The number of women and people of color nominated for Academy Awards this year may have quieted the #OscarsSoWhite furor, but one group is nonetheless calling attention to the lack of Latino diversity in the movie business ahead of the Oscars ceremony.
The glaring absence of Latino nominees in any of the acting categories this year is a reflection of an industry that has failed to offer more meaningful roles for Latinos, some say, a striking fact given that Los Angeles is almost nearly half Latino. According to one in-depth study, Latinos represented just 3% of speaking roles in the top 100 films of 2016, USC researchers found.
But Latino activists are focusing their energy on diversifying the ranks of executives at the major studios, arguing that in a hierarchical industry like Hollywood, the biggest opportunity for change will come from the top.
The major studios largely declined to provide figures for the rate of executives who are Latino, making it difficult to get a comprehensive count across the six major studios. Disney, Warner Bros., Universal and Fox did not respond to requests for the number of Latinos are in prominent executive roles. Sony has a number of Latinos across its divisions in senior roles, including Alex Almogabar Zahn, a VP at Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, who is focusing on developing a slate of films with Latinx themes. (Latinx is the gender-neutral form of Latino increasingly used by academics, activists and bloggers). A Sony spokeswoman says there are a half dozen such projects in active development.
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A Paramount spokesman said the studio is home to Latinx leaders in executive roles ranging from VP to president level, in departments including animation, distribution, international, finance, business affairs and legal.
Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), is leading the charge to pressure studios to work with Latino activists to improve representation of Latinos in the industry. For the first time in the Pasadena-based advocacy group’s 32-year history, it is focusing on the movie business. Past efforts have had success in local television news and with major broadcasters, but this is a new arena, Nogales said.
“Film was one of those places where we had no luck with even meeting with (studio executives),” he said in a recent interview. “We’re going to start naming them so we all know who the executives are at the six top studios and saying to them, you are the cause for Latinos not even getting the jobs. It’s your responsibility.”
The NHMC on Saturday will hold a demonstration just two blocks away from the Dolby Theater in Hollywood where the 90th Academy Awards will take place Sunday. It’s their second protest of the awards season, expected to attract at least 100 participants following a smaller demonstration held outside of the Oscars nominees luncheon last month.
The protests represent the most visible work being done to improve job opportunities for Latinos. But, behind the scenes, a number of initiatives have helped direct a small, but growing pipeline of Latinos into a career in entertainment.
Late last month, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, producer Dan Lin and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a public-private partnership called the Evolve Entertainment Fund, which is intended to create paid internship opportunities for Los Angeles students. Organizations participating include DreamWorks Animation, Ryan Murphy Television and CAA. The fund has already secured 150 internships, with the goal of growing to 250 by the end of the year and 500 placements by 2020.
In an interview with Variety, Garcetti elaborated on the reasons why the city has become involved in the effort.
“I’m the mayor of L.A., but I guess you can say I’m also the mayor of Hollywood,” Garcetti said. “I feel a real responsibility as somebody who loves this town, who comes from a multicultural background, who grew up with a couple of toes in the industry myself.
“Government thinks it should stay out of these sorts of things too often because they don’t understand it, or Hollywood is its own beast,” he said. “But I know Hollywood, I love Hollywood and I want it to be better. I want it to be more reflective and I realized we can play a really strong role with the bully pulpit of City Hall.”
Garcetti, the second-term mayor who has a number of acting credits, some playing himself, reflected on the possible reasons why Latinos have not fared better in Hollywood.
“As a Latino mayor, it’s very striking to me that about 3% of speaking characters in film in the last decade were Latino,” he said, adding that it may be that some decision-makers and voters may only see Latinos in L.A. as interesting when they’re here from abroad or not at all, walking past the many working-class Latinos who serve as car valets, maids, landscapers and kitchen staff. “For American Latinos, (Hollywood) is a very closed game.”
Christy Haubegger, a CAA agent and founder of Latina magazine, said there are a number of systemic barriers that affect the entire pipeline of emerging Hollywood business leaders. “Most people hired come through with some kind of referral,” Haubegger said. “The referral is through a largely closed system which is difficult to penetrate if you don’t know anyone.”
Haubegger, who heads CAA’s multicultural business development, has colleagues who recruit diverse candidates at historically black colleges and others for the agency, but they have found it challenging to pitch these students on a career in the entertainment industry. It’s a tough sell, she said. Talented minority students can fetch offers with higher starting salaries and benefits in other fields that are under the same pressure to increase diversity. A career in the entertainment business often starts with a job as an assistant or in an agency mailroom for entry-level pay in a city with the some of the highest living costs in the country.
But getting a foot in the door is just the start. To ensure talented Latinos stay in the business, they need to see opportunities for advancement, many of which only become possible through mentoring and sponsorship, she said.
“We work very hard on that,” Haubegger said. “I meet every Friday afternoon with young people of color in our business, kind of like office hours. I feel it is part of my obligation to give back.”
Building the executives of tomorrow will make a big difference in the types of films that get made, Haubegger and others said. “When you actually change who is working in the motion picture business, it changes what stories get told,” she said, noting that recent Disney films like “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Black Panther” may not have been made were it not for the backing of executives like Tendo Nagenda, exec. VP of production for Disney Studios and producers Nate Moore and Victoria Alonso at Marvel.
“The impact of us not being in the room is that our stories aren’t told,” Haubegger said.
At NHMC’s recent Impact Awards gala, which honored the work of Latinos in film and television, the night served as a celebration of achievements by honorees like Aubrey Plaza, the “Parks and Recreation” alum who is of Puerto Rican descent, and “Coco,” the Disney-Pixar title centered on the Mexican cultural holiday Day of the Dead. But it also took on the air of a political rally, as speakers and activists decried anti-Latino rhetoric and actions by the administration of President Donald Trump. Nogales led a fiery speech in which he called on members to support the burgeoning campaign to improve Latino representation.
Aimee Garcia, an actress who has worked on shows like “Dexter” and “Trauma” and served as emcee for the gala, said the recent success of films like “Black Panther” should prompt studio heads to more aggressively recruit, mentor and promote diverse executives to change what moves are made.
“The biggest way we can vote Latino is with our ticket sales, but some change has to be made in the studio system to start grooming Latino movie studio executives, Latino producers, Latino decision-makers because the people that greenlight are the heads of studios,” Garcia said. “It’s up to the heads of studios to start mentorship programs and bring in fresh blood so their legacy could be keeping up with the times.”
NHMC Impact Awards honoree Nicholas Gonzalez, an actor who has worked for two decades in series like “The Good Doctor” and “Pretty Little Liars,” expressed cautious optimism at recent gains for representation, particularly coming off a year that saw the commercial and critical successes of films like “Get Out,” “Wonder Woman” and “Girls Trip.”
“There’s almost a race for diversity,” Gonzalez said. “I get a little gun-shy sometimes because it reminds me of when “Livin’ La Vida Loca” was a big song and everyone was crazy about Ricky Martin, everybody wanted a Latino in their TV shows and films and then that kind of petered out and then everyone went a different direction. It’s all good when representation numbers go up but it’s never enough with the numbers that we actually represent in this town.”
Saturday’s demonstration is expected to be just the start of a prolonged campaign to improve representation throughout the industry, Nogales said. Tied to the Oscars, the protest will hopefully be the start of a conversation to bring more Latinos into executive and production roles, with the goal of creating more acting opportunities so Latinos could be in serious contention for major acting prizes.
Over the Academy’s 90-year history, just five actors with Latino backgrounds have won Oscars in the major acting categories: Rita Moreno, José Ferrer, Anthony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, and Benicio del Toro. No Latina has ever won the best actress award, a fact Plaza highlighted in her typically dry sense of humor when she accepted the NHMC honor.
“I’m going to accept the leading best actress award on behalf of the Oscars ceremony because I heard a fun fact tonight that I never knew before, which is that no Latina actress has ever won best actress at the Oscars,” Plaza said sarcastically. “Ever. So I’m going to accept that tonight to manifest that energy.”
She joked that her starring role in “Ingrid Goes West” wouldn’t win her the vaunted prize, but “I’ll play some kind of psychotic character, some kind of criminal lunatic, those complicated characters I’m good at, and I’ll do that for you. And I’m going to win that award.”