Byline: Mandy Ellis
Decades of building an award-winning digital marketing and technology agency led Damien Navarro into perfect timing for the executive director role at Outfest. Although the “really cool day job” happened to fall into his path in a strange way, his friends like to joke that “it’s like going from being a gay professional to a professional gay.”
The Out100 list-maker combined his film school, marketing, and event background to push Outfest to new digital heights, garner wider audiences, share breathtaking stories, and reach incredible goals; including 70 percent of their films coming from People of Color (POC), women, and trans directors.
EMINUTES, who recently provided a grant to Outfest, sat down with Navarro to talk about his new job, why it’s crucial for the LGBTQIA+ community to have visibility in the film industry, how Outfest films address diversity and inclusion, advice for underrepresented filmmakers, and the urban farm and sanctuary he runs with his doctor husband.
You’ve been with Outfest a little over a year. What made you want to work with this organization, and have there been any major changes during your time there?
It was kind of the perfect intersection of everything I’d completed career-wise without actually flipping over to truly the mission-based, nonprofit side. I’d worked with many nonprofits over many years with my agency, went to film school, and was interested in entertainment.
In some ways, I’m pretty lucky because Outfest had undertaken a pretty aggressive strategic plan for about two to three years prior to my tenure beginning. And I was given essentially an accelerated blueprint that encompassed a lot of what we’re doing today like figuring out how to expand our programs non-festival, festival, and digital, how to take the show on the road, and how can we grow from a regional footprint to national and global.
What was your first Outfest experience like when you were a student at Cal State Fullerton? Did that drive you to want to work with the company in the future?
Getting to explore Outfest multiple times throughout my non-queer professional career, for me, was awe-inspiring. To see that much quality storytelling from a community in which it was so rare to see yourself represented, it was pretty incredible, and haunted me in the best of ways throughout my career as gnawing on my shoulder of how critical it was to eventually put my powers for good…little did I know that would come from the executive director role.
Why is it so critical for unique storytellers from the LGBTQIA+ community to have visibility in the film industry?
When you talk about how change happens, if we’re talking sexuality, if we encompass gender, if we look at LGBTQIA+, which is underrepresented voices, it isn’t just through a filmmaker’s voice or screenwriter’s voice, it could be internships, accounting, insurance. You have to affect change from every corner if you’re truly going to enact change. It isn’t just a matter of getting stories from this particular community told. It’s also looking at every angle across the industry to understand how that collective voice in decision-making might be keeping our stories out or rainbow washing them. When it comes to our voices in the industry, we’re looking outside of film and implementing change in diversity across all facets of organizations and studios.
Why is it important to support a project like the Outfest Screenwriting Lab?
Because that’s where it all begins. It’s been very important for the screenwriting lab to reflect the modern times so we’ve opened it up to animated scripts, mini-series, web series, and television pilots. It’s been critical that we reflect the type of content that’s being greenlit today. The screenwriting lab is one of the most critical beginning pieces of somebody’s potential career. It’s why I feel like it’s the gestation of everything that’s to come in the future by supporting the screenwriting lab.
What are a few of the most important pieces of guidance or direction Screenwriting Lab Fellows receive during their year of mentorship?
Our fellows get one-on-one time with the experts. Successful individuals who have come before them and have hopefully sat in those writing rooms or been at those nervous first pitches. Who understand not only structure, but the nuance that comes with great storytelling. When it comes to format or arc, protagonists and antagonists, and different types of studios and what they’re looking for, that’s not something you get in a normal classroom, much less in a webinar or reading a book.
The time is spent in that particular type of mentorship, and it’s about structuring and working through their screenplay. Then when they work with a director and bring one of their scenes to life, for many, it’s the first time they’ve had the opportunity to see something expressed in a physical form. To actually see the full circle of how that works together prepares Fellows in a different way for the professional side of the business.
How do the Outfest films address diversity and inclusion to help underrepresented filmmakers succeed?
We’re trying to reflect the times that are, but also the times as we would like them to be. Being able to curate from thousands of films, especially from People of Color (POC), female filmmakers, even trans filmmakers, is not something most development teams at studios, television networks, or web giants have access to. To comb through and find those gems of filmmakers from cities that would never give them an opportunity to walk into the Mouse or DreamWorks animation. We play a critical role and are a center spoke in where those stories can be sent and gain respect for many, many years, and sometimes, provide the last piece that’s needed to go from obscurity to a mainstream film or series.
What has been the most impactful for you while working at Outfest? Any stories that have stuck with you?
How progressive it’s been in continuing to keep up with the real needs of both storytellers and the public because they don’t always match up. Nonprofits, the government, corporate foundations, can sometimes move slowly. I’ve been so impressed with how we started a new program last year called the Anthony Meindl trans acting fellowship to address the distinct challenge we saw where there weren’t enough trans actors that had been mentored and trained to fill roles that were popping up.
One of my favorite stories is a young African man who barely escaped his country with his life, and came to Los Angeles as a refugee and had been put up because he was queer. He worked with the Catholic Church extensively and in content and doing videos, but when they found out he was queer in Ethiopia, that’s when he came to the US.
