By VINCE MEEHAN
Ethan van Thillo is the Executive Director and Founder of the Media Arts Center San Diego (MACSD), a local non-profit whose mission is to help amateur and independent movie makers get a foot in the door of the somewhat exclusive cinematography world. Until recently, his center was located in a modest building tucked away in North Park. But earlier this year, he found a different home at Park & Market, a new modern complex Downtown which doubles as a residential tower as well as an extension for UCSD.
Thillo is also the founder of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which debuted 30 years ago as a small program that has grown into a 20,000-attendee event. However, Covid put the kibosh on most film festivals in 2020 and in-person movie attendance has yet to rebound completely since theaters have reopened. But Thillo is determined to get people back into the seats of theaters, especially screenings of the amateur or student films that he showcases. This year is looking to be on track as the breakout period for films in theaters as well as film festivals, and Thillo is ready to begin.
Thillo’s arts center serves as an incubator for San Diego and Tijuana’s future cinematographers and he goes through extra effort to make sure that nobody is left out. His youth programs are without equal. His center serves as a safe place for young film students to learn everything there is about the art and business of filmmaking.
“We have youth filmmaking programs like The Teen Producers Project and Youth Media Tech Camps,” Thillo offered. “We also have a video production department where we – it’s like a work readiness program – where young college students or recent college graduates get real world experience and produce content for other non-profits, organizations or even like news outlets like KPBS where we have a program called ‘Speak City Heights.’ And then we also run a movie theater!”
This theater, Digital Gym Cinema, was originally located in North Park but moved with the MACSD to Downtown last May in partnership with UCSD.
Thillo credits his passion for community service to his mother who served as his inspiration for becoming an educator, as well as a standout professor at his college who encouraged him to produce film festivals.
“My background was primarily with the Latino community. My mother was an educator and so I grew up watching her and learning from her in terms of what she did to help the community and young students, immigrants in particular. So when I went to UC Santa Cruz, I started taking Latin American studies classes and I had a cool Chicano Studies professor who said, ‘Hey, who wants to organize a Chicano film festival as part of your final student project?’ I naively said, ‘Yeah, sure, what the heck?’ Not knowing what the heck that was! I had to learn what exactly a Chicano film festival was,” Thillo explained.
He added that there is a whole cinema of U.S Mexican Americans in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His professor taught him how to meet with filmmakers. In those early years he also learned how to market, fund and contact filmmakers.
Thillo created his own Latino film festival here in San Diego in the early ‘90s, which still runs to this day. In fact, next year’s festival in March marks a huge milestone: it will be the 30th San Diego Latino Film Festival. The film festival will screen 120 films in 11 days with screenings at four auditoriums at the AMC Mission Valley and the main Digital Gym Cinema at the Digital Art Center. Eighty guest filmmakers and actors will be on hand from Mexico City, Tijuana, Latin America and across the United States. Thillo hopes that some of his students will someday have a film showcased at the festival.
Thillo did hold the first post-Covid Latino film festival earlier this year, but the attendance was well below average. He says the public as a whole is still a bit leery about coming together inside an enclosed theater, but they’ve also gotten used to watching movies at home through Netflix or other streaming services. He’s hoping that people come around by next year to take the festival back to the special experience that it was pre-Covid.
“I think its gonna take some kind of reacquainting people about the movie experience. There’s nothing like seeing a movie in a movie theater – the surround sound, the big screen. Even our cinema which is not huge, but still you’re immersed in this wonderful experience that you can’t get at home you know? So we encourage people to come out,” he said.
MACSD is equipped to teach students everything about filmmaking from shooting to editing to what it takes to run a theater. The first floor of the new building features a large multi-purpose open room complete with a huge LED screen. It can also be converted toa set up for concerts or seminars with state-of-the-art sound and light technology. The second floor houses the 58-seat working theater complete with concessions and a café area. The third floor contains classrooms and offices for the filmmaking program. There is also a large outdoor patio with a large video screen that can be used for screenings or receptions.
Thillo credits his success to the community relationships that he fostered in the last 30 years. He is especially proud of being able to bring disadvantaged kids to his youth programs.
“For 30 years we’ve built incredible community partnerships and as a non-profit, you can’t really survive without community partnerships. With our Youth Media Education Programs, we’ll partner with affordable housing organizations and teach their youth, or with local schools, we’ll teach their students. Our radio production department will partner with news outlets or school districts as well,” he said.
At this year’s summer camps, a special grant allows underserved families to send their kids. Thillo sees the importance of providing at-risk kids an opportunity to attend summer camps and after school programs where they can channel their creative forces into positive art and set a career course at the same time. He feels that his media center is the perfect spot to do that.
The nonprofit also partnered with the library system to open a production studio inside the City Heights library.
“We’re encouraging families and students to come to this new space because just imagine if you can get a student to be involved with our camps at seven years old? Then they get involved with our Teen Producers Project, and then… hey, they wanna go on in filmmaking and go into the UCSD Communications department! That would be the perfect thing if these young students from different neighborhoods – like Logan Heights for example – start meeting all the other professors and teachers and everyone else here in this building. That would be pretty incredible.”
Thillo feels like the move to this Downtown creative hive was serendipitous, but he noted that his community relationships have always been the key to success for his foundation, especially in regards to UCSD.
MACSD and the Park & Market building in which it is housed is a brand new wonder to behold with its state-of-the-art features and design. It rivals anything found in Los Angeles. Thillo is not only excited about the media arts center, but also the other creative entities that are now populating the space. He sees this as nothing but a plus that all these powerful organizations will be sharing the same air and feeding off each other’s energy.
“There’s just so much synergy and so many things that are going to take place at this location,” Thillo said with the wave of a hand. “There’s all these wonderful entities that are also housed here, different offices from UCSD are having their Downtown locations here. Like the Qualcomm Institute is down here; UCSD Extension is down here. There’s a college from CETYS – a university from Tijuana that’s here, the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the Economic Development Corporation, and the Malin Burnham Center. So all these different entities will be communicating and working together, figuring out how to cross promote and do programs together.”
The San Diego Latino Film Festival returns in March of 2023 with the 30th festival. For more info, go to: SDLatinoFilm.com