11th Annual L.A. Skins Fest Spotlights Native American Talent

Mino Bimaadiziwin and inset of Ian Skorodin - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy Photo; Skorodin: Courtesy of Antonio Gilbreath

'Thor: Ragnarok’ will screen at the Academy theater Friday night to open the festival.

Amid a cinematic landscape in which Native Americans represent less than 1 percent of characters in the top 900 films from the past decade, the annual L.A. Skins Fest has served as a rare spotlight on Native talent in front of and behind the camera.

The festival’s 11th edition will run over six days starting Friday night, kicking off with Thor: Ragnarok. Director Taika Waititi, who is of Maori descent, taped a custom greeting that will air before the movie. “While we’re a Native American film festival, we do focus on indigenous filmmakers worldwide as well,” says L.A. Skins Fest executive director Ian Skorodin, who adds that it was actually Disney vp multicultural audience engagement Julie Ann Crommett, a longtime friend, who offered up the current No. 1 movie in the world. “We’ve been working with Disney for many years now, and they wanted to invest in a big way.”

Thor: Ragnarok will screen at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Most of the festival’s 50-plus features, documentaries and shorts, representing hundreds of Native tribes, will screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre, including Luis Iga’s closing-night film Murder in the Woods, starring Danny Trejo. The full festival schedule can be found on the website.

The L.A. Skins Fest is one of only a few programs nationwide dedicated to Native American cinema — at 43 years, the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco is the oldest — and the nonprofit organization prides itself on its many partnerships with major Hollywood companies in hopes of cultivating sustainable careers in the industry for Native artists. The festival is being presented by Comcast NBCUniversal, with every other major studio and network among the many other sponsors. Comcast will distribute a selection of the festival’s films, including the award winners, on its on-demand service Streampix, with a monetary advance to the filmmakers.

Also officially partnering with L.A. Skins Fest for the first time is the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Film Program, although the unofficial association goes way back. The Sundance program’s director, N. Bird Runningwater, has been a frequent attendee of Skins Fest, and Skorodin’s own feature debut, Tushka, premiered at Sundance in 1998.

In addition to the film screenings, the weeklong festival includes a slate of programs designed to provide Native participants with practical industry training. This past Tuesday, the L.A. Skins Fest held its 6th annual invite-only pitch workshop for about a dozen writers, with executives from Fox, CBS All Access, Starz, UTA, Bad Robot and Warner Bros. in attendance. Thursday was dedicated to actors, with SAG-AFTRA hosting a free casting panel and interactive workshop with Casting Society of America vp Russell Boast as well as casting executives from Universal Television and Fox among the panelists.

Outside of festival week, the L.A. Skins Fest has been running a monthly writers group that meets at CBS and last year launched a five-week TV writers lab that is modeled after the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s popular writers program. It also has held workshops for actors at Disney and NBCUniversal, and in 2013 began putting on an annual sketch comedy showcase featuring Native Americans performing material written by UCB, Groundlings and iO West veterans. Fox sponsored the first showcase at iO West, and last year's was held on the Comedy Central stage and led to one participant being invited to audition for Lifetime’s UnReal.

“A lot of the content for Native Americans is usually a Western or on a reservation. We need to get our Native Americans to act in those roles, but we can play any role, write any script, direct any project. That’s the action I want to invest in,” Skorodin says. “The Native American community [needs to] catch up talent-wise and professionally. It’s a slow progression of people learning and growing their careers and just going to work.”

The L.A. Skins Fest’s relatively green programs are already starting bear fruit. The Black List partnered with the TV Writers Lab to post its scripts on its service, where Lab participant William Garroutte's script earned a score of 8. Garroutte, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has been selected to NBC’s Writers on the Verge program this season. Fellow Lab writer Carlee Malemute, who grew up in an Athabascan village of 500, has sold two TV movie scripts to Lifetime. And Echo Lake signed Mayan writer Liz Rivera in February after meeting her at last November’s pitch workshop.

"Getting to know other writers during the Lab, and everything the L.A. Skins Fest has done since -- setting up meetings, continually promoting its writers -- has created opportunities and connections I wouldn't have otherwise," Malemute tells THR.

Skorodin says that the larger overall push for diversity has resulted in more interest from the industry for his initiatives. Netflix is a new sponsor of this year’s festival and already has agreed to sponsor the 2018 edition of the Native American TV Writers lab next spring.

“There’s some growing pains we’ll have to go through to become executive producers, showrunners and A-list film directors,” he says. “I’m about the grounded, measured way of growing my community in this direction. I’m trying to make being a Native American an actual advantage in the entertainment community.”