We were talking about how he was at the LGBT Center taking advantage of their mental health programs, and dealing with PTSD from his experiences. And his therapist told him to go to Outfest Los Angeles and check out a couple of films. So he applied for and received a free pass, then volunteered and got to experience his first ever large gathering of community. He saw films that he never thought he would see, and seeing how much that changed his life in building hope for himself made me tear up.
Why do you believe the power of storytelling, especially from LGBTQIA+ filmmakers, can create lasting social change?
Because there’s just something about seeing individuals that you don’t normally have an opportunity to interact with in unique storylines that very much reflect your own that I feel is long lasting. And 70 percent of our films this year were from POC, women, or trans directors, and they were just as exciting and engaging, and viewers still saw themselves represented. That was an important step for the global community to watch happen. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need is to see ourselves within the same context, or for others to see us in the same context and realize, I’m still laughing, I’m still connecting with these characters.
How does the EMINUTES sponsorship impact Outfest? Any plans so far?
We talk about the evolution of brand partnerships and it’s a cross section between storytelling and brand. How do you move from being a brand sponsor to a brand champion? We’re cognizant about who we’re using and want to know who’s behind the corporations; especially when it comes to finding unique partnerships for something like the Screenwriting Lab.
Our first conversations with EMinutes were not your typical ones, which are usually, “what do I get out of it? What’s the short-term gain?” Instead, new businesses are really understanding and learning that if I have a long-term strategy, that’s going to go beyond a traditional sponsorship. As we grow our digital footprint, we hope to have many more fellows in the Screenwriting Lab, and the way you get there is through unique partnerships like this one.
Second, the LLC and how to form a company; these things aren’t taught in film, art, or creative schools. And there’s a unique gap that’s evident as these emerging or established entertainment professionals get themselves set up. People are becoming business-savvy, and when you have tech-backed companies like EMinutes, it’s important for them to have the right voice and platform, and for us, being able to provide a resource that we understand is important going forward is crucial.
What made you start Monkey Business Farms and what kinds of animals and produce can one expect there?
Monkey Business Farms was very much my husband’s dream. He’s the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who relocated to Canada, and started one of the most prominent chicken farms in Quebec. When I met him, he already had three chickens and two goats in his bungalow backyard. It was his dream to look outside and see dozens of animals, and I was happy to jump in with both feet and make that happen.
We now have three goats, about a dozen chickens, two pigs, an aviary with bees and fresh honey, and potentially, a sulcata tortoise. There’s an ever-rotating menagerie, and it’s a place where people can drop off animals and we help place them. Sometimes you’ll walk outside, and there’ll be a random new chicken. We’ve also got about 100 varietals of fruits, vegetables, herbs always rotating.
When you’re not trying to uplift the world through transformational films, who are you and what are you doing?
Right now, during COVID, I’m trying to be the good husband. My husband is in El Paso running a medical clinic for COVID patients, and he’s been extremely stressed working three or four different jobs. So being a good defense and support agent for him, making sure that he’s had some downtime, and being a good Guncle.
I’m also an adventure seeker, and I love complimentary consulting; I feel like Lucy in Peanuts, with the “Therapist Is In” sign. I’m always inviting people to sit down and chat with me after so many years in business with different clients.
What film or Outfest project are you most proud of?
Something we’ve done at Outfest to pivot is becoming a bit more agency-like. And working on the film Disclosure from Netflix knowing so many of the trans talent that’s featured in that documentary, and some sit on our board. I was a bit temperamental about getting in because I know how critical it is for that community to get the right support and allies, but it has been one of the most breathtaking things in getting to know so many of them.
To see a film like Disclosure where they held a mirror up to Hollywood about how it has treated the trans community, and going to Sundance last year, which is now not a luxury, but my job. Sitting down with Zackary Drucker, my board member and watching her and so many of the people she has brought into my life on the film. Then getting to help launch it at Netflix through these new channels, and a live Q&A, and bringing in producers that was pretty amazing to get that kind of intimacy in a project, but also genuinely help it in such a unique way.
What should we be looking for in the future of Outfest, with all its incredible projects and filmmakers?
We’ll be expanding our programs and using this to make ourselves as uncomfortable as it has been for so many, and using that discomfort to channel true innovation. We want to get so far away from comfort that it becomes the new normal. Whether that’s launching a national screenwriting lab program or taking our young filmmakers project, the Outset program, and partnering with an organization like Centrelink to bring it to all centers and expand our footprint digitally. It’s finding the right partners to help accelerate that reach domestically and internationally.
What advice would you give to aspiring LGBTQIA + filmmakers?
Never be afraid to ask and hear “no” because that word, “no,” in our community, has such greater weight than other underrepresented groups. Start asking questions that you may hear “no” to because the more times you do, the more likely you’ll get a “yes,” while building a thicker skin around rejection. The second is never stop. The resilience that’s hopefully coming for this generation in dealing with the pandemic and challenges is only going to make us greater.
BIO: Damien Navarro is the executive director at Outfest, a 40-year-old nonprofit that creates queer film festivals and educational programs, in Los Angeles, CA. He also made Out Magazine’s 2020 Out100 list.