In the film capitol of America, just getting a start can be an obstacle too difficult to overcome.
Los Angeles has long been the epicenter of film production in the United States. James Lujan, a longtime Angelino by way of New Mexico, dedicates his time to helping Native Americans involved in the film industry crack into the business. Lujan, 39, (Taos Pueblo) is the planner and director of Intertribal Entertainment at the Southern California Indian Center. Lujan, who has done films on New Mexico’s UFO fascination, “High Strange New Mexico,” and participated in Sundance Film Festival’s Native Screenwriter’s Forum, develops the programming and direction for multimedia initiatives and provides training and employment opportunities for Native Americans in the film industry. The center gives talented Native Americans a chance to improve their skills while at the same time giving them a platform to jumpstart their careers.
“Since we are based in the Los Angeles area the entertainment industry is obviously one of the highest employers,” Lujan said. “The executive director of the organization, Paula Star, felt that this was a legitimate and viable way of providing employment opportunities for Native Americans who needed those opportunities.”
But this can be a daunting task in a place where cooks, waitresses, bus boys and bartender -- almost everyone and anyone -- is an actor, producer or screenwriter dying to get into the industry.
“It’s very competitive, but there is also a lot of opportunity,” says Lujan, a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. “There’s not shortage of talent, what there has been for so long is a shortage of access to opportunities, to finance, to distribution.”
It is for this reason that Lujan is so proactive in creating jobs for ambitious Native filmmakers.
"There are several ways of doing it,” said Lujan, a 15-year veteran in the business, who is also a playwright and screenwriter. “You can bang on the doors of Hollywood and demand things to be done or you can create opportunities yourself and invite Hollywood to be a part of it and I chose the latter.”
To create more of these opportunities, Lujan began development of the Creative Spirit Script to Screen Shootout. The program, now in its third year, is an annual call for short screenplays from Native American writers all over the country. Two of these writers are selected and flown to Los Angeles where they are provided with a cast and a crew. They then spend a week shooting editing and screening their short film ideas.
“(We) have had a tremendous amount of success with these projects with the way…that these projects are showcasing the abilities of Native American talent both in front of and behind the camera,” Lujan said.
The films created in this program have been screened at festivals across the nation and won awards including “Best Short Film” and “Best Actress” at the International Cherokee film festival.
However, it’s not all about the finished product. It is also important to train young filmmakers for their future in the industry.
James Lujan with Camera“Anyone can just pick up a camera, but in order to be a filmmaker you have to go through the process,” Lujan said. “We want them to be prepared when they get in the mainstream.”
Once Native filmmakers are able to establish themselves, Lujan hopes they will create Native-themed films that appeal to a mainstream audience. This is something he feels hasn’t been done since Smoke Signals was produced ten years ago. He says there’s no shortage of stories from Native filmmakers or screenwriters but why our stories seem to connect with mainstream audiences lies in part with marketing. Another problem is a lack of access for many Native Americans.
“Part of it is a geographic thing, there are not many Native Americans in Hollywood,” said Lujan. “You have to be here.”
Another problem Natives sometime have is selling their ideas. In an industry that revolves around selling your ideas to get them produced, Lujan feels that a lot of Native Americans simply aren’t comfortable with the idea of promoting themselves.
“You have to be able to sell yourself,” Lujan said. “The people are making an investment in you, not necessarily your movie.”
Although obstacles exist, there are ways to achieve.
“They are overcome through creating situations where you can develop relationships and gain access to getting the movie made,” Lujan said.
If Native Americans can create films that resonate with non-Native audiences, he feels there is no reason why Native films can’t cross over to the mainstream. This would create greater revenue for other Native films while at the same time giving the Native people a stronger voice, something Lujan hopes will happen in the near future.
“I sense there is going to be a sort of revolution in Native film coming soon,” Lujan said. “Based on the amount of talent that’s coming out, there is something building that is really going to break within the next five years.”
by Zach Oliva