Sitting inside the cramped vinyl booth at the Brite Spot diner on Sunset Boulevard, Rafael Gonzalez laughs as he recalls when, as a kid, he would go to one of a handful of downtown L.A. movie theaters that presented Latino films. There were few choices then: a rerun starring Mexican comedian Cantinflas, or perhaps a wrestling movie with the legendary Mexican champion Mil Mascaras. For Gonzalez, “It was a chance to see a guy that looked like my dad in a movie and the Mexican wasn't the bad guy for a change,” he says.

Nearly 20 years later, little has changed. Latinos are still Hollywood's favorite bad guys gracing the silver screen in their usual role as drug dealers or gang members – and filmmakers like Gonzalez, who with Richard Salazar just completed his first feature-length film, are discovering there are few venues for Latinos.

That's why Gonzalez is so focused on the upcoming Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival where he plans to premiere his film Atomic Blue: Mexican Wrestler, about an L.A. wrestler who helps a 12-year-old boy save his neighborhood from a fiendish land developer. “We are really counting on this festival as much as anything, because for us it's a lifeline,” says Gonzalez.

It seems that more and more Latino filmmakers are turning to Hispanic-run festivals to get their films screened. Until the recent birth of such festivals in San Diego and elsewhere, filmmakers like Salazar, Gonzalez and Star Maps' Miguel Arteta had no place to show their work, not even in Los Angeles. “It's incredible that in a city that is nearly half Latino there hasn't been a festival,” says Arteta, whose film Star Maps was picked up by Fox Searchlight in 1997 after screening at Sundance and then shown at several independent festivals across the country. “When I first got to L.A. eight years ago, I just scratched my head and wondered how can there not be a Latino festival in the film capital?”

All that is about to change, at least for a week, thanks to the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival. For the second consecutive year, independent organizers and the city's Cultural Affairs Department have put together a weeklong program that includes screenings of some 70 films from Latin America, Spain and the United States. The festival has been designed as a showcase for some of the best films by and about Latinos. Among the most hotly anticipated local premieres is La Ciudad, director David Riker's story of four immigrants living in New York as they struggle to reconcile their dreams of coming to America with the lonely and often times abusive reality of how this country treats such newcomers. The film, which has already drawn praise at the Toronto and San Sebastian festivals, will make its U.S. debut in Los Angeles next week despite the fact that it also received invitations from a handful of better-known venues.

“We decided this festival is the most suitable for the film to premiere because it's targeting the Latin American community,” says the one of the film's executive producers, Robin Alper.

She, like many others who work off-Hollywood, says Los Angeles is an obvious choice to showcase a Latino-themed film given the city's proximity to Hollywood, the plethora of big-name draws that the festival attracts – including its organizer Edward James Olmos – and the city's own expansive and diverse huge Latino community.

So why has Los Angeles gone without a Latino film festival for so long when smaller cities such as Chicago, San Antonio and San Francisco are home to events that draw full houses?

Ask around town and you get the usual explanations, among them the under-representation of Latinos in Hollywood, an overall drop in the distribution of foreign films in this country, and the geographic hurdles presented by a city the size of Los Angeles. But the real culprit is a bit more complex, according to those who have watched and tried to initiate similar efforts in the past.

“I think you need to have a year-round base,” says Marisa Leal, an independent producer who worked with Arteta while acting as programming director for the National Latino Communication Center. Leal attributes the success of festivals such as those in Chicago and San Antonio to a full-time director who helps keep media and industry attention centered on the event. “You can't just showcase a couple of films and that's it,” says Leal. “To do a real festival you have to draw a market, you need to get distributors, and you do that by having a year-round base that focuses on that like they do in Chicago.”

“The real key thing to keeping a festival going is having an organization, a base that keeps operating year round,” says Ray Santisteban, director of San Antonio's CineFestival, the oldest showcase for Latino films in the country. Founded in 1977, the festival has survived in large part because of its affiliation with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. “Without the center we might have gone under. You need someone who is going to build a relationship with funders and the industry. Every day I get three or four calls from people inside the industry. If I wasn't here, who would get those calls?”

But when it comes to Hollywood, building a relationship with funders and attracting audiences turns out to be far less difficult than forging relationships with the mainly Anglo industry. Organizers of the Los Angeles festival acknowledge that while last year's event drew world-class films and audiences, it didn't attract one of the most important ingredients: distributors.

“That was a problem last year,” says Marlena Dermer, one of the festival's co-founders, who also works at Paramount Studios in distribution. “And we hope it will get better. You know all of the festival organizers are in the film industry, and we are calling everyone we know and telling them to come.”

Dermer and others say, however, that actually attracting distributors to their festivals remains a major stumbling block. For decades, films from Latin America or by U.S.-born Latinos haven't had an easy time finding a niche in this country despite the runaway success of such hits as Like Water for Chocolate, which pulled in over $20 million in the U.S. “The argument about films in Spanish used to be that it was a question of language. But they never said that about Fellini's films, which were in Italian, or Kurosawa films, even though they were in Japanese,” says Jesus Salvador Trevino, who directed the Mexican film Raizes de Sangre and now works as a director of American television programs like Chicago Hope.

Not helping the chances these films have of a finding a home in U.S. theaters is the overall lack of interest in overseas films. In fact, the number of foreign films which make it into U.S. theaters has steadily dropped since the 1960s, when they accounted for just about 5 percent of the market. Today, those films make up less than 2 percent of the total U.S. box office. And, of the top 20 highest-grossing films from overseas in the past decade, most have come from Europe or Asia. Although Like Water for Chocolate challenged Hollywood's assumptions when it stayed in theaters for weeks and proved a Mexican film could draw audiences and dollars, it didn't set off a wave of Spanish-language distribution in the U.S.

Nonetheless, the film helped boost awareness that such movies appealed to U.S. audiences if given a chance. “I think there is a growing awareness among distributors that there is a sleeping giant, and if they found the right film they could awaken it,” says Richard Pena, director of the New York Film Festival.

They've been saying that for nearly 20 years, and many Latino filmmakers say that despite predictions that this “sleeping giant” is about to be roused from its decadeslong nap, Hollywood has taken few steps toward changing the way it does business.

Tired of waiting for a shift in the role Hollywood assigns Latinos, filmmakers are choosing an alternative road to the box office, one in which they are the stars and Hollywood is invited to attend the party in their own backlot.

“You have this need for an outlet, and this is the perfect place for independent Latino films,” says Arteta.

The Second Annual Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival runs from Friday, October 2, through Sunday, October 11, at Universal CityWalk, Paramount, the Academy of Television and Sciences and Back Lot Theaters. For information, call (323) 694-2927.

LA Weekly