Writer/director/producer Shawna Baca is a self-taught filmmaker, with experience in short films, spec commercials, and webisode development. She leveraged that experience into wider exposure and success, ultimately putting together her own production company. June 2012.
BECOMING A STORYTELLER
We asked Baca what an emerging writer needs in order to become an effective storyteller. “When I became a filmmaker,” Baca says, “I considered myself as a storyteller, not necessarily a writer. Even though I wrote my own material, what I gravitated to more than the material was the intention or purpose of the story and how we were all emotionally influenced by that story. I didn’t go to school for screenwriting but what I was good at was strumming up the creative imagination to sit around, make up stories in front of small audiences, mostly family and friends, that would engage and hook them in.”
Baca’s appreciation for storytelling has deep roots. “I was raised by my Yaqui/Apache grandmother for the first four years of my life before going to live with my mother. Storytelling was always an important way for me to learn about our history, or things going on in the world around me. I used to love sitting around waiting for my mother or grandmother to tell me a great story. It always whisked my imagination to a wonderful place of make believe and that place is where I felt emotionally invested, fulfilled, happy or aware.
“Since I am a filmmaker I consider the overall process as a way of creating magic to make your story come to life. I believe that my grandmother’s early influence helped me shape my life. I had no idea that I was so culturally downloaded with her indigenous richness, which later my mother helped solidify.”
For Baca, “… writing a good story is key but then knowing how to make that story breathe life is the magical part that makes each filmmaker unique in his or her own right. You can give ten filmmakers the same script and I guarantee you they will all have their own artistic value and uniqueness. No two films will be exactly alike when you add in color palettes, tones, editing, score, etc.”
WRITING FOR AN ETHNIC MARKET
Story can have universal appeal and meaning, of course, but a good story will not necessarily translate into a commercial success. We asked Baca if there are distinct story values that may appeal to an ethnic or diverse market, rather than a broad, generic demographic. How does a writer/storyteller develop these kinds of stories?
“I think this is the million dollar question,” she answers. “Ideally, I have always considered myself American. I had no idea how much culture I had embedded in me until I started writing my own material.” Initially she wrote a lot of material with Native American or Latin leads. “But then,” she says, “people would consider it a small film, small budget, an independent film. Recently, I co-wrote a screenplay that has two Latin leads. We had a table read for the film and received some great feedback, but most people thought of the film as a small art house film that had no commercial value.
“Four months later, we had another table reading and invited a new group of industry people who had not been to the previous reading. This time we changed one of the main leads to a Caucasian woman who was raising her bi-racial grandson. At the end of the reading everyone kept talking about how this was a commercial film with a universal appeal that everyone could relate to and understand. The story itself didn’t change nor the synopsis. The only difference between commercial or not seemed to be the decision to change one of the characters to a Caucasian actress versus making the two leads Latino. This seemed to change people in the industry’s perception about the screenplay without them being consciously aware of our one minor change.”
Baca states that Latinos are the highest grossing consumers of entertainment, and those numbers are rising. “Latinos are going to see the Batman and Avenger movies, for sure, but movies centered around a Latino family are not really getting the production budgets that the Avengers are getting and the distribution companies don’t spend the same amount of money on marketing and advertising budgets for Latino films.”
4 ELEMENTS ENTERTAINMENT
“I did not go to film school,” Baca says. “I did take theater courses and business courses in college. When I started doing community theatre in San Diego, I realized that I could do just as good a job producing theatre productions as the ones I’ve been in. So, a few friends and I started a theatre production company and rented out space in downtown San Diego. We didn’t have any idea that theatre didn’t make money but we were all pretty marketing savvy. We had successful runs that were able to garner a lot of exposure. This made me want to move back to Los Angeles and pursue filmmaking.”
