At the moment, Ian Skorodin is busy. It’s a beautiful weekday morning in Los Angeles, but the founder and director of the L.A. Skins Fest, a Native American Film Festival, is in his cluttered Hollywood office, mired in the unglamorous work of sending digital files of feature movies and short films to XFINITY where they will be available with XFINITY On Demand and online at Xfinity.com/TV.
This is the first time Skorodin has worked with the cable company – or any cable company for that matter – to provide Native American-themed films and filmmakers access to a broader audience. But the move syncs with the basic tenet that led him to found the festival in 2007.
This year, the festival (November 12-17) will screen nearly 40 films selected from a pool of over 100 submissions.
“It’s very difficult to get your work into screenings,” he says. “I wanted to create a space for Native filmmakers where we didn’t have to be concerned with a lot of costs and politics around submissions, where it was all about showing our work. I wanted to help people get their films seen.”
Starting November 11, Comcast’s celebration of Native American Heritage month will offer a collection of free feature-length and short films to digital Xfinity TV customers on television, online and mobile devices. Selections from previous LA Skins Fest include: “A Return Home” (short documentary), “The Art of Speed” (short documentary), “Awakening of the Spirit” (short documentary), “Dome