L.A. Outfest: Bridging the Hollywood Gap for Latino Filmmakers

When I first attended L.A.’s LGBT Outfest 20 years ago, I discovered that Latino filmmakers were hard pressed to get festival programmers to screen their films. Their work was relegated to one night of short films in the smaller theatre at the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) in Hollywood. Granted, Latin directors back then primarily made short experimental films as opposed to the more popular feature length narratives but that was because many of those directors lacked the financial resources and industry connections to make full-length movies.

Fast forward 20 years and affordable technology has significantly increased the number of indie feature films made by Latino directors. However, documentarian filmmaker Dante Alencastre, noted an obvious truth: there is still a lack of Latino visibility in the mainstream. “The reason why there are so few Latinos in front of the camera is because we’re not behind it,” said Alencastre. The director stressed that a bridge between Latino filmmakers and the entertainment industry has to be created if stories about our cultural experiences and sexuality are to ever make it to the big screening room.

Outfest is now at the forefront of bridging that link between gay Latino filmmakers and Hollywood insiders with its industry seminars, lectures and yearlong mentoring and educational programs. Outfest Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer explained that the festival isn’t just a celluloid love fest. Their organization has grown into a mentoring and advocacy group. To that end, “our programs and lectures are part of the festival’s mission to promote equality by working with emerging filmmakers to help them hone their craft and make the best films possible,” said Schaffer.

For ten days this past July, Outfest screened 155 LGBT motion pictures from 28 countries, including feature films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico and Spain. Outfest has made it a priority to put Latino filmmakers on its cinematic gaydar by opening the festival with Kyle Alvarez’s film C.O.G.

The 29-year-old Cuban American admitted that having his film screened at the Orpheum movie palace in downtown L.A. was a little surreal and a bit overwhelming, “but it was overwhelming in the best way possible,” said Alvarez. The University of Miami graduate couldn’t stress enough what opening up this year’s Outfest meant for his career. “To have a screening in L.A. with that kind of press and industry exposure can’t be replicated at any other festival.”

Alencastre, hadn’t even finished cutting his documentary on L.A.’s legendary transgender Bambi Salcedo when Outfest programmers got word that the Peruvian-born filmmaker was in post production. Programmers reviewed the “rough cut” and liked what they saw, scheduling Transvisible: The Bambi Salcedo Story in this year’s program.

It’s clear that Outfest is consciously working towards bridging the gap between Latino filmmakers and Hollywood insiders, but is it working? One of those Hollywood insiders who attended the festival’s Producers Expo as a guest speaker was Page Ostrow, President of Ostrow and Company. Ostrow has negotiated deals between gay filmmakers and such networks as Logo. “One of the most difficult aspects about filmmaking is getting a distribution deal,” said Ostrow. “It’s disheartening to see directors put their hearts and souls into making a film and then be unable to get their work distributed.” Ostrow mostly represents social conscious documentaries.

That’s why she has outreach teams attending gay film festivals across the country looking for documentaries like What’s the T? an exposé on transgenders by Cecilio Asuncion. “Being represented by a leading company in Hollywood brings a great sense of fulfillment as a new filmmaker,” said Asuncion. “Not only does it legitimize my own career but it allows the possibility of having mainstream audiences see the ladies of What’s the T?”

“Outfest also has a program called “Industry Link” in which every filmmaker in the festival can request an informational meeting with a producer, lawyer or agent,” said Schaffer. One of those who took Outfest up on its “Industry Link” offer was filmmaker Anna Albelo. Her award-winning comedy Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf? was an Outfest favorite. Albelo was ecstatic over Outfest slating her film as the main feature for the “All Girl-Friday” portion of the festival. “I’ve gone from living in a friend’s garage to a Hollywood screening to taking a meeting with an agent at ICM,” said Albelo. “It’s been a dream come true.”

To foster future generations of filmmakers, Outfest has initiated its mentoring program Outset, The Young Filmmakers Project, led by industry professionals. “We started this three month filmmaking lab to empower and educate LGBT youth (16-24) on how to tell their stories through film,” said Schaffer. Five short films from 15 of the participants screened at Outfest. According to Schaffer a number of those students have found work in the industry and/or continue filmmaking as a career.

One of Outfest’s most constructive mentoring programs is the Screenwriting Lab which sired three films at this year’s festival. Several years ago, filmmaker Yen Tan was selected to workshop his poignant script about a Mexican American blue collar worker (Marcus Deanda) and a divorced contractor. During his three day session with industry experts, Tan was able to improve his screenplay Pit Stop, and network with the right people to get his script produced. Pit Stop is as butch as a Texas gay love story can get and Deanda rightfully won Outfest’s Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Actor in a Feature Film.

Additional feature films that snagged up awards this year included Diego Ruiz’ Igloo (Chile), Marcal Forés’ Animals (Spain) and Bruno Barreto’s Reaching for the Moon (Brazil). In the past two decades, Latino directors have flourished significantly in the art of filmmaking which has allowed them to compete for these prestigious festival awards. Through its mentoring programs and serving as a liaison to the industry, Outfest has helped made it possible for Latino directors to also screen their films in the DGA’s big theatre.

By Joseph Castel