Ethan van Thillo is the Executive Director and Founder of Media Arts Center San Diego (MACSD), a local non-profit organization whose mission is to help amateur and independent filmmakers gain a foothold in the somewhat exclusive world of cinematography. Until recently, its center was housed in a modest building tucked away in North Park. But earlier this year, he found a different home at Park & Market, a modern new downtown complex that doubles as a residential tower as well as an extension for UCSD.
Thillo is also the founder of the San Diego Latin Film Festival, which started 30 years ago as a small program that grew into a 20,000-attendee event. However, Covid has put a stop to most film festivals in 2020 and in-person movie attendance has yet to fully rebound since cinemas reopened. But Thillo is determined to bring back the public in the armchairs of the rooms, in particular the projections of the amateur or student films which he presents. This year is looking to be on track as a breakthrough time for movies in theaters as well as film festivals, and Thillo is ready to begin.
The Thillo Arts Center serves as an incubator for future cinematographers from San Diego and Tijuana, and it goes the extra mile to ensure no one is left behind. Its youth programs are second to none. Its center serves as a safe place for young film students to learn all about the art and business of filmmaking.
“We have youth film 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 students or recent graduates get real-world experience and produce content for other nonprofits , organizations or even like news outlets like KPBS where we have a program called ‘Speak City Heights.’ And then we also manage a cinema!
This theater, Digital Gym Cinema, was originally located in North Park but moved with MACSD to Downtown last May in partnership with UCSD.
Thillo credits her passion for community service to her mother for inspiring her to become an educator, as well as an outstanding professor at her university who encouraged her to produce film festivals.
“My background was mainly with the Latin American community. My mother was an educator, so I grew up watching her and learning from her what she was doing 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 to me, “Hey, who wants to organize a chicano film festival as part of your graduation project? I naively said, ‘Yeah, sure, what is that?’ Not knowing what it was! I had to learn what exactly a Chicano film festival was,” Thillo explained.
He added that there was a whole cinema of Mexican American Americans in the late 60s and early 70s. His teacher taught him how to meet filmmakers. During those early years, he also learned how to market, finance and contact filmmakers.
Thillo established his own Latin Film Festival here in San Diego in the early 90s, which is still going on to this day. In fact, next year’s festival in March will mark a milestone: it will be the 30th annual San Diego Latin Film Festival. The film festival will screen 120 films over 11 days with screenings in four auditoriums at AMC Mission Valley and the main Digital Gym Cinema at the Digital Art Center. Eighty filmmakers and guest actors will be present from Mexico City, Tijuana, Latin America and across the United States. Thillo hopes that some of her students will one day see a film presented at the festival.
Thillo held the first post-Covid Latino film festival earlier this year, but attendance was well below average. He says audiences as a whole are still a bit leery of meeting in a closed cinema, but they’ve also gotten used to watching movies at home via Netflix or other streaming services. He hopes people will come next year to bring the festival back to the special experience it was before Covid.
“I think it’s going to take some kind of reacquaintance of people with the cinematic experience. There’s nothing like seeing a movie in a movie theater – the surround sound, the big screen. Even our cinema that isn’t huge, but you’re still immersed in this wonderful experience that you can’t have at home you know? So we’re encouraging people to come out,” he said.
MACSD is equipped to teach students everything about filmmaking, from filming to editing, to what it takes to run a theater. The first floor of the new building includes a large multi-purpose open room with a huge LED screen. It can also be converted into an installation for concerts or seminars with state-of-the-art sound and light technology. The second floor houses the 58-seat working theater with concessions and a cafe area. The third floor contains classrooms and offices for the filmmaking program. There is also a large outdoor terrace with a large video screen which can be used for screenings or receptions.
Thillo attributes his success to the community connections he has nurtured over the past 30 years. He is particularly proud of being able to bring underprivileged children to his youth programs.
“For 30 years we’ve built incredible community partnerships and as a nonprofit you can’t really survive without community partnerships. With our youth media literacy programs, we partner with affordable housing organizations and teach their youth, or with local schools, teach their students. Our radio production department will also partner with news outlets or school districts,” he said.
At this year’s summer camps, a special grant allows underserved families to send their children. Thillo sees the importance of providing at-risk children with the opportunity to participate in summer camps and after-school programs where they can channel their creative forces into positive art and set a career path at the same time. He believes his media center is the perfect place to do so.
The nonprofit has also partnered with the library system to open a production studio inside the City Heights Library.
“We encourage families and students to come to this new space, because imagine if you could get a student involved in our camps at the age of seven? Then they get involved in our Teen Producers project, and then… hey, they want to continue in film and get into the communications department at UCSD! It would be the perfect thing if these young students from different neighborhoods – like Logan Heights for example – started meeting all the other professors and teachers and everyone else here in this building. That would be pretty amazing.
Thillo feels the move to this downtown creative hive was a fluke, but he noted that his community connections have always been key to his founding’s success, especially when it comes to UCSD. .
MACSD and the Park & Market building it sits in is a whole 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 about the other creative entities that now populate the space. He sees it as nothing more than a plus that all of these powerful organizations will share the same air and feed off each other’s energy.
“There’s so much synergy and so much going to happen in this place,” Thillo said with a wave of his hand. “There are all these wonderful entities that are also housed here, different UCSD offices have their downtown locations here. As the Qualcomm Institute is down here; The UCSD extension is here. There is a CETYS college – a University of Tijuana which is here, the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the Economic Development Corporation and the Malin Burnham Center. So all of these different entities will communicate and work together, to figure out how to cross-promote and do programs together.
The San Diego Latin Film Festival returns in March 2023 with the 30th festival. For more information, visit: SDLatinoFilm.com