Monday, September 24, 2018

Hollywood Needs Latino Agents

He was one of the most powerful and one of the most feared men in Hollywood.  Not bad, I guess, for a guy who went to high school in Van Nuys, California back in the early 60s.  (I think Robert Redford attended high school in Van Nuys too.  In the 50s.  I heard Redford recently on CBS TV say that he grew up in a tough neighborhood.  The blackness in me said, "Bitch! You grew up in Santa Monica in the 1950s.  I grew up in South Central L.A. in the 60s and went to high school in Watts.  You know what black folks in Watts called a weekend in Santa Monica?  A vacation." But I digress.)  The once powerful and feared super-agent, Michael Ovitz, has been on TV talking about his newly-published memoir.  Ovitz co-founded Creative Artists Agency (CAA).
The book reliving his ruthless Hollywood reign of the 1980s and 90s is titled WHO IS MICHAEL OVITZ?  He's 71 now and looks good.  I saw him on two CBS interviews and he came off as forthright, polite and a bit contrite.  He started in an agency's mailroom then worked his way up to become a top agent. Today, that's kind of a trope for the veteran male agent.
Something about the extraordinary roster of talents that he represented made me think of the current "Oscars So White" diversity/inclusion issues that have been red hot in Hollywood the last three years and the recent annual list in The Hollywood Reporter of the "100 Most Powerful People in Entertainment."

Only two were Latino:  Oscar winning Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and New York Puerto Rican golden boy, Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda.  In an online article I read on Twitter from @  Remezcla, Kristen Lopez reported that the two Latino talents were listed in the bottom 20.  Three Asians made the list. Fifteen African Americans made the list.  If you're on Twitter, find Remezcla and look for the item "The lack of Latinos on the list is a result of a much larger problem."

Kristen Lopez, I feel like I've grown up watching that problem and wondering why it still exists.  I'm very proud to say that Mexicans were part of my everyday life growing up in South Central L.A.  They were our next door neighbors, my classmates, teachers, priests, our local merchants, family friends and my parents co-workers who visited our houses...they were in my community.  A Mexican teacher at school realized I was attracted to the fine arts.  With my parent's permission, he took me to see Ballet Folklorico downtown at our Music Center.  I loved it! In high school, we all knew that Ricky Perez was a great friend to have.  Not only was he one of the smartest guys in the class, he was one of the most down to earth.  Teachers and students dug Ricky Perez.  And he'd help a guy out in a heartbeat.  We were altar boys together.  Ricky Perez had your back in the classroom, on the altar and on the playground.

So when I watched TV shows, why wasn't I seeing representations of our next door neighbors, guys like Ricky Perez, women like our Auntie Jean -- Jean Garcia, mom's longtime best friend and fellow registered nurse -- and the teacher who introduced me to Ballet Folklorico?  Why were we just seeing CHICO AND THE MAN starring the late and terrifically talented Freddie Prinze?  Nowadays I say. "Why the hell isn't Michael Peña a star yet?  He's excellent at drama and comedy and he has work in 5 Best Picture Oscar nominees to his credit -- MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CRASH, BABEL, AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE MARTIAN.
Michael Peña can even be good in a dog of a comedy like 2017's CHIPS.
Another thing -- my parents embraced the arts. Mom took us to see a lot of children's theater.  There were annual classic plays performed in our high school, which was a Catholic school with a predominantly black and Chicano student body.  Mexican actors were in productions at our Music Center and in other entertainment venues in L.A.  In short, there never has been a shortage of Mexican talent in Southern California.  Not then.  Not now.  The same goes for Latino talent I love in New York City where I lived and worked for 20 years.

But only two Latino talents are on that list of the 100 Most Powerful for 2018.

Michael Ovitz was the super-agent for Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Tom Hanks, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas, David Letterman … and Michael Jackson.  That's a partial list.  Also, it's not a very racially diverse list. One black superstar.

I had my first meeting with an agent at a powerhouse agency in 1990 in New York City.  The last time I met with an agent at a top agency was in New York City in 2008.  In between those years, I have several meetings with agents in Manhattan and a couple in LA.  In all that time, I saw only one black agent -- and she worked at the first agency I met with in 1990.

At all those agencies, the people who knew my work when I showed up were the black and Latino employees working the reception desk and the mailroom. The white agents usually had not bothered to read my resumé or watch my demo reel before our scheduled meetings. They knew clueless to my credits.

After VH1, I had to hustle up my own TV host/performer work because the white broadcast agents turned me down.  I called in to a KNX live radio show a couple of years ago that had a special devoted to "Hollywood So White" and the need for diversity going from onscreen opportunities to the Academy's minimal minority membership.  I mentioned that I've met with several agents at agencies over quite a few years and I saw only one black agent.  All the rest were white.  I asked if having more racial diversity in the agencies would help minority actors.

A rep from a Hispanic Actors Organization loved my question.  He said that most L.A. agents are white and stay within their comfort zone.  They won't drive to areas outside of Beverly Hills and Brentwood to see good local Mexican talent in places like Long Beach or Burbank.  They're more likely to sign someone they saw while vacationing in Madrid.

I did sign with a few agents for TV work but I noticed that I got myself more work than they did.  They would submit me only if a request for "African American talent" came in.  The work I got myself on VH1, on Lifetime TV and on Food Network... the agents would not have submitted me for those auditions because "African American" was not specifically requested.  They didn't think outside the racial box.

With all the current talk about the need for diversity and inclusion -- which thankfully now includes the major need for people of color as film reviewers and correspondents -- there should be a report on how racially diverse the roster of representatives in top agencies are.  Just a thought.  You can go to my previous blog post (about HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE), scroll down and see the demo reel from my VH1 talk show that stymied white agents.  I do believe that my TV career could have benefitted greatly from black/Latino agents pushing for me -- if any had been employed back then.  White agents have bluntly said to me, "I just wouldn't know what to do with you."  I doubt Tom Bergeron or Rosie O'Donnell ever heard an agent say, "Gee...we just don't get a lot of requests for Caucasian talent."

Are there black, Latino, Asian agents in Hollywood and New York City now?  Did a person of color ever do like a Michael Ovitz -- start off working in the mailroom then escalate to becoming an agent?  Just wondering.

In 2008, I met with an agent in New York City.  This is hand-on-a-Bible true:  I sent her my resumé and this demo reel one week before our scheduled meeting.  She opened our meeting with "Have you ever done any on-camera TV work?"  And  there you have it.

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