LoS ANGELES — Watching movies as a kid in Tijuana, Jorge R. Gutierrez remembers always wondering, “When is the Mexican princess going to show up?”
Years later, as soon as he graduated from film school, he pitched his mostly Latino-cast movie “The Book of Life” to every studio in town. “Every place told me the same thing: There’s no interest in Latino content,” he said.
He went on with life, worked in animation, won seven Emmys. He pitched it to Guillermo Del Toro, who fell in love with the project. “I thought with Guillermo on board, it will be super easy to get this movie made,” he says. “And it was not.”
By the time it was produced, it was 2014 — 14 years after he began pitching. Minorities had become a bigger part of the Hollywood landscape.
While the Tyler Perrys, Oprah Winfreys and now Ava DuVernays and Ryan Cooglers of the world do often feature minorities in their projects, a lot of writers, directors, producers and advocates you’ve probably never heard of are working in the trenches to make movies more ethnically diverse. It’s been challenging, but they’ve learned some lessons.
Producer Matt Alvarez has been making films starring people of color for his entire 15-year career. He and rapper Ice Cube founded the company Cube Vision, and together they produced “Straight Outta Compton,” the “Barbershop” series, the “Next Friday” series and the “Ride Along” series. Alvarez’s record makes it look easy.
“But it’s not,” he says from his sleek offices at Broad Green Pictures in Hollywood.
There are fewer films of any kind being made. A decade ago, studios were releasing 23 to 27 movies annually. Today, the number has dropped to a range of 12 to 15.
Plus, historically, films cast predominantly with people of color don’t do well in the foreign market. “Ride Along,” featuring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, brought in $134 million in the United States but only $19 million internationally.
“That’s why with African American movies, you see a lot of comedy, some smaller dramas. Things that can be made at certain price points,” Alvarez says.
Even “Straight Outta Compton” was a tough sell. That one started out at New Line Cinema. Alvarez wanted a higher budget. New Line, lower. Then, just when all hope seemed lost, Universal’s chief, Donna Langley, stepped in with the money.
Of course, Alvarez considered settling for the lower budget. “It’s not like we had 10 other people lined up.”
Made for $28 million, the movie grossed over $200 million worldwide.
These days, Alvarez says, when he reads a good script, he thinks, “How can we infuse this with different types of people?” This is how “Are We There Yet?” went from being about a white couple (originally with Adam Sandler) to a black couple. “When I looked at it, I thought it would be the perfect vehicle for Ice Cube,” Alvarez says. The movie made $97 million globally and spawned a sequel and a 100-episode TV series. “And we made it for nothing,” Alvarez notes.
“Ice Cube and I have had long discussions about the need to not overspend,” he adds. “Any film you make, particularly starring people of color, you almost need to overdeliver.”
On a sunny day in Pasadena a few weeks ago, the members of the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition are holding a news conference to decry the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood films.
“We’re gonna use the same tactics that we used on the television industry,” said Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “They may not welcome us, but we don’t care.”
If TV looks far more diverse today than film, it’s due in large part to the work of Nogales and his colleagues. In 2000, they forced the networks to sign memorandums of understanding saying they are committed to diversity. Since then, the networks have counted the number of minorities they hire and have created various diversity-pipeline programs.
It was a fight. At best, the TV execs were patronizing. At worst, hostile. “Willing to say all the right things,” notes Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. “But you walk out of the room and nothing happens.”
Oh, the “horror stories” Aoki could tell. He recalled crossed arms and eyes rolled toward the ceiling. One network promised its president would be there. (He wasn’t.) Another, ABC, promised to deliver statistics. (It didn’t.)
“Contrast that to now,” Aoki says. “ABC actually gave us the pilot script to ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ They wanted our feedback. You know, is this okay? Is this an okay title? They realized we are partners.”
Demanding statistics might not seem like much, but it is an important first step. “If you don’t keep internal statistics, how do you know where you are? And where you want to be?” Aoki explains.