After her start in making short films, Baca started a production company. “All filmmakers work under a pseudo production company that all their work umbrellas under,” she says. When she was selected from out of 20,000 filmmakers by Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg to participate in their Fox reality show, ON THE LOT, she started getting hired directly by companies to produce new media and web content. “This was also blessed,” she says, “by a good timing of computer technology and the internet that corporate companies wanted to invest money into internet advertising. So, my pseudo production company became a bonafide production company through the successes of my short films and exposure as a filmmaker.”
Baca’s production company, 4 Elements Entertainment, now develops film and new media projects that target America’s growing multicultural audience. She estimates about seventy five percent of her production involves webisodes and other new media. “At first corporations were spending a lot of money in advertising in new media,” she says. “Then there seemed to be a big drop in budgets in 2009 when the economy hit a down turn. Then you had all these people uploading YouTube videos that went viral and it seemed like advertisers were pulling back the reins on where online content will go.”
She now sees an increase in corporations again spending more in their budgets for online advertising. “The internet is a powerful way to reach the masses but it is also still a little unpredictable. I was banking on when Facebook went public that the stock would skyrocket off the roof, but that wasn’t the case.”
When she had first moved back to Los Angeles, Baca took a job with eToys and witnessed the rise and the fall of one of the biggest dot com companies in history. That period of uncertainty has now given way to everyone shopping online. “The internet may be unpredictable,” she says, “but everyone is sure by now that it’s not going to go away.”
AMERICAN LATIN FILM FESTIVAL
In 2004 Baca created the American Latin Film Festival. She says that at the time studios were recruiting great directors from other Latin countries, but American Latino directors almost seemed to have no voice or presence, with the exception of the few like Robert Rodriguez, Franc. Reyes, and Rodrigo Garcia.
“The ironic thing about this,” Baca says, “with no disrespect to Latinos who were born outside the country, there is a difference in the storytelling. Culturally American Latinos are really the market that these studios are trying to achieve in reaching their demographics. I’m a third generation, which means my mother and grandmother were born in this country. I don’t know what it’s like to live in another country and move to the US. I also think differently than Latinos who were born in other countries because I’m a mish mosh of American, Latin, and Native American.”
Baca recalls taking a psychology class once around Thanksgiving time. “The professor asked us all to take notice how our families celebrated Thanksgiving. I went to spend the week with my father’s side of the family who are Spanish. It was like we had two dinners. An American dinner that included a turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and rolls, and then a second option was tamales, rice, beans, and chili con carne. I never really thought about it from an assimilation perspective.”
Baca notes that “… directors who are American Latino understand what it’s like to be Latino in America. So then, why would the studios overlook the pool of talent that they have here in the US, who are the people they are trying to market movies to in the first place? It doesn’t make sense from the simplest logical perspective.”
This prompted Baca to start the American Latino Film Festival under Ricardo Montalban’s non-profit organization, NOSOTROS. Montalban founded the organization in 1971 to promote positive images of Latino talent in front of and behind the camera. “Maybe,” she says, “we don’t know how to market to the Latino population because we are not looking for the right storytellers to capture the hearts of the mainstream market, and with the growing numbers of the Latino population, I’m sure we are moving right into the majority of the population.”
WRITE WHAT IS POSSIBLE
Baca’s experience with a wide range of pre-production and post-production work gives her a distinct advantage. “I think every director should know pre-production through post-production,” she says. “It’s really in a way their job to know this.” Baca tries to write what is possible. “Most people will tell you just write whatever you want, whatever comes out, and don’t worry about budgets. I did that and now I have people say, why did you write a big budget action film. You should start out with a smaller independent film. I know when I’m writing something what I want to achieve, what’s possible to achieve and how to keep something at a smaller budget.”
Baca is very proud of doing her short films within a budget. “I always had high expectations and big ideas,” she says. “I had to learn ways to get what I want without looking like we didn’t have any money. When I did the reality show, I learned how to achieve what I want fast. Get in there and get out but don’t sacrifice the art.” Combining this attitude with her short-form experience of web content and short films brings her to the bottom line: “You just have to hustle.”