The Latino Students Building a Pipeline Into Hollywood

Erika Flores Youth Cinema Project
Youth Cinema Project participant Jocelyn Martinez (left), with VP of programs Erika Sabel Flores and participant Daniela Alarcon. (Youth Cinema Project)

Daniela Alarcon grew up devouring fantasy novels in Guatemala City, imagining scenes from the “Shadow and Bone” trilogy playing out like a film inside her head. But in Guatemala, she never seriously considered a filmmaking path. “My parents expected me to choose a career that would make money,” she said. 

In June 2019, Alarcon and her family immigrated to Los Angeles to seek asylum after cartels threatened her parents’ business. When she showed up on the first day of her freshman year at the Los Angeles Academy of Arts and Enterprise in downtown Los Angeles, she was surprised to see a Youth Cinema Project, or YCP, class on her schedule. “In Guatemala, I didn’t have any class options like Youth Cinema Project, so I was excited to see what the class was going to be about,” she said. 

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For her first class assignment, Alarcon wrote a fantasy script about twin girls born with superpowers. She titled it “A New World,” a story “about how power corrupts people,” she said. Because she couldn’t speak any English at the time, she wrote and pitched the script in Spanish with the help of a friend who translated it for the class. Alarcon’s idea was picked for one of two short films the class would make that year, and she would direct

Though she was initially nervous, it helped that many of her classmates spoke Spanish and served as translators. “The YCP mentors and I could only communicate with hand gestures or by pointing to things,” she said. “That was when I realized art is universal.” 

Alarcon, now a freshman studying film production at California State University, Northridge, credits YCP with being the first and only program that took a chance on her as an emerging filmmaker and invested in her growth. “When I moved to the U.S., I felt the familial and cultural aspects that YCP kept from the Latino community,” she said. “Their encouragement made me feel like I was family or a loved one. Throughout the years, I wouldn’t have had any of these opportunities without them.” 

Youth cinema project
Daniela Alarcon directing her student film. (Youth Cinema Project)

The Youth Cinema Project, an initiative of the Latino Film Institute, is a project-based program that annually leads about 1,500 fourth through 12th graders in California’s Title I schools through the filmmaking process. By the end of the year, each group will not only have a solid grasp of industry skills; it will have produced a short film to show at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. 

At its core, the program hopes to address the severe underrepresentation of Latinos in the film industry. Although Latinos make up 39% of California’s population, Latino representation in Hollywood is lagging — with Latinos making up only 3% of on-screen representation and 7% of media industry jobs.

“We’re in L.A.,” said Erika Sabel Flores, the vice president of programs and innovation at the Latino Film Institute. “The filming is literally happening in our backyards, but these kids don’t even know that these unionized jobs can pay a lot of money or that it’s a possibility for them.” 

Through hands-on training and years of sustained guidance, the Youth Cinema Project — which has produced over 600 student films since 2014 and whose participants have gone on to study filmmaking at California universities — hopes to make a dent in the number of Latino filmmakers both in front of and behind the camera. 

“We’ve created a potential pipeline from elementary schools to the Oscars,” Sabel Flores said. 

Teaching students industry standards

Mentorship is at the heart of the program. In the fall, students kick off their year by getting classroom instruction in all aspects of filmmaking from program mentors who work in the industry. Camila Saldarriaga, a documentary filmmaker who has been a mentor with the program for the past five years, said she and another mentor meet with the class twice a week for 90 minutes over several months to show students how to write a screenplay that is up to industry standards. 

“By teaching them how to write a script, we’re also getting them to understand the importance of connecting to their own lived experiences and telling their own stories,” she said. “Because we’re in under-represented communities, it’s really hard for them to see themselves on screen.” 

Toward the end of the fall semester, students learn how to pitch their ideas and scripts go through multiple rounds of edits. Saldarriaga said all of the classes are about active, project-based learning. “I talk for three minutes, and then we do an activity,” she said. “We’re trying to walk away from the typical public school format to show the students something different — social-emotional learning.”

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Youth Cinema Project mentor Camila Saldarriaga helps students with a script. (Youth Cinema Project)

The students share with the mentors during mock interviews why they’d like to be either directors, producers, cinematographers, actors, crew members or part of the sound and lighting teams before they dive into hands-on workshops to train in all the roles. Then, they head into pre-production, breaking down the scripts and creating shot lists and shooting schedules. They even apply for location “permits” on campus with the principal’s sign-off. 

Alarcon found herself swiftly learning English as she translated her ideas to the page, but directing student actors was difficult. “It was hard to try to guide actors, because I had never told someone how to feel and how to act out my words,” she said. “Actors were asking me, ‘What do you think I should do for this line?’ It was brand new for me to learn to direct like that.” 

Students have about six to seven days to shoot seven-minute films. Alarcon’s crew was small, so it could sometimes be challenging to jump from role to role. “We would shoot a little bit of the scene and then decide the costumes and makeup,” she said. “As a director, sometimes I had to help put actors’ makeup on.”

For mentors like Saldarriaga, it’s exhilarating to guide the students and let them work their magic. “It’s really beautiful when you get to see them in action,” she said. 

Throughout the year, they also visit the offices of industry partners such as United Talent Agency, Disney Channel and HBO, where they get to experience mock casting workshops and postproduction coloring sessions. Part of why the Youth Cinema Project organizes field trips is to put young Latino students in front of executives. “We are always advocating for more inclusion at these entertainment companies to move the needle on our representation,” Sabel Flores said. 

YCP isn’t just about filmmaking — it’s about socio-emotional growth

While the long-term goal is to get the kids jobs in the industry one day — most of the alumni are now in college or just about to graduate — more immediate goals include exposing them to the arts and to the outlet filmmaking provides for collaboration and confidence. 

With the program servicing Title I schools, most participants come from under-resourced communities; around 90% of participants speak Spanish. In a 2019 Stanford study of the program, students reported that they learned to manage their emotions and problem-solve as a team, while teachers saw students who had struggled academically gain confidence in the classroom and complete challenging academic tasks. Researchers also observed gains in English language arts abilities, leadership skills and resilience. 

For students who don’t view school as “a place where they are welcome or can succeed,” a program like YCP could “alleviate the current performance gaps, [build] socially and emotionally competent students, and possibly [change] the trajectory of diverse students’ lives,” the study concluded.

Sabel Flores echoed the findings — in under-resourced schools, she said, students are often not held to the same expectations as at wealthier schools, so it’s up to the Youth Cinema Project to set a high bar and push them to meet high standards through a rigorous curriculum. 

“When we go in there, we treat everyone like they’re all going to Harvard. The students complain and say this is so hard, and we tell them, ‘Take yourself seriously.’ It’s just that nobody gives them an opportunity a lot of the time to do so,” she said. 

When she joined the Latino Film Institute in 2017, Sabel Flores noticed that Youth Cinema Project students who applied to filmmaking programs couldn’t compete with private school students who grew up with built-in resources and mentors. “You have to start in middle school at the latest, because by the time they apply for programs in high school, they’re already asked for samples,” Sabel Flores said. “So we decided to start earlier because, if not, it’s just going to be too late.”

youth cinema project
Emily Gomez on set for her Youth Cinema Project fellowship film. (Youth Cinema Project)

Emily Gomez, 15, a sophomore at University Prep Value High School, is one student moving up the pipeline. She grew up loving coming-of-age films like “Lady Bird” and “Dead Poets’ Society” and made a short film during her eighth-grade Youth Cinema Project class about a teenage girl resisting her brother’s move to college. After it screened at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival in 2022, she applied for the program’s fellowship, which helps 15 promising Youth Cinema Project alumni create portfolios for college. Last year, she won a scholarship to attend the California State Summer School for the Arts. Meeting mentors through the program and shadowing them on 10-day shoots inspired her to want to attend film school in the future. As an aspiring first-generation college student, Gomez said the most valuable part of the program is the guidance she has received. 

“Ever since I started with YCP, they told us that they’ll be there for us if we want to apply to colleges, if we want to get into film school or if we want to jump straight into the industry,” Gomez said. “It gives us a starting point, somewhere to jump off from. I think if I started this [process] alone, I wouldn’t know where to even begin.” 

Meanwhile, at CSUN, Alarcon is excited to explore Los Angeles’ immigration system and everyday life in Guatemala as a documentary film student. Having experienced discriminatory remarks when she speaks in Spanish, she hopes that her films can expose viewers to an immigrant’s point of view. 

“Films are a medium where you can let people know your ideas without being aggressive or forcing people to agree with you,” Alarcon said. “I want to show that we’re not here to do bad things. We’re not dangerous. We’re just trying to pass day by day.” 

🎬 Check Out These Other Student Filmmaking Programs 🎬
Here are some other programs working to increase representation in Hollywood.

Roybal Film and Television Production Magnet in Los Angeles is a specialized secondary school curriculum whose mission is to build a more inclusive pipeline of historically underrepresented students interested in the film and television industries. Funding was established by George Clooney and other industy heavyweights, with the support of NBCUniversal, Amazon, Paramount+ and others.

Ghetto Film School — with locations in New York City, LA and London — teaches more than 8,000 14- to 34-year-olds annually how to tell their stories through film. More than 90% of high school participants go onto college.

Kids in the Spotlight is a Los Angeles County-based organization that helps foster youth heal and grow from trauma through the power of storytelling and filmmaking. Over 1,000 youth have participated in their “script-to-screen” program, which provides vocational training through a trauma-informed model.

Film2Future is a nonprofit that delivers professional-level filmmaking programs for underserved teenagers in Los Angeles. Since its founding in 2016, F2F has secured over 117 jobs and internships for its students in the film industry.


Iris Kim is an NBCU Academy Storyteller. Previously, she was an associate producer at Wondery and a development assistant on HBO Max’s International TV team. She has written for NBC Asian America, Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, Electric Lit, Slate and TIME covering Asian American politics, identity and culture.