Ben Lopez has seen the future of the entertainment industry, and says it is the Latinx community.
“In the next 20 years, we’re going to be prioritized — because not only will we have the numbers demographic-wise, we’ll have the spending power,” says Lopez, the executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. “Our content creators will be repped because [Latinx] executives are going to be in power at some point. I see us becoming — finally — visible.”
Lopez envisions a time when there is no need for NALIP. But as a 16-year veteran of the advocacy organization, he knows better than anyone how much work needs to be done to achieve parity for people of color in Hollywood.
To that end, NALIP’s 20th annual Media Summit will take place July 25-28. The event, held at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, will feature 42 sessions overall from panels and workshops to the Latino Media Awards Gala, at which honorees include such actors as Mj Rodriguez (“Pose”).
“This is one of the biggest celebrations of Latinx talent attended by everyone in the industry and we want to celebrate in style,” says Lopez.
Although the foundation has been based in Los Angeles since 2002, it began in New York, where a core group of activists and academics gathered in 1999.
“They decided to incorporate a 501(c)(3) and that was essentially the birth of NALIP,” says Lopez. “They moved to California not only to include other perspectives of the Latino experience but also to engage with the studios and the networks. In the beginning it was a lot of documentarians and independent filmmakers, then we added in television writers, producers and directors.”
The organization has since diversified in more ways than one.
“NALIP achieved a lot of geographic representation in the following years, so pretty much every corner of the U.S. was represented,” says Lopez. “We became a big tent of intersectionality because it helped to be strategic and partner with all of our different allies. It definitely takes a village to create systemic change, but we can transform this industry one story at a time.”
From the beginning, NALIP was solutions-driven, says Lopez. “The first goal was advocacy: Educating the studio executives that have decision-making power over this particular constituency. The second part was preparing content creators that are looking for opportunities.”
NALIP responded by envisioning the Latino Producer Academy, an intensive 10-day lab for documentary, narrative and new-media projects. “It was essentially set up almost like a Sundance filmmakers bootcamp, but with Latinos.”
Five years ago, diversity was not on the minds of studio and network leaders.
“The third area that became crucial was data, which helped to educate the entire world about the status quo of Latinos in the industry,” says Lopez.
He’s referring to the organization’s partnership with Columbia University’s Center for Ethnicity and Race on the Latino Media Gap, a seminal study released in 2014. Among its findings: Latino talent makes up only 2% of television programming and top films. At the same, Latinos purchase 25% of all movie tickets.
“The majority of images of Latinos in cinema were negative stereotypes,” says Lopez. “And the roles that were starting to open up for Latinos on TV were the drug-dealer, criminal, maid, and, like, a salsa dancer — you know, just an entertainer.”
NALIP hopes to see Latinos cast in more complex, multi-layered roles. “As opposed to looking at any more border-crossing salsa dancers that end up creating a drug empire,” Lopez jokes.
Behind the scenes, it was equally grim, according to the Latino Media Gap: Between 2010 and 2013, Latinos constituted 1.2% of producers, 4.1% of TV directors, 2.3% of movie directors and 1.9% of writers.
Comparatively, Hispanics represent 18% — nearly 60 million people — of the national population. (Non-Hispanic white Americans will become a minority in 2044, according to the Census Bureau.)
But the stats that resonated with the powers that be in Hollywood related to economic growth of this demo, which was estimated at $1.6 trillion in 2014. “Those numbers got the attention of the decision-makers,” Lopez says. “But they were mostly focused on marketing: ‘Hey, why don’t we get a consultant and figure out how we can sell to Latinos better?’ So now NALIP is partnering with the studios to make sure that we catch up 20 years — and we’re doing it in a fraction of that time.”
Tanya Saracho, the creator of “Vida,” is just one game-changer whose career was boosted by the organization. She is among the speakers at the summit, as is Steven Canals of “Pose.”
“NALIP is our nexus —that special place where solidarity and community meet for Latinx members of this industry,” she says. “It’s a necessary space in a field that still marginalizes us, and its connectivity has been imperative to me, both as a guide and resource when I was a fledgling TV writer to now as a showrunner who employs and sources NALIP’s rich talent pool.”
Nancy Mejia, for example, could go on to become another agent of change in the industry. “She was an emerging talent who was unrepresented and not part of a guild,” says Lopez. “And in nine months, she went through our programs and into [the] writers’ room of ‘Vida.’ She directed an episode on the second season and now she’s writing for ‘The L-Word’ [on Showtime]. She’s also being looked at as the director for some major properties that are floating around out there. Now she has UTA representation. Now she’s part of a guild — two guilds, actually. Both the DGA and WGA.”
“The biggest challenge Latinx producers and directors face is related to funding, access and opportunities,” says HBO’s director of corporate social responsibility Axel Caballero, who also co-chairs NALIP ‘s board of directors.
Karla Pita Loor, chief development officer for the Television Academy Foundation, agrees.
“It’s vital to support programs that increase the pipeline of talent across creative and executive fields as well as work within the industry to enhance the momentum for full inclusion,” she says. “This is NALIP’s work.”
“If we don’t have a seat at the table, we’re on the menu,” says Lopez matter-of-factly. “U.S.-based Latinos need to be in these chambers of power, in decision-making positions with access to funding, because it trickles all the way down.”
Moving forward, Lopez is looking beyond Hollywood and hatching a plan for NALIP to go global. The organization intends to increase its presence at film festivals in Europe. Berlin, for instance, incorporated NALIP into its programming as a keynote. Lopez is also eyeing opportunities in China.
As proof of international progress, Lopez was invited to speak at the European Film Market.
“Most people there had no idea about the difference between Latin Americans and U.S.-based Latinos,” Lopez says. He used the popularity of reggaeton and Latin rap in Europe as a teaching aid.
“I let them know that the last time I checked, Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. And music was only the first wave,” he told the audience. “The next wave that’s about to hit is film and TV. So as a European market, you might want to be ready for it — and NALIP will help open doors.”