By Rick Jervis , USA TODAY
Walking through the meeting halls of the JW Marriott Marquis Miami recently, I ran into a slew of Latino bloggers, Latino tech entrepreneurs and Latino journalists.
Noticeably missing: Latino filmmakers.
I was in Miami participating in Hispanicize, the annual gathering of top Latino bloggers, journalists and media execs, as I’ve done the past two years (I’m Cuban-American, born here in Miami). The conference — billed as the “SXSW for U.S. Hispanics” — is considered one of the largest gatherings of Latinos in the tech and media business.
This year, event organizers launched Hispanicize Pictures, with the goal of producing and showcasing films either featuring Latino actors or made by Latino filmmakers. Manny Ruiz, Hispanicize’s founder and someone I’ve known from our time together on the student newspaper at Miami Dade College two decades ago, said the hope is to boost Latino presence in Hollywood — something fiercely needed.
Despite comprising 17% of the population and buying one-fourth of all movie tickets in the U.S., Latinos represent less than 3% of film directors and 6% of screenwriters, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.
Other minority groups don’t fare much better. A University of Southern California study released last year showed film directors to be overwhelmingly white (87%); black, Latino and other “underrepresented racial/ethnic groups” make up just 13%. Female directors made up 15%, it said.
The dearth of minority filmmakers in Hollywood means a steady lack of films that depict the true stories of those groups — a cycle that perpetuates itself, Ruiz told me. “If Latino filmmakers are not reflected, you create the perception that it’s not possible,” he said. “You’re living in someone else’s world. It’s powerful to have stories you can relate to.”
On the conference’s third night, Hispanicize Pictures unveiled its debut production: Hold On, the tender story of a struggling singer in L.A. who teams up with a fledgling music producer. The film is based on the true-life story of Micayla De Ette, who lost a sister to addiction and persevered with her singing career while living behind a church.
After the screening, the cast and director Tarek Tohme took questions from the audience. Introducing the group, Ruiz pointed out the uniqueness of those gathered on stage: an Arab-American director, a mixed-race leading actress and several Hispanic actors, including Hollywood journeyman Luis Guzmán (Boogie Nights, Carlito’s Way) and his son, actor/producer Cemi Guzmán.
In the audience, members of Black Hollywood, an investor group that backs minority projects, cheered on the cast, while Latino digital influencers spread the film’s praise on social media via smartphones.
“We’re all mixed: My mom is white, my dad is black, Pacific Islander, Native American,” De Ette told me later. “We have an opportunity to show the rest of the world who may not be able to see this type of thing happen.” She added: “You can choose to hate diversity, but it’s such a waste of time. It’s such a beautiful thing. It’s how God created us.”
Cemi Guzmán, who helped produce Hold On, said the project was unique not just for the diversity of its cast but for the financial backers now trying to distribute and promote the film.
“It’s not like people are taking our story, seeing that we’ve made a fantastic movie and running away with it,” he told me. “This group wants to empower so many different cultures and so many different types of people and walks of life. It’s inspiring.”
Hold On is now in the hands of the film distribution gods, a fickle and unpredictable realm where marketable films are often chosen over important ones. It’s yet unclear whether the film will reach wider distribution and find its way into a theater near you.
But, on many levels, it’s already a blockbuster.