What a difference a year makes! On June 3-6, 1999, nearly 300 Latino producers and supporting individuals and institutions met in San Francisco, California. It was the first time Latino producers had come together as a national group since the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s. As such, it was the first time that most of the Latino producers in attendance had met face-to-face with their counterparts from around the country. That fact alone made the conference a success insofar as it laid the foundation for a national trade association, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP: www.nalip.org). It also stimulated a number of bi-coastal collaborations as well as an active listserv for the younger producers just entering the field.
But the immediate crisis motivating that conference had to do with the fact that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) had withheld Latino production monies for almost two years as part of a dispute with the National Latino Communications Center (NLCC). While there was strong disagreement among Latinos about the NLCC itself, the producers were united in struggling against a profound “disconnect” between CPB and a diverse and growing field of Latino producers. If CPB would not engage in a dialogue with the producers, then, the producers would get together and talk to each other. While the conference remained very much a professional intervention organized by the Latino producers, they quickly established an open-door policy that reached out to all related Latino and non-Latino groups. That included NLCC. But it also included other groups that wanted to take its position, for example, the Latino Public Broadcasting Project (created by CPB in collaboration with Edward James Olmos) and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. These groups agreed to invest time and money into the effort and to use the conference as a way to solicit input from the producer community. From the start, the National Council of La Raza provided crucial support and guidance. The producers insisted on an open-door policy, because they felt that backroom politics would no longer work: Latinos needed many media institutions, not just one; and they needed an open and transparent relationship with CPB, not bureaucratic paternalism.
In many respects, this process put the crisis with CPB into a much broader context, explaining why so much was at stake for independent producers. Quite simply, since the 1980s, these producers have had few other places to turn in their efforts to make public interest and educational programs for a national audience. Despite the well-documented growth of the Latino community as a political and market force within the United States, Latinos have entered the 21st century with a lower level of media access and representation than when protests first raised the issue in the 1960s. As the Hollywood Reporter recently noted, “Hispanics have historically been the most underrepresented of all the minority groups in film and TV, and there is no sign that their numbers are increasing.” In fact, guild figures released in late 1999 show significant declines from the previous year: from 4.0% to 3.5% for actors, and from 3.1% to 2.3% for directors. Latino writers for prime time television make up just 1.3% of positions.
But that’s not the real bad news. While these numbers have remained almost constant for the last three decades, the Latino community itself has grown from 4.5% of the national population in 1970 to 11.5% in 2000. In other words, there are roughly two and half times more Latinos getting the same small percentage of the jobs. Think about it! Employment opportunity for Latino producers as a group has significantly declined to nearly one-third the level in the 1970s. Consider also that in Los Angeles, where the commercial film and television industry is located, Latinos make up around 45 percent of the population.
The fact that CPB monies had been withheld from Latino producers exacerbated a more profound situation in which these producers had few other access points for media funding and distribution. For that reason, the conference was re-conceptualized from a town hall on CPB and NLCC into a broader event that would combine the town hall with both professional advocacy and project development. The conference included panels on documentary, feature, and new media production; but it also included panels on the Latino market, audience development, advocacy and public policy, and SAG contracts. Finally, the conference provided a forum to meet with both non-profit funders and commercial buyers.
This broader perspective became the charge for the new group created at the conference. In the past year, NALIP has established working relationships with two major independent film markets — Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM) and International Film Financing Conference (IFFCON) — and two major independent membership groups — Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) and the Film Arts Foundation (FAF). And the planning for a second conference is already underway! Clearly NALIP has a long way to go in terms of addressing the structural and situational impediments facing Latino independent producers, but it has hit the ground running.
Thus, if 1999 signalled an all-time low for minority representation on either side of the camera — best exemplified by the all-white casts for the twenty-six new primetime series scheduled for Fall 1999 — it also witnessed the first Latino national advocacy and policy efforts since the early 1970s. Other groups have joined the struggle alongside NALIP. The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute had already entered the fray in 1998 with a groundbreaking study of television. Throughout 1999, it conducted the first in-depth study of the Latino members of the Screen Actors Guild. In the months after the conference, the National Hispanic Media Coalition joined with numerous Latino civil rights groups to stage a “Brown Out” of the networks. By Spring 2000 — now collaborating with African American, Asian American, and Native American groups — the coalition had helped work out comprehensive agreements with several television networks.
The need for a producers’ group such a NALIP, however, is a profound one. Latino producers — as a professional group with defining characteristics and accomplishments — have almost no visibility within the press, the industry, and even the media advocacy groups fighting on their behalf. They are simply not part of the debate; and, hence, they are never identified as part of the solution. But these are precisely the people who will make the Latino images that are currently missing from our film and television culture.
