Norman Lear helps steer Imagen Awards to 25


When Helen Hernandez, in late 1983, was serving on a National Conference of Christians & Jews task force dealing with media images of Latinos, she consulted with her boss, mega-TV producer and social activist Norman Lear ("All in the Family") to see if he could help. He did, by joining her to set up the Imagen Awards and subsequent Imagen Foundation. They spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Randee Dawn.

The Hollywood Reporter: Norman, could the kind of groundbreaking shows you did in the 1970s work on TV today with Latinos?

Norman Lear: Absolutely -- it just has to get off the ground.

Helen Hernandez:
And they'd have to give it time to be successful, not just three episodes (before they) pull the plug.

THR: Why is comedy often more effective than drama in getting across controversial ideas?

Lear: You know the old adage, "I laughed so hard I cried; I cried so hard I laughed." It's all on the same strand. When people are laughing, they're enjoying themselves so much it's like an IV drip; after a while you're not aware of the blood coming into you. When you laugh, the thought process isn't necessarily conscious, and people will laugh at things they might not otherwise tolerate.

NBC has a new series, "Undercover," with two African-Americans leads -- still not all that common. What has impeded speedier change for them and Latinos on the small screen?

It really depends on the executives, the people who make the decisions. Look at CBS and the "CSI" shows -- they're a pretty diverse group, and do pretty well in the ratings. As networks or production companies acknowledge that having diverse casts help ratings, that's when they'll be in the money. And depending on who those executives are who greenlight projects -- that's where the rubber meets the road.

What was your original inspiration for the Imagen Awards?

I took a lesson from the Emmys and the Academy Awards -- they started those awards to call attention to their product and elevate actors' reputations. It was an easily adaptable lesson: If you want to concentrate on one community, take a page from the leaders.

Hernandez: Who better than Norman, who got people to think as they watched television about so many social issues?

What's shifted in the entertainment industry for Latinos?

Hernandez: We gave only three awards out in 1985 and we were struggling to find people to give awards to. Today, if you look at the executive ranks, we're everywhere. Look at people like (CBS entertainment president) Nina Tassler, (NBC international distribution president) Belinda Menendez and (OWN CEO) Christina Norman. We'd like to think Imagen has had an influence in making that happen.

You can't always put your finger immediately on it, but these vibrations have had an impact.

Where has there been the least progress?

Hernandez: There needs to be a particular focus with writers, producers and executive producers on TV shows and films. There are some wonderful movies that can't get distribution; they're made independently, but then they struggle to get into movie theaters.

George Lopez and I have executive produced this very small movie coming out in the next couple of weeks ("El Superstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances"). It was done about two and a half years ago, but it has taken this long to come out.

THR: Is that because of the Latino content, or because all independent films have problems with distribution?

Lear: It's a distribution issue, but until there are more successes, people are going to be reluctant to go with Mexican faces. Of course, this is how business works: The minute someone has a hit, there will be more people eager to copy it. It's the American way, in a sense.

Why is it important to keep pushing for increased Latino participation in entertainment?

Hernandez: We're a melting pot, and creating a better understanding of the cultures that make up this country is important. We want to provide opportunity and inclusion to people trying to get into the industry.

Lear: At its core, the immigration issue is that people are concerned that they'll be outnumbered for jobs. That's 180 degrees from what the plaque on the Statue of Liberty states. We need educational outreach, and Imagen is about educating people to understand different cultures.

Do the Imagen Awards have the same relevance they did in 1985?

Lear: More so, now that the awards culture is so dense. It's a miracle in the last 25 years what has happened: We now have a culture that puts Lindsay Lohan on the front pages while we're fighting two wars. Imagen gets its press and does make a point and attention is paid by all the studios and the networks. It's a real force now.

We've made major strides. We started with a little luncheon with 100 people in attendance. Latino awards programs come and go, but we're still chugging along.

Where will Imagen be in five or 10 years?

Hernandez: I see us continuing to do what we've been doing in regards to the awards program. There's still a lot to do for all minorities. Norman sent me to Israel in 1984; it was a diplomatic tour of Israel and Egypt. In Israel, one thing that struck me was how I look like everyone else: I have a very Mediterranean look. But when you come back to the U.S., it isn't that way. The diversity here is different than diversity there, and once we begin to accept people for who they are, and not rate them on how they look, we'll have achieved true diversity.

THR: So in a perfect world, we don't need Imagen.

Hernandez: Exactly. But that's a perfect world.
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