Franc. Reyes: Empire Builder, Filmmaker, Visionary

I don't make Latino stories. I simply make stories with Latinos in them.

By Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: February 6, 2010

Franc. Reyes: Empire Builder, Filmmaker, Visionary

Franc. Reyes is the writer/director of several motion pictures including The Ministers, Illegal Tender, and Empire.

A Puerto Rican born in Spanish Harlem and raised in the South Bronx, Reyes started his career traveling the world as a dancer/choreographer. By the early 1990's, after becoming an accomplished songwriter, Franc had written three Billboard Magazine top-forty songs for artists on the Columbia and Atlantic/Atco Record Labels.

Soon after signing a music publishing deal with E.M.I. Publishing in 1996, and after reading and soaking in the books and works of the greats (i.e.: Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola), Franc raised the money and wrote, then directed his first short film In The Deep South, a concept currently being developed for television.

In 1998 Franc wrote the script for what would become his first feature film. Empire Music was a big part of Franc's life so he co-wrote four songs for the films Motown Records soundtrack. This included the title track "Welcome To My Empire" sung by Latin superstar La India.

After convincing legendary music producer Emilio Estefan Jr. to produce two of his songs and singer Jon Secada to sing one of them, he was able to get Ruben Blades, actor and music legend, to score his film. Shot independently in New York in 2000, Empire went on to become the highest grossing film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 leading to Franc signing a deal with Universal Pictures in 2003.

Reyes' first film, Empire, took in a domestic gross more than four times its production costs. Empire's success made it clear that youthful American Latino audiences are more than interested. A few studios began developing American Latino projects. One project, not written by an American-born Latino, was one the first of these films to shoot, with a production and advertising budget three times that of Empire's. The box office performance was so poor that similar projects were soon shelved. Because of this, and despite the profitability of Empire, Reyes was not able to make his next film, Illegal Tender, for five more years.

Franc said, "I recently approached studios about a new horror film. The response I received was that they loved the script but I needed stars to get the film financed. Yet, when I researched the horror genre, there were no major stars in any of the highest grossing or most financially lucrative horror films in the last several years. Why this requirement for my film? I re-read my script. There was the answer: the lead character and the majority of the cast were to be American Latinos. Had I written the lead in the film to be Anglo, would they have asked for a star in that role? Hollywood has been around for a hundred years, yet there are very few persons of color in executive positions at the major studios who can 'green light' a film. There still isn't anyone to whom I can pitch a project who looks like me, relates to me, or fully understands the American Latino experience.

"People have said that Obama is president because the country wants change. I say that Obama is president because the country has already changed. In part, filmmakers like Spike Lee and Will Smith have been catalysts for this change. It's time for Hollywood to be the change agent again. Great films can be written by, directed by, and star American Latinos".

"These opportunities in Hollywood can now exist for us too. With the Latino community growing faster than the U.S. Census can measure, Hollywood and independent investors need look no further for the next financial sweet spot. The American Latino film community is primed for success on every level -- creative, social and financial."

LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor Al Carlos Hernandez talked to Franc about his lyrical trip into filmmaking and beyond:

AC: What type of a family did you come from? What did you have to overcome in order to become an artist? Who was your greatest supporter? Who stood in your way?

FR: Lots of questions AC; First off, to answer the first question, my family was like most families growing up in the South Bronx in that period: loving, creative and dysfunctional. I'm not sure anyone "becomes" an artist. You either have something to express or you don't. And when you do express something in what you believe is in a creative way, who is to say whether it's art or not? To have the ability to express oneself is a gift. Whether it's art or not is something you leave to others. Next question: my greatest supporters, I have to say, are my brothers and sisters, who, in turn, are also my greatest critics. Last question of the bunch: when I look back to those days I have to say that no one did a more thorough job of getting in my way than myself.

AC: How much of the hip hop culture is colored by Latino influence? What have you brought to the urban cultural table through your work in dance, music, and film?

FR: That's a tough question because when you look at Hip Hop culture today you wouldn't think any of it is colored by "Latinoness." We were there in the beginning, whether it was the music of Charlie Chase (Cold Crush), the dancing of The Rock Steady Crew, Rapper Fat Joe and the platinum voice of Big Pun (RIP). Our contribution to Hip Hop is undeniable. What I find promising is the work of Latino Hip Hop artists such as Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Winsin and Yandel, Don Omar and others. Call it dance music, Reggaeton, whatever, these artists are the children of Hip Hop and in that way Latinos will always be a fixture in Hip Hop culture.

When you ask about my work as a songwriter in dance music, we have to talk about one of the greatest producers in freestyle music, Carlos "After Dark" Berrios, who is now a promising filmmaker. It was his music and my lyrics and melodies that created those wonderful productions for Lisette Melendez and others, along with the godfather of the New School Freestyle sound, Frankie Cutlass. It was an important time for Latin pop music and gave birth to wonderful artists like Marc Anthony and La India. My company, Alumbra Films, is in preparation for a documentary on that era and its music.

As far as my films go, music plays a significant role when it comes to the music I pick along with the artists I choose to work with. In Empire, I wrote most of the songs on that film with my songwriting partner, guitarist Tony Aliperti. They were performed by artists I both admire and respect. Artists like La India, Jon Secada, Luis Fonsi and Angel Lopez. The score was written and produced by one of my favorite artists of all time, Ruben Blades.

On Illegal Tender I didn't get to work on much music because of the timeline and the fact that I'd begun the preproduction on The Ministers during post. John Singleton, who produced the film for me, did a wonderful job presenting me with great music to choose from. Composer/Artist Heitor Perriera did a fantastic job with the score.

