Latin Courter

The largest urban Latino film event in the U.S. invests in the future by appealing to second- and third-generation Latinos

"This festival was really started out of frustration," says Calixto Chinchilla, founder of the New York International Latino Film Festival (NYILFF), which unspools today through July 27 in the Big Apple.

As a film buff with wide- ranging interests and experience marketing to Latino audiences, Chinchilla says he "didn't see anything out there that targeted the second-generation market" — that is, immigrants' children who strongly identify with mainstream American culture as well as their Latino heritage.

Chinchilla believed that Latinos like these would flock to "an event that was community-focused, that showcased the best in Latino film from both U.S. and Latin American filmmakers" — not just material made in the Spanish language for a Spanish-speaking audience.

He was right. Now in its ninth year, the NYILFF is one of the leading Latino-oriented film festivals in the U.S.

By focusing on these second- and even third-generation Latinos, Chinchilla and co-executive director Elizabeth Gardner were way ahead of a demographic curve that, Gardner says, "has taken the corporate community by surprise." Ever since a 2003 U.S. Census Bureau report recognized Latinos as the "majority-minority" in the country, their growing influence has been clear. Gardner notes that marketing data indicate Latinos are the No. 1 filmgoing audience per capita, and also tend to be aggressive Internet users and early adopters of cell phones, MP3 players and other techno-gadgets.

Knowing this, Gardner and Chinchilla have built a festival around expansive definitions of Latino cinema and its audience.

"Most Latino film festivals in the U.S. focus almost exclusively on Spanish-language films," Chinchilla says, while NYILFF programming emphasizes cultural and linguistic diversity. This year's roster includes both narrative features and documentaries made in the U.S. and Mexico, along with others from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Peru, Spain and elsewhere.

This increasingly international focus "wasn't intentional, to be honest," Chinchilla says. "Our reputation has built up, and feedback from filmmakers has been terrific. Filmmakers overseas will respond to that. They'll submit to a festival they perceive as a launch pad."

Audiences have increased by roughly 30% annually over the last three years, and submissions from filmmakers have virtually doubled each year, with 500 features and shorts submitted for 2008. NYILFF has also benefited from its setting in immigrant-rich New York.

"We've never had an exclusionary attitude," Gardner says. "One of the things we encountered early on was that a lot of Latino filmmakers didn't necessarily want to be limited to making films about Latino subjects, and there were non-Latino people who were very interested in the culture. All of that has expanded audiences for us.

"We're a Latino film festival, first and foremost," she continues. "Our primary goal is to engage the community, to speak to the Latino audience. But 30% of our audience is non-Latino, and that continues to diversify. We get people who are interested in Latino culture and also just indie-film fans who want to see good movies. That's unique." (partialdiff)