Ian Skorodin has one of those career trajectories that every student dreams of when they graduate from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Within a year of graduating, his first feature film, Tushka, premiered at Sundance and won the Reel Frontier Award for best narrative feature at the Arizona International Film Festival.
“It was inspired by [filmmakers Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez] and it’s a drama,” Skorodin explained to In The Know. “It’s [based on] a mix of several instances that happened to a lot of Native communities in [the 70s].”
Tushka is loosely based on the real story of John Trudell, a Native American activist who led a rally at FBI headquarters in protest of the government’s treatment of Native communities. Famously, Trudell burned an American flag in the process. Two days later, his house was firebombed and his parents, wife and children were killed.
Skorodin is a member of the Chocktaw Nation and moved to Los Angeles in 1999 after graduating from NYU. He credits his first year promoting Tushka around the national festival circuit with opening his eyes to how much of a resource festivals are for up-and-coming writers and directors. He knew he could do something to help Native filmmakers.
“After going to Sundance and doing a festival circuit at very high-end festivals, you see what a festival — a genuine festival — really should provide for the filmmakers,” he explained. “A great venue, good attendance, good audience and then opportunity as a filmmaker career-wise, whether that be from screenings — maybe you get distribution or maybe you get some kind of gig or job from that.”
That was the inspiration behind his founding of LA Skins Fest, in 2007, which has since evolved into one of the most well-known and renowned Native American film festivals in the country. LA Skins Fest is hosted at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and screens over 65 films annually.
(Full disclosure: Yahoo has served as a co-sponsor for various Barcid Foundation events, including the LA Skins Fest and unscripted writing workshops. Skorodin is the founder and CEO of the Barcid Foundation.)
“We work with a lot of the community here in L.A. We have a very large Native community here. And it’s our 16th year, so we’ve built up a very large community of filmmakers,” he added. “We really do try to provide those opportunities.”
The 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report reported that Native representation in film was at 0.6%, while Native representation in TV was basically nonexistent. Fortunately, since the report’s publication, shows like Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs and films like Prey and Nightraiders are putting more Native actors in front of and behind the camera. But it’s still only the beginning.
LA Skins Fest does not receive financial aid from the government, so a lot of work goes into making sure the filmmakers being represented in the festival still receive attention and opportunities. Two years after founding LA Skins Fest, Skorodin opened up a youth program where board members would travel to reservations to encourage Native youth to submit short films.
“[The Native kids] present [their films] to the community and go on tours of studios and learn more about the industry,” Skorodin said. “We really try to encourage youth to be more a part of all that’s involved in media.”
Overseeing other Native-focused programs, like the Native American TV Writers Lab and the Native American Unscripted Workshop, is the Native American Media Alliance (NAMA). In partnership with the Motion Picture Association, NAA offers programming, creative support, development and financial grants to aspiring Native filmmakers.
But Skorodin’s priority with these initiatives is to encourage long-term investments in the Native community from larger corporations. Skorodin says that media companies tend to chase “the shiny thing,” and he doesn’t want Native stories and employment in front of and behind the camera to fall into that category.
“As a Native person, when I go to a lot of corporations, especially in media, and I speak to their diversity, equity, and inclusion departments, it’s typically not a Native American person,” he said. “It makes it tougher for what might be considered smaller communities, like the Native community, to get that support. So one of the ways to combat that is having so many programs that align with what media companies need.”
What is also exciting to Skorodin is how accessible filmmaking has become — especially since his time at NYU. He described the struggle of finding available resources on campus to help with his editing and sound. Now, everyone can film on their iPhones and edit from anywhere on their laptops.
“Now we can really focus on story and character,” he said. “All the advantages are there. It’s up to the artist now to find that self-discipline and start to execute content.”
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