I only got to write one song on The Ministers, a song entitled "Tender To Me" sung by an "artist-to-look-out-for" by the name of Grizel Del Valle from New Jersey. She is a gifted singer/dancer who was the right voice for the song. There was an eclectic mix of music on The Ministers. The score was by composer and music supervisor George Acogny. I also selected music by a female Puerto Rican recording artist, Valeria. I used three of her songs in the film. Simply the best female rapper I've ever heard.

AC: Do you think gangster films and gangster music contribute to the glorification of drug abuse and violence? (Gotti and the Gambinos used to all sit around and watch the Godfather films)

FR: ANYTHING on a large screen is glorified. Having said that, I don't know if gangster movies have caused as much damage to the human psyche as romantic comedies have.

AC: How do you decide what story to tell? What motivates you? What turns you off about the film business?

I write everything I direct. There is a lot I want to say. I don't need much motivation. But sometimes my desire to start on a story can be triggered by a great conversation or a good argument/debate. What turns me off about the business is what turns me off in some people in general: indifference, passionless thought and ideas.

AC: How has your life changed now that you have fame and some fortune? It is harder to write a song when you are well loved and well fed, so does success cause you to lose your edge?

FR: Most make the mistake of assuming that I've made films with 'Studio Money." I find that very funny. Every film I've made was made with independent money. Later the films were sold to distributors for release. I say this in order to say that I'm an independent filmmaker so there is very little fame and fortune. Trust me; the edge is still very much there.

AC: Who have been your role models? Who are some of the people who gave you your first big breaks?

FR: Growing up the way I did there were very few role models, so I would say they were more inspirations than role models, per say. My sisters and brothers aside, the works of choreographer/filmmaker Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines (as a person and artist), directors Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, the music of The Beatles, and the countless hours I spent in front of the television as a child.

As far as my big break, they say that success comes when talent meets opportunity. Talent is a never ending journey. Opportunity in this business is like the Lotto and there are a lot of us playing. The "big breaks" are still to come.

AC: Very few people can go from dancing to songwriting to film producing. What makes you so talented and fearless when it comes to expressing yourself?

FR: Failure isn't something I concern myself with too much because it's easier to deal with than success. Success is much more difficult. The unknown factors that come into play when one has achieved something are immeasurable. So fear would come into play if I were afraid of the unknown. The unknown excites me, it does not scare me.

AC: Which has been your most rewarding film? What stories are still needed to be told and who should be telling them?

FR: Anytime you make a movie the rewards are endless. The most rewarding film is always the one you're making at the moment because it's almost an impossible journey to get there in the first place. So getting on a set and putting people to work on your idea is reward one. Someone once asked me if I were going to run out of "Latino stories" to tell. I told him that I don't make Latino stories. I simply make stories with Latinos in them. There will always be unique human drama to talk about. This is providing you live your life in your own unique way and recognize the uniqueness in others. Some of the best storytellers are objective observers of life. I hope to get better at it.

The ones that should be telling the stories are the ones that are compelled to tell them. This is too difficult a business to do as a hobby.

AC: How do the Hollywood suits feel about what you do? How hard is it to get funding for your projects?

FR: Like I said before, "Hollywood" has never funded anything I've done. So how the suits feel about my work is irrelevant. Finding funding for your movies is an art form in and of itself. Someone recently posted on my Facebook page that no one wants to finance Latino films and the economy being so bad doesn't help. I said that the economy isn't as bad as it is because there is no money. The economy is the way it is because the rich got richer. In my experience most of these people no longer want to risk their money on Wall Street or banks. So the time to get them to invest in intellectual property is now. The tax benefits and details are too complicated to get into here.

AC: How is the West Coast different from the East Coast regarding urban culture and tastes?

FR: They are both very rich and diverse urban cultures. The Latino culture in the East Coast (New York) is rooted in its own history of Salsa music, Black music, and the rich stories that come from their own ghettos. With Manhattan as its backdrop, some of the most complex and exciting artists continue to thrive there.

The Latino culture in the West Coast (Los Angeles), though diverse with many different Latino cultures, is dominated by the Mexican culture, one of the most beautiful cultures in the world. Having Hollywood as their backdrop, has inspired some wonderful stories and artists.

AC: Who is your audience? How have they changed over the years?

FR: My audience will always be the guy/girl who wants to eat popcorn and go on a unique trip for an hour and a half. That audience will never change.

AC: What are you working on right now? Who would you like to work with? Favorite, writer, actor, director?

FR: Right now I'm getting ready to shoot a supernatural horror film entitled Tenement. I have too many favorite people I'd want to work with. There are too many to mention here. And anyway, I don't want to put pressure on themJ.

AC: What are some of the projects you have on the drawing board, things you have a passion about getting made?

FR: Like I said, I'm producing a documentary about Freestyle music of the 1980's. I am also working on a television series with one of the producers of HBO's Rome.

AC: Given your background, have you ever considered doing a musical? Will you ever go back to songwriting?

FR: The screenplay I'm writing right now is my first screenplay about dance and music. I'm really excited about it. I will also write the theme song for my next feature as well.

AC: Biggest regret?

FR: Not being more open minded about my work in the past.

AC: Biggest success?

FR: Still figuring that out.

AC: What would you like your legacy to be?

FR: Fifty years from now, when a young Latin looks into the history of American Latinos in movies, one my films are on the top of that list.

Follow Franc. Reyes on Facebook and Franc_Reyes on Twitter

About Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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