To Answer Hollywood's Diversity Problem, California Program Hands Kids The Camera This weekend, Youth Cinema Project students screened their films for the public. The program aims to create a pipeline to get kids of color in underachieving schools into the filmmaking industry.

To Answer Hollywood's Diversity Problem, California Program Hands Kids The Camera

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's stay on the topic of getting America's next generation ready to make their mark. But this time, we're talking about a very special workplace - Hollywood.

ANALI CABRERA: I'm feeling so good. Like, I've been really excited for this. I've been looking forward to it. I'm definitely proud of the work I've done.

MARTIN: That's 17-year-old Anali Cabrera at Hollywood's famed TCL Chinese Theatre yesterday. She's one of hundreds of California student filmmakers whose work is being screened this weekend at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. The students are part of the youth cinema project which, as NPR's Anjuli Sastry reports, aims to create a pipeline for young filmmakers of color.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Crosstalk).

ANJULI SASTRY, BYLINE: It's the last week of school for the fifth graders at Union Avenue Elementary when I meet them. I get a few curious stares from some of these kids. Their teacher, Erika Sabel Flores, intervenes.

ERIKA SABEL FLORES: Yeah, you know what this is, right?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yeah, I know.

FLORES: And what is this?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: The mixer.

FLORES: Yes, the sound mixer.

SASTRY: So they're talking about my radio equipment. These aren't just any kids - they're filmmakers. They use Blackmagic 4K video cameras, boom mics, professional software like DaVinci Resolve for editing. This is the most important part of the Youth Cinema Project, says executive director Rafael Agustin. It's hands-on. He's a writer for The CW TV show "Jane The Virgin." He thinks the kids are the answer.

RAFAEL AGUSTIN: The answer to #oscarssowhite is not changing voting regulations or requirements. And I say that with the utmost respect since our founder, Edward James Olmos, is a voting member of the academy. The answer to #oscarssowhite truly is developing communities of color at an earlier age.

SASTRY: Actor Olmos founded the Youth Cinema Project five years ago. The program school was to help kids graduate from high school and get into college. They partnered with 16 California school districts to gather and analyze data to see whether the program worked. Agustin says what they found surprised them.

AGUSTIN: We started doubling reading and writing proficiency, tripling school engagement, creating social and emotional empowerment in the classroom by students writing and telling their own personal stories.

CABRERA: I've wanted to be in film since I was about 11, so it's always been a passion of mine.

SASTRY: One of those students telling her story through her films is 17-year-old high school graduate Anali Cabrera. Her movie is a romantic comedy set in the heart of Los Angeles.

CABRERA: I made a film called "Luna At Moonlight." So it takes place in Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUNA AT MOONLIGHT")

CABRERA: And it's about this girl who falls deeply in love with a guide at Rollerway.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUNA AT MOONLIGHT")

FREDDY TIJERINO: (As character) So what's your name, anyways?

LEONISSA DUARTE: (As Luna) Luna. What's yours?

TIJERINO: (As character) My name is Dion (ph). You look familiar. Do you go to Rosewood Park?

DUARTE: (As Luna) Yeah. How'd you know?

TIJERINO: (As character) I play basketball there.

CABRERA: She spends the next couple months rollerskating around her neighborhood trying to reunite with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUNA AT MOONLIGHT")

DUARTE: (As Luna) I've been thinking about his hair, his eyes, his smile. I just have to find him.

SASTRY: Cabrera is headed to UCLA in the fall to study filmmaking. She says she wouldn't be doing so without the help of the Youth Cinema Project. And colleges are taking note. Chapman University gave ten full scholarships to Youth Cinema Project students to study filmmaking. Ana-Christina Ramon is the co-author of the annual Hollywood Diversity Report put out by UCLA. It's widely read in the industry and measures diversity in front of and behind the camera.

ANA-CHRISTINA RAMON: You have to start somewhere. And thinking about Hollywood and increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in the industry, you have to really attack the problem from all different angles.

SASTRY: Still, Ramon says, there remain challenges to a program like this succeeding - for example, skepticism in working-class communities to the profession of filmmaking. She says the program can put pressure on other parts of Hollywood in addition to the academy, urging studios and networks to look at this talent pool.

RAMON: It's never really been a pool problem. You know, the excuse is always, like, oh, well, do they have enough, like, experience? You know, do they have credits? But when you give kids the training like - that they receive in this program, they have no excuse.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Crosstalk).

SASTRY: Back at Union Avenue Elementary School, the fifth graders are wrapping up their day.

FLORES: You guys are going to middle school. So who can tell me - think about it, discuss it with a friend or whatever - but who can tell me one thing you learned at YCP that you think you can use when you go to middle school?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Networking.

FLORES: Networking. Yes, newtorking.

BEN: What about staying organized? Did anyone learn to stay organized?

SASTRY: The school year is officially over, but the Youth Cinema Project will resume in the fall to teach filmmaking to the next crop of kids. Anjuli Sastry, NPR News, Hollywood.

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