Who are these producers and how did they become invisible in the debate over media representation?
Most Latino producers work in the area of “public interest” media, a term that has been used to refer to documentary, public affairs series, news programming, and socially-relevant drama (shorts and features). Under the 1934 Communications Act, such programs satisfied the “public interest” standard applied to network television. In the 1960s, the “public interest” standard ushered in the Golden Age of the network documentary; in the 1970s, largely in response to a variety of social movements, it resulted in the heyday of local public affairs series. These series — which appeared on network, independent, and public television — provided the crucial training ground for a generation of women and minority independent filmmakers, including several who would later work in feature films. Since the 1980s, however, as a consequence of deregulation, public interest programming has become associated with public television alone. In other words, Latino independent producers became disconnected from commercial media at precisely that moment when it exploded.
Today, Latino producers operate in a fundamentally different media env
ironment than was the case during the heyday of public interest funding and programming in the 1960s and 1970s. Since the early 1980s, media convergence and deregulation have blurred the traditional boundaries between public and commercial media. In June 1999, for example, PBS replaced American Playhouse with an anthology series for Hollywood talent to direct “the movies they always dreamed of” for public television. American Playhouse had been a major cornerstone of independent feature production in the 1980s and early 1990s. In short,the dreams of celebrities trump the needs of minority groups.
In many respects, there are many more opportunities than the 1970s, since film and television have been joined with cable, satellite, video, and digital media. Quite literally, there is about three times more work available! But while the playing field has both diversified and expanded, Latino producers find themselves excluded as much if not more than as in earlier decades. Latino producers find increasingly limited support through public television and non-profit or federal funding sources, even as these became their primary outlets. Meanwhile, because of deregulation and conglomeration, these mostly independent producers remain outside the professional culture for cable, video and new media operations that provide new outlets for social documentary and narrative.
We are in the midst of a digital revolution that has vastly expanded media outlets and the need for content, yet severely limited the number of access points to a handful of global media conglomerates. In the face of these changes, and the continued exclusion of Latinos, there is a need for many solutions, not one. There are currently seven active Latino media groups that take different approaches to this issue:
1. Cine Acción, founded in 1980, is a Latino media center based in San Francisco. In addition to its annual film festival and monthly film presentations, it provides such membership services as a newsletter, an information clearinghouse, publicity consultation, and fundraising and production support.
2. The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), founded in 1987, is a media reform group that has filed nearly 100 petitions before the FCC in order to bring television and radio stations into compliance with the EEO rule. Since the 1996 Telecommunication Act, NHMC has shifted strategy from FCC regulation per se and toward the political representation system. In Fall 1999, it coordinated the Latino “Brown Out” boycott of network television, which represented the first such coordinated effort among Latino civil rights groups. Working with the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and other minority groups, NHMC is involved in defining the viable advocacy strategies in the current regulatory and political arena.
3. The National Latino Communications Center (NLCC), founded in 1974, syndicated Latino-themed programming within public television. In 1998, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) defunded its production grants program. The NLCC continues to operate a video distribution program and a significant film and television archive.
4. The Latino Public Broadcasting Project (LPBP), founded in 1998 and headed by actor Edward James Olmos, was created by CPB as an interim organization to replace the NLCC and disburse long-delayed production funds for Latino-themed projects. In 1999, CPB contracted the LPBP to continue as the official Latino consortium for public television.
5. The Latino Entertainment Media Institute (LEMI), founded in 1995, advocates on behalf of Latino producers, writers and directors attempting to work within Hollywood. In addition to its trade publication Latin Heat, which provides in-depth information on commercial projects, LEMI hosts an annual entertainment industry conference.
6. The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, founded in 1997 by actors Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga, and Esai Morales, offers graduate scholarships to Latino university students entering the five leading “pipeline” programs for film and the performing arts: Columbia University, New York University, University of Southern California, University of California at Los Angeles, and Yale University.
7. The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP), founded in 1999, represents 250 Latino independent producers around the nation. In addition to an annual networking and trade conference, NALIP stages regional workshops and has developed working alliances with the major independent organizations and film markets. The NALIP conference in June 1999 represented the first such gathering of Latino producers in almost three decades, and brought together both non-profit funders and commercial media buyers.
These groups are either service- or advocacy-oriented. In one way or another each of the first six groups were involved in the steps leading up to the creation of NALIP. The common situation facing these groups is that Latino producers have been isolated from each other throughout the 1980s and 1990s and have thereby lost their potential power as an organized professional force. NALIP became an effort to change that situation.