The plan is to approach the studios as a group. They are not above asking minorities to boycott studio films.
They are ready for more crossed arms and empty promises.
Director Carmen Marron says that financing her first movie “was hell.” Granted, she was a high school guidance counselor with no actual film background. “My own mother wouldn’t even give me financing,” she says.
In the few meetings she managed to get, she recalls sitting in rooms with “nine or 10 white guys” and her, a Latina with an inner-city background pitching a film about Latinos.
In the end, she got a job as a pharmaceutical rep and saved $200,000 of her own money to make her first film, “Go for It!” Lionsgate bought it, and it only made $180,237, according to Box Office Mojo. But it won audience awards in film festivals, and she found Gina Rodriguez, now of “Jane the Virgin” fame, on YouTube, and gave the young Puerto Rican actress her first feature role. Marron now earns a living writing and directing, and she is working on her third film.
Similar struggles abound, as many filmmakers of color are dealing with the typical headaches of being a newbie filmmaker. First-time director Steven Kung said he raised just under $1 million, which his mom gathered from “rich dentist uncles” back in Taiwan. He made “A Leading Man,” about a talented Asian actor relegated to degrading roles. But there were no acquisitions agents at the festival where the film premiered. “Maybe because it’s an Asian film festival?” he wonders.
So Kung went with a new, inexperienced distributor who didn’t tell him until the week before the opening where the film was scheduled to play. “It was mortifying,” he says.
Writer-director Tahir Jetter recalls shopping around a script about four African American women dealing with relationships. One financier dismissed it, Jetter recalls, by saying, “Oh, this just seems like the black version of ‘Girls.’ ” He thought at the time: What’s wrong with the black version of “Girls”?
Where are the movies about black people “living their everyday lives?” he asks. “Or even black people in the future. Like, sci-fi?”
Jetter’s debut feature, “How To Tell You’re a Douchebag,” a comedy about millennials featuring an all-black cast, premiered recently at Sundance. It found a distributor.
Jetter’s movie is the first one to come out of Kickstart Diversity, a program created by producers Dani Leonard and Alex Cirillo to nurture these types of films via business strategy sessions and vendor discounts. In their current slate of 16 features, half the directors are women and a third are African American. The films include a post-Hurricane Katrina drama, “After the Storm,” executive-produced by Spike Lee, and “Lez Bomb” — “ ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ with lesbians,” says Leonard.
“For creators, often they’re not able to get the money,” she says. “We don’t have the money, either. What we have are the relationships.”
Fox 2000’s upcoming “Hidden Figures,” the true story of three unsung female African American mathematicians who did the math for NASA astronaut John Glenn’s historic first mission, features the kind of meaty, non-stereotypical roles that are so coveted by actors of color. Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer have signed on to star.
The irony of being a white woman writing a movie about marginalized black women isn’t lost on writer Allison Schroeder, who “absolutely, hundred percent” expects to get grief about it.
Ultimately, Schroeder comes back to the story’s more universal themes: “I don’t know what it’s like to be black. But I do know what it’s like to be a woman. And this is a story about women helping each other.”
In many ways, director Rick Famuyiwa’s sleeper Sundance hit “Dope” is the exception that proves the rule. When he was shopping it around, major studios balked at the specificity of a movie about a ’90s-pop-culture-obsessed geek growing up in Inglewood.
“They wanted to take out the elements that made the film unique and make it more general,” he says. Famuyiwa found independent financing instead and made the movie his way.
“I think the trick is to understand that universal isn’t defined by a singular way of being,” he offers. “We don’t have to somehow accept universal as being middle class, or white, or whatever it may be.
Eventually, 20th Century Fox agreed to finance Gutierrez’s “The Book of Life.” It had the largest Latino cast in the history of feature animation. And it earned $99.8 million worldwide (and cost just $50 million, a pittance for animation). Still, the first thing studios ask Gutierrez when he pitches projects with multiethnic content is, “Why didn’t ‘The Book of Life’ make more money?”
Gutierrez laments, “It’s never enough.”