By Vanessa Erazo
Is Sundance Failing U.S. Latino Filmmakers?
Every January film critics, cinephiles, movie studio executives, filmmakers, and celebrities descend on Park City, Utah for a celebration of independent filmmaking. Since the eighties the Sundance Film Festival has served as the premiere showcase of indie films in the United States. The festival acting as a springboard, launched the careers of Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, and David O. Russell.
As a champion of movies made outside of the Hollywood studio system the festival also nurtures diverse stories from filmmakers of all walks of life. Latino participation at Sundance waxes and wanes from year to year. With the festival gearing up for its 2014 edition in a few days, the confirmed film slate shows little love to Latino projects. Of the 118 feature-length films showing at this year’s Sundance only five are Latino. That’s about 4% of the total. Of those five films only one is a story centered on Latinos in the United States, the rest are Latin American.
Premiering at this year’s Sundance the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, directed by Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee, recounts labor leader Cesar Chavez’s spiritual choice to fast for 36 days back in the eighties. It’s one to look forward to, absolutely, but that’s all she wrote for American Latinos at Sundance in 2014.
This past year’s edition of Sundance, 2013, was even worse for American Latinos. Though boasting strong entries from Latin America (particularly Chile) like the Oscar-nominated Gael Garcia Bernal vehicle NO, Sebastian Silva’s drug-fueled odyssey Crystal Fairy starring Michael Cera, and Alicia Scherson’s dark and moody Chilean/Italian co-production Il Futuro, there were zero feature-length films about the American Latino experience. Zero.
It’s depressing to think that for the last two years American Latino film directors have been a tiny blip on the Sundance radar. For now, let’s ignore this sad fact and go back to the good old days of 2012, when Latinos were burning up at Sundance.
More than a hundred films play the prestigious fest every year, all vying for the buzz that will propel them to a big sale and a promise of distribution. In 2012, two of the breakouts were Latino: Filly Brown and Mosquita y Mari.
In Park City, on the internet, in trade publications, and on blogs people could not stop talking about the talented newcomer Gina Rodriguez. Her dazzling performance in Filly Brown as a tough, young rapper from East Los Angeles put her and the film, directed by Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos, on the map. Its all-star supporting cast with the likes of Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Jenny Rivera didn’t hurt either. Two months after its world premiere at Sundance, Indomina snatched up worldwide rights to the American Latino indie flick.
Despite a lack of big name stars, Aurora Guerrero’s feature debut Mosquita y Mari made a big splash that year too. The sensitive, bold, and thoughtful portrait of two teenage Chicanas whose budding friendship begins to slowly become something beyond just friends was picked up for distribution by Wolfe Releasing.
However, Sundance does not always translate into box office dollars. Mosquita y Mari had a very small release, only playing one art house theater in New York City. Its total box office receipts equaled $8,600.
On the other hand, Filly Brown in its widest release played 259 theaters and no doubt bolstered by its stars and the untimely death of Jenny Rivera, raked in $2.8 million in six weeks. Even prior to the sensations of 2012, a few Latino films throughout the years were able to cash in on their big break at Sundance.
In 2002, the coming of age tale Real Women Have Curves debuted at Sundance and introduced America Ferrera, an unknown actress at the time, to the masses. It received several accolades at the fest including the Audience Award and Special Jury Prizes for acting for both America Ferrera and the late Lupe Ontiveros. Budget: $3 million (estimate); Distributed by HBO Films it earned $5.8 million, playing in 163 theaters for 30 weeks.
Quinceañera, the 2006 film about two cousins that become estranged from their families, one for becoming pregnant (Emily Rios) and the other for his homosexuality (Jesse Garcia). It went on to win Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Budget: $400,000 (Estimate); Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics it grossed $1.7 million domestically and $2.5 million worldwide.
La Misma Luna (2008), penned by Lijiah Villalobos and directed by Patricia Cardozo, remains one of the biggest Latino box office successes to come out of Sundance and introduced both Kate del Castillo and Eugenio Derbez to American audiences. The immigration-themed drama also struck a nerve with overseas audiences and went on to earn $10 million in the foreign market. Budget: $500,000; Distributed by Fox Searchlight/Weinstein Co., it played in 454 theaters for 17 weeks and made $12.5 million domestically.
The Latino project that received the biggest boost following its Sundance premiere and propelled its director to a full-fledged career in Hollywood is Robert Rodriguez’s 1993 film El Mariachi. The Spanish-language action flick was shot in a Mexican border town and spawned two sequels starring Antonio Banderas: Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. The three film franchise collectively grossed more than $80 million domestically. Budget: $7,000; Released by Columbia Pictures, it earned $2 million domestically.
For American indie films, screening at Sundance remains the ultimate seal of approval. Though it doesn’t guarantee high box office numbers it certainly has the power to launch the careers of new directors and actors.
Still, with only about six U.S. Latino film “hits” coming out of Sundance over the course of the last twenty years one wonders why U.S.-based Latino filmmakers have been overlooked. Let’s hope in the years to come the powerhouse festival will be as inclusive to American Latino stories as it has been to Latin American ones.