Four Tips to Crack the American Latino Market in Hollywood

As a millennial American Latino I grew up in a whirlpool of ideas that have radically influenced who I am and how I perceive my surroundings. Like me there are millions. Yet we feel rare, underrepresented, misrepresented, like hazy reflections or even worse, like vampire reflections (as Junot Diaz puts it). Not there at all!

There is this collective sense of shame I have identified time and again amongst my Latino compadres.  The shame I’m talking about is subtle but lethal like a ninja fart: the Hollywood myth. The subservient landscape worker. The hyper-sexualized chonga. The stoner homie. The brainless thug. The exotic Othello. The evil gangster. The incompetent leader . . . Ah! I start to hear the bongos of my ancestors. Los del maíz. My jungle savages. Yes. I start to feel the color of my skin . . .

This phenomenon is at its worse whenever I travel. Many times when I establish contact with foreigners all they know about me is the resounding name of Pablo Escobar—because I was born in Colombia. Folks joke about it. But it’s difficult to make them understand it ain’t funny, actually. I have to try extra hard every time to prove I’m not the reputation of my country. Familiar with this feeling?

Regardless of this phenomenon, talks, data, and trends of the emerging American Latino demographic point at one thing that’s for sure: we have become a relevant “consumer force.” Yet why isn’t the media catering to what we want to watch and the way we want to be perceived? As a Latino USC MFA alumni, Film Independent Fellow, and head of creative development at Scratch & Sniff Pictures, I have come up with four ideas that serve as a guideline for those of bicultural descent whom are inspired to construct masterly told Hollywood narratives about underrepresented people.

1.    KNOW THE CRAFT AND ACHIEVE INSPIRATION

In preparation for writing a screenplay you must be familiar with the language of cinematic film. Start by reading screenplays of your favorite movies. Let the masters’ ideas seep into your pores. Your goal is to create something as beautiful and impacting as the thing they’ve made.

For this, you will have to be rigorous and demanding with yourself and those who choose to collaborate with you. Read books and screenplays. Attend talks. Form a writer’s group. In short, BE A WRITER ACTIVELY. Find like-minded collaborators. Watch films. Dissect scenes. Find out why is that scene interesting to you? What function does it serve for the rest of the story? Notice what makes you feel suspense in movies. What evokes laughter in you? What evokes anger? Sadness?  This is the beginning of your idea. So make sure to nurture it with top-of-the-shelf inspiration! 

2.    CHARACTERS SHOULD BE AS SMART, COMPLEX, AND SPECIFIC AS YOU ARE

I was one of a handful of non-white candidates in my M.F.A. class. What I learned at USC was that my instructors and classmates were most interested in my work whenever I explored situations that had to do with my family, close friends, and relatives. Over and over I got remarks from people saying how they had never encountered characters in the media quite like the ones I was creating.

I was only writing about what I knew using cinematic tools that I had been learning there. I was having fun with my voice, always trying to amuse myself first. I was truthful about how complex my people really are. I invented character as smart, sophisticated, funny, brave, non-victimized, and flawed as the true heroes in my life.

That’s your real challenge. Hollywood is interested in innovation—your way to innovate is by constructing amazing stories with universal human themes about people whom are rarely portrayed in the media—using modern cinematic language that all audiences can and will be able to understand.  

3.    BE AS IRRESISTIBLE AS A CRÈME BRULEE

As a filmmaker your goal is to entertain an audience and move their emotions. Many of us have fallen into the trap of wanting to change the world by showing a glimpse of “reality.” Unfortunately it is often true that reality doesn’t make for great drama.

As a fiction filmmaker one must understand that the important messages that one feels like communicating will only be transmitted successfully if that message is delivered in a way that provides entertainment value. This means that you have to create a spectacle first, so well timed and so well constructed that your audience will have no choice but to be mesmerized by it. Think about those movies that held you in awe and attempt to do something similar with characters that come from your own life. Imagine if instead of Sandra Bullock on Gravity, Your tía Chavela (who makes a mean tamal) was the one servicing the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. Okay that’s one idea that you can take or leave if you liked Gravity, but you get my gist. Give awesome roles to your non-white leads.

4.    ENGAGE WITH YOUR COMMUNITY

You will be surprised at how many minorities are in on the struggle for fair representation. So tap into that vein. Your people want to help you make your film. You are the vessel with the message they want.

You need to be heard. Why, though?

Tell your community the value of what you are trying to achieve. Let the people that surround you know that your work carries with it their shared hopes and fears. Let them know that you are the person who will represent them in the eyes of popular culture.

You are the one responsible for doing the legwork to improve how we are perceived in the eyes of America and the rest of the world. You are creating our community’s heroes for today and for the future. So be prepared to deliver should you be given the opportunity to shine!

–Erick Castrillon  - USC M.F.A. graduate in Writing for the Screen & Television, Film Independent Project Involve Fellow, Head of Creative Development at Scratch & Sniff Pictures.

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