Memo from Miami

The Latin film conference brought out the best and the worst about town

Local pols like to boast of Miami as Hollywood East, and for a few days recently there was some truth behind that hype. The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) held its second annual convention at the Eden Roc Resort and Spa in Miami Beach, attended by 330 filmmakers and wannabes. Veteran Hollywood producer Moctesuma Esparza (Selena, Price of Glory) cohosted the event with local filmmaker Frances Negron-Muttaner. While the event itself provided some much-needed nuts-and-bolts advice for Hollywood hopefuls, it also highlighted just how deep the problems in the industry here go, as well as the lack of unity among the Latin filmmaking community nationwide. Here's a look back, with some amusement and some anger.

The four-day event began with expected glitz as black-garbed movie folk networked over cocktails in the Eden Roc's huge central lounge, the recently renovated Lapidus masterpiece. Raquel Welch and Paul Rodriguez ducked in for brief appearances and left in a hurry. But the overall style of the conference was much more personal and personable. Many celebs and execs stayed on for informal meetings with the less-than-famous. Edward James Olmos, an icon to many young Latin filmmakers, passed out brochures for his newest project, Latino Public Broadcasting. Esparza was everywhere, chairing panels, attending others, and chatting with aspiring filmmakers during downtime.

Miami garnered high marks from visiting filmmakers, but the low turnout from the city's film community was the subject of widespread concern among locals. Univision failed to send a single representative. Same with the Cisneros Group and the University of Miami. Total local presence: less than 50.

The first day featured a number of speeches and discussions that tended toward grand statements and fiery rhetoric. Colombian filmmaker/educator Roberto Arevalo called on Latin filmmakers to resist the siren call of Hollywoodization: “We have beautiful stories but we need to be able to tell our stories in our own way.... Do what you believe.” There was, of course, boosterism. Olmos noted that Latin Americans “are the real mirror to the future. Our cultural history is drawn from Asia, from Europe, from Africa, from indigenous America.... We are used to adaptation and transformation, which is what will be needed in the next century. Noninclusive cultures will be at a disadvantage.” Other less-measured speeches featured diatribes against an array of bêtes noir: corporations, Anglos, and the men chief among them. One screenwriter railed against standard Hollywood screenplay structure as being modeled after the male orgasm: rising action, climax, and falling action.

Deep fissures within the Latin filmmaking community were glaring. The conference was conducted almost entirely in English, leaving several Spanish-speaking attendees at a disadvantage. Geography and culture were other dividers. In general the huge West Coast contingent, largely composed of Mexican Americans, seemed much more politicized and left wing than the many New Yorkers and the few Floridians in attendance. While the West Coasters criticized the Hollywood system, the East Coasters were trying to figure out how to get into it. The South Americans attending were largely ignored and the potential for direct links between U.S. Latins and Latin America was not discussed in any depth.

Olmos's appearance was something of an event in itself. His career, from Zoot Suit through Mi Familia, Stand and Deliver, and Selena, is a virtual chronicle of Latino film history. And many in Miami still credit Miami Vice, yet another Olmos vehicle, for jump-starting the city's rebirth as a fashion/style/entertainment center.

Some news also could be gleaned from all the gab. Guest panelist Warrington Hudlin (House Party) talked about his latest Internet project targeting black audiences. Scott Montoya, Paul Rodriguez's manager, was happy to announce the comedian's new CBS sitcom deal. New Telemundo hotshot Lucia Cottone and her counterpart at Discovery Networks Latin America, Luis Perez Tolon, outlined plans for expanded original programming; and Esparza's partner, Robert Katz, mulled over the prospect of setting up a Miami office for their production company.

Keynote speaker Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff, an executive from the Lifetime network, should have received the Why Are You Here and Who Booked You? award for delivering a self-congratulatory speech touting some of her programs, none of which relate in the slightest to Latin audiences, Latin themes, or Latin filmmakers. In the follow-up Q&A, Tarnofsky-Ostroff was asked if Lifetime had any Latino shows in development. Answer: “Several of our shows have Latin characters in them.” Question number two: Do you have any Latin executives? Answer: “I can't recall the ratio, but there are Hispanics working at Lifetime.” And they'll park your car real good, too?

The main attraction to NALIP wasn't the talk, though, but the crash courses on show-biz information. Panels on how to line up representation, how to apply for grants, look for financing, and reach audiences were well organized and well attended. Many filmmakers managed to pitch their projects to agents and studio execs, and more than one deal was struck. The overall focus of most attendees was decidedly commercial, and most panels focused on show business and entertainment-industry issues.

To be sure NALIP faces a number of problems: the Spanish/English language divide, the cultural diversity within the Latin community, and the lack of exchange between Hispanic-American filmmakers and their counterparts in Mexico and South America. But the biggest problem facing Latin filmmakers in Miami is Miami itself. The weak local showing at the NALIP national convention raised concerns about the prospects for a strong entertainment industry here. But what prospects? In this writer's opinion, there aren't any. At least until this community rethinks its strategy.

One hears a good deal of talk from local officials about the growth of local entertainment, of the strength of Univision, Telemundo, the Cisneros Group, but this talk is mostly hot air. Empty hype from government spin-doctors won't generate jobs, just expectations. The main problem with Miami's approach to the film business is that many people here don't understand it. The talk at the conference, for example, referred to production and community image issues. But the real business of film is finance and distribution. The entertainment industry is what it says it is: an industry. It's not a charity, it's not a public service. It exists as a means to make money -- a lot of it -- and in ways that can help minimize risk. They don't call it “show art.”

So instead of whining about the lack of local turnout at conferences or blowing smoke about Miami's flashy scene, local leaders -- in media, government, finance, and education -- need to sit down and figure out a practical strategy to spark the entertainment industry in Miami. The movie business and the jobs it brings aren't going to happen without concrete and concerted action.

Some specific suggestions? The county could hire a top consultant to coach local lending institutions about film finance basics. It appears that only one area bank has an entertainment department, while another is interested in investigating the field. With the flood of off-shore money washing into Miami, there may be several banks ready to move into entertainment finance. Sure it's risky and sure it's unusual, but Bank of America, for one, has a long history of making money in the field, and it's doing just fine, thank you. If local lenders begin financing film projects, film companies will set up shop here. If the Spanish broadcasters (Telemundo, et al.) expand their original programming, there will be markets for suppliers, and they too will open operations in Miami.

Local government needs to offer serious tax breaks and low-cost or no-cost facilities to individual filmmakers and to production companies. Permits and fees should be waived or kept at a nominal level to encourage both local production and lure studio-level, big-budget projects. If Miami-Dade doesn't do this, the work will continue to go to the cities that do.

The local film industry (the crews, the film labs, the caterers, et cetera) need to rethink their attitude toward independent, no-budget film projects. These start-up productions need to be supported, not exploited. It's much easier to find competent pick-up crews in Los Angeles than in Miami. When it's so hard to find crews here for a director's first feature, why would he or she stick around to make a second, even with more money?

Finally Miami needs to figure out what it can offer that is unique. Forget about Hollywood East. Even if it were possible to replicate Hollywood (which it isn't), what's the point of this thinking? So the physical Hollywood, meaning Southern California, is no longer a great place to shoot films: It's crowded, it's expensive, its unions are entrenched. But Hollywood is Hollywood because it's an efficient place to do business. The banks are there. The dealmakers are there. The networking, the infrastructure, the web of relationships are there, and will remain so until the big one levels the place. Miami's problems are exactly like that of a screenplay: First, you need a strong, sellable concept, you need to finance it, and then you need to execute that concept well. What should Miami's concept as a film center be? Based on fashion, Latin culture, tropical drinks? Call when you know.

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