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  • Monique Howard

New York Latino Film Festival Founder Calixto Chinchilla, the Culture Champion

As founder and executive director of the New York Latino Film Festival, Calixto Chinchilla has provided many opportunities for Latinos as well as Blacks in the entertainment industry and assisted them with the jumpstart to ensure successful careers. Kerry Washington, Michelle Rodriguez, and John Leguizamo are just a few of many that have benefited from the largest Latino film festival. Building a diverse community with like-minded creative talent helps support and encourage others to thrive in the business.

Chinchilla has achieved this through the creation of the New York Latino Film Festival, which was founded in 1999, and he continues to champion his cause. He understands the importance of cultural representation in film and the unique impact it has on audiences of color. People of color need to have their stories told in ways that authentically portray and celebrate every aspect of their culture in film. In a conversation with QG, Chinchilla offers insight into how championing cultural narratives became his life's work and discusses his enthusiasm for film.  

When did you realize that working within the entertainment industry was your life's calling? 

When I was very young [about] 6 or 7 years old, I liked film and as I got older, the appreciation got deeper. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I liked writing. All of this was further heightened because my childhood friend (to this day even) was equally into film. They were more on the acting side, but we both wanted to pursue the same thing, just in different lanes. I did not think I would or could make it. So, I studied marketing in college, but God had a plan, and here I am.

Why is cultural diversity in the entertainment industry important to you?

Being Latino and growing up not seeing enough people of color in images, I could not help but feel the lack of representation. It used to be far worse than now. Every Black and Latin film I could see in a theater, I would from then through today. I remember as a kid sneaking into Do The Right Thing, and from that opening scene on, it felt electric. I had never seen a Latino-Puerto Rican, at that, open a film and in this way. To see the story unfold, and even meeting Spike Lee for the first time back then was amazing. 

That was the world as I saw it, and I felt we needed more. We have come far, but I feel we still have a ways to go. We need more executives of color with the authority to greenlight, acquire, and finance. Look anywhere between the Oscars and the Grammys, and there still seems to be major issues in diversity, inclusion, and representation. Change doesn’t happen overnight, we need to support every person on the grounds of this effort, [and] every film big and small. Every time we take control of the narrative [it] is what moves the needle forward. 

Can you share a bit about the creation of The New York Latino Film Festival and your partnership with HBO? 

The festival was a dream. I wanted to create an event that was reflective not only of the diversity and multiculturalism of the Latino experience but of New York as a melting pot as well. I was blessed to be a product and a reflection of both. My family is multicultural, and being in New York, there was every “kind” of Latino you could want, unlike in some cities. New York celebrates all cultures, so I took full advantage of that in the form of films we selected. 

Everything from selections to how we market and brand the festival and in all we do, it's always in that mindset of celebrating the city and its inhabitants' multicultural tapestry. The festival was also about accessibility both for filmmakers and our audiences. This festival was and remains a platform for everybody, where everyone matters and talent and creativity is the catalyst. 

We came out at an interesting time where there was not much on an entertainment level that connected to roots and cultures. We were fortunate that HBO saw the opportunity from the very beginning, at a conceptual level, and took the risk. That was major for me, that a name of such high regard took interest in me. Nothing on this scale had ever happened, so it was scary and unknown for all parties included. Yet the vision was there, and it was crystal clear to me. I knew what I wanted the festival to be and how it could create an impact. I had no previous experience being a leader, especially of something of this scale, but we did it. I was still in college [and] living with my family when it all happened.  

How did your creative vision inspire the founding of FUTURO? Also, how has this digital platform become an industry game-changer?

Like with the festival, Futuro came from a place of need. People of color dominate in all things, including media, and yet we don’t own much of anything in the digital space. There's very minimal diversity in tech. So Futuro was about the festival engaging content creators, wherever they live, whether it be film, TV, or social media. We were fortunate that Google liked the concept and came on board. 

It was important that Futuro was by us and for us. In the digital conference, we have content creators, influencers, and leaders of color speak. It is important that we see and learn from ourselves and continue to network and build from a place that believes we can. Alongside the conference, we have a showcase where digital pilots (scripted and non-scripted) screen. In the three years since we’ve done this spin-off of sorts, we’ve had 4 projects get picked-up, and some have received financing. It is an exciting addition to the festival that we hope to grow even further.

How have your organizations helped foster emerging talent and the prominent figures we know in Hollywood today?

There are so many that have had their early films play at the festival from Kerry Washington, Michelle Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Jay Hernandez, Gina Rodriguez, Daddy Yankee, [and] even 50 Cent had their first films play with us. So [there's] lots of history here and more to grow upon.

During your discussion panels at colleges and universities, what impactful words of wisdom do you impart to audiences? 

Trust yourself. Seriously. Believe in yourself. Surround yourself with those who truly believe in you, and I don’t mean “yes” people but those who motivate you to be better. Trust God.

Can you share a bit about your creative experience as a supervising producer for the film short The Acting Lesson?

We ran a program with HBO, where we fully funded a short based on a completed script competition. The project can be shot anywhere, we even shot outside the U.S. before. Between HBO and the New York Latino Film Festival, we mentored the filmmaker at all levels of productions to help get the project completed. We produced 6 shorts that aired on the network. My role was to advise and yet empower the director on every decision made from casting, crew, and finalizing the film as the program had tight deadlines.

In the future, how do you hope to push the boundaries of cultural narratives further in film and digital platforms? 

I definitely would like to have the ability to acquire content for a distributor. A development/production deal is another good start. I’m open to anything that allows me to partner in moving content, and creators I believe in forward.

What's been the most rewarding aspect of your career thus far?  

That’s tough to answer because there is still so much more to do. While there’s been progress, there are still things that have to change. So I remain curious, excited, and committed..we’ll see. I’m just grateful the festival is about to celebrate its 20th year. I would have never imagined that!