-minute short that already won the 2002 Showtime Latino Filmmaker Showcase award. "Sensitive" primarily tells the story of a young Latina who, after trying to help people in her community, realizes she is actually the cause of their downfall.

?I say primarily,? Mercado explains, ?because there are a lot of other things going on, but I prefer for the audience to discover the subtexts in a subjective manner. Most of my film plays without dialogue, and the little dialogue it has is not expository, so the experience of watching 'Sensitive' is mostly a visual one. Many people will 'get' different points of the story according to their own experiences.?

Mercado feels the value of his film resides in its representation of a section of Latino culture that almost never gets to be seen or heard with their own voice. ?I am referring to Latinos who, for some reason or another, are not included in the vision of the ?American Dream,?" he explains. ?In my film, this section is represented by illegal aliens trying to eke out a living even as they try to get their papers and play by the rules of their new country. But, like I said before, there are a lot of other things going on if you watch the film carefully.?

Acceptance by the LALIFF committee is only half the battle, and Mercado knows 'Sensitive' has a difficult mission to accomplish: Not only does he wish to inspire thought and emotion in an audience, but he also hopes his artistic expressions will serve as a calling card to those in Hollywood who can fund the next project.

According to LALIFF, at least one of last year?s films, 'Manuela S?enz', went on to receive distribution, and independent filmmaker Alex Mu?oz, who participated in the 2001 festival, has received calls for meetings at Hollywood studios. Opportunities for sponsorship or distribution will be present again this year.

While such accomplishments do not yet compare to the sales achieved by Sundance, it is obvious that the more LALIFF establishes itself as a driving force in the industry, the more developed the opportunities coming from the festival will be for the aspiring filmmakers. Another important difference between the two festivals is the innovation and excitement of submissions at Sundance have become somewhat stagnant over the past few years where the expectation of business deals seems to have outgrown the excitement of getting a first opportunity or just being recognized for talent and vision.

Considering that Sundance is already in its third decade, it?s probably too early anyway to draw comparisons between the two events with regard to sales opportunities, but at least one film, "Tadpole", set a precedent this year at Sundance with a jaw-dropping $5 million offer from Miramax. One can only hope the ongoing expansion of LALIFF will eventually start drawing bids of that caliber to the emerging Latino talents featured at the festival. A lot of the success of reaching this goal lies within LALIFF's organizational team, but just as much depends on the viewing public whose participation and interest in the festival are vital contributors to its reputation and development.

At this point, LALIFF is still young enough to inspire true awe in those who submit their works based on their vision, rather than a cookie-cutter formula to please the current trends, but established enough to offer opportunities to its audience and participants alike. LALIFF?s press write-up points out: ?During the festival, visiting filmmakers are invited to private luncheons hosted by and held at major studios such as Fox, Disney and Warner Bros. Via direct interactions with Hollywood production executives and film buyers, LALIFF is instrumental in helping visiting filmmakers secure distribution for their films, as well as exposing them to other employment opportunities in Hollywood.?

While Mercado naturally hopes for all those perks of having his work introduced to an L.A. audience whose connections and backings could benefit his future work, he also feels awed by the simple thought of having his work viewed by any audience period.

?I am ? profoundly humbled at the act of having people see my small filmic offering and perhaps, for a few fleeting seconds, pull them into the world I created on celluloid,? he says. ?This is the part that completes the circle that begins when you get an idea for a film in your head. Without an audience, we are nothing.?

That, undoubtedly, is the most profound meaning of LALIFF ? to give hopeful Latino artists a glimpse of the Hollywood glamour and the power behind it. Possibly most important, though, LALIFF fosters connections by bringing together those who have long felt that the largest movie audience should also have a corresponding amount of input in the making of today's entertainment.

For information on tickets, featured films and time of scheduled events, go to the LALIFF web site at http://www.latinofilm.org

About Petra Davidson:
German-born Petra Davidson currently resides in Northern California. She has written for a number of small print publications in Okinawa, Japan and the US, and currently writes freelance reviews on www.epinions.com

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