In 2020, Women in Hollywood reported that of all screenwriters currently employed in major studios, an average of 3.1% self-identified as Latinx. That same year, women were 29.6% of screenwriters. In 2021, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that only 5% of characters in films were of Latinx background in 2019. Thankfully, just over half of them were women or girls.
On the whole, it’s common knowledge that getting a job in Hollywood is tough, and belonging to a marginalized community (or two!) can definitely diminish one’s chances. And the identities of those who do get selected definitely have an impact on the types of projects that get made.
Film and television all begin on the page, and so it’s pivotal to understand the role of screenwriters. To get a better idea of the challenges they face, I spoke to three Latina screenwriters who opened up about the struggles and rewards of creating. April Sánchez is based in Austin, TX and is Mexican-American. She’s been a semifinalist for the Academy Nicholls and Universal Screenwriting. Paloma Riojas is based in Los Angeles, CA and was a development executive for five years before taking the plunge into screenwriting. She is Mexican and was born and raised in California. María Corina Ramirez is Venezuelan-American and grew up in Miami. She acted before directing and screenwriting works such as festival favorite Bridges.
INGRID CRUZ: What did you know about screenwriting as a profession before you began?
APRIL SÁNCHEZ: I knew what scripts were, but I didn’t understand all that was involved. I was more familiar with stage plays. Now that I look back, I’ve really come a long way.
PALOMA RIOJAS: I actually started out as an executive in the industry and didn’t transition to screenwriting until about 2020 during the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, a lot of my production jobs were all put on hold. It was kind of a revelation: what do I really want to do moving forward? And that was to be a screenwriter. I had a good sense of what it meant to be in the industry before that but I didn’t know the minutiae of what it means to be a screenwriter, specifically in television. I’ve been learning a lot as I’ve gone on.
MARÍA CORINA RAMIREZ: I didn’t know much. I’ve been acting from a very young age, and I happened to fall into writing in college. I realized that there was a big gap in roles for people that looked like me. That made me take an interest in screenwriting.
There are universal truths that make us human. The problem is that Latinos, the Latinx community, women of color, people of color have not been represented as three-dimensional humans enough on screen or in books.Paloma Riojas
INGRID CRUZ: What was your biggest surprise in dealing with the business side of screenwriting?
APRIL SÁNCHEZ: How hard it would be to get anywhere and just how much perseverance you really need to stick with screenwriting. After you get your first opportunity it doesn’t guarantee the next.
PALOMA RIOJAS: This industry in general has a lot of hurdles, obstacles, and gatekeepers that you don’t necessarily see. [There’s an expectation of] a lot of free development work. A strategy in my old representation was to get me open writing assignments (OWAs). You basically pitch a whole take on a TV show or a book adaptation or feature film. When I first started, it could take up to three weeks. None of it paid. You’re really working a good amount of time for really awesome opportunities, but with no guarantees or pay.
MARÍA CORINA RAMIREZ: My biggest surprise has been how much of a puzzle it is to put pieces together when it comes to the Latinx community. Once the project is written and I’m in the process of packaging them into films and TV series, we fall into a challenge: for things to be greenlit, you need to have what the industry calls ‘star power’…In the Latinx community, there’s a limited number of people who have such big platforms. It becomes tricky when you want to be really authentic.
INGRID CRUZ: Roughly how long can it take to go from an outline to a finished draft?
MARÍA CORINA RAMIREZ: It’s been different for every project. The first time I ever wrote a screenplay it took years to finish because I was so afraid of it. I would start and then walk away from it. For one of the projects I have in the pipeline right now, it took three days to finish a full draft. Another one I started writing during lockdown took me three months. To me, writing is more like having a download and it’s just moved through me. I can’t ever really predict how fast or how long the download is going to take. I just kind of listen to it.
The first thing that anybody can do regardless of who you are and where you’re from is learn the basics.April Sánchez
INGRID CRUZ: And how long can it take to go from a finished draft to production?
PALOMA RIOJAS: I have a couple projects that are original that I have been taking through development or have taken through development at a certain point and [they’re] still there five years later. On average it takes probably two to five years for projects to get from inception to potentially on screen, even when you are with people who have stronger track records.
MARÍA CORINA RAMIREZ: Raising money is an important part of finding the right key people. It can take a month, two years, or three years. Once you have funds to do it independently or with a bit more backing, it can take two to three months to get the cast and locations, set the schedule, and put all the artistic things together. Then you have production and post-production. In my experience, post has been the longest. My film was independent, and the TV show that I worked on for Complex network and Matt Damon was backed by a small studio. Those are very different experiences.
INGRID CRUZ: There are many aspects of Latinx identity. How do you stay calm in dealing with these issues while also continuing to do your work?
APRIL SÁNCHEZ: I usually deal with it by being specific [when a character is] Mexican-American, Bolivian, or Peruvian. Sometimes I go back and try to incorporate terminology dependent on the situation.
PALOMA RIOJAS: There are universal truths that make us human. The problem is that Latinos, the Latinx community, women of color, people of color have not been represented as three-dimensional humans enough on screen or in books. A lot of the time we’re left to these stereotyped, one-dimensional flat secondary characters. How do we keep authenticity, and niche and specific points of view, in a machine that wants the most amount of people to watch what you’re creating? I think sometimes there are compromises. Sometimes there are shows that stand out that are breaking the barriers down for us to be more authentic and not to have to cave in.
MARÍA CORINA RAMIREZ: For lack of better terms, I always cared more about doing this for ‘the artistry.’ Now that I’m in the business, I really have made it a point to be bold and stand my ground about how important it is for me to continue to push the conversation forward. There’s a movie I’m working on right now where producers suggested blond, blue-eyed Latinas and I don’t want to keep repeating that [narrative]. If I have to hold a project [to find better representation], I will hold.
My biggest surprise has been how much of a puzzle it is to put pieces together when it comes to the Latinx community.María Corina Ramirez
INGRID CRUZ: What has been the most rewarding side of screenwriting?
APRIL SÁNCHEZ: The people I’ve met and worked with along the way. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
PALOMA RIOJAS: I love storytelling. I love co-creating with other people. I love being able to have the opportunity to help shape and influence culture in a way that I feel has been totally neglected for women of color, Latinx [folks], and the queer community.
MARÍA CORINA RAMIREZ: The most rewarding side has been connecting with the community. During the film festival circuit with Bridges, I had the opportunity to be in screenings where there were a lot of Dreamers in the audience. It was really special hearing their feedback and seeing how moved they were to see themselves represented in a way that they had never before.
INGRID CRUZ: What advice do you have for folks who want to start screenwriting?
APRIL SÁNCHEZ: The first thing that anybody can do regardless of who you are and where you’re from is learn the basics. Formatting and structure. I know not everybody has access or funds to take courses, but if they have access to the internet or a library there are resources to help you get the basics down.
PALOMA RIOJAS: You really have to love cultivating your craft as a writer. Writing is not for the faint of heart. Immerse yourself in writing and in being curious and open about the world because what you’re really doing is noting down the human experience. You do that in two ways: by being alive and having experiences.
MARÍA CORINA RAMIREZ: Just write it. What stops a lot of people is the need for the first thing to be perfect or to be good. You can’t really get from A to Z if you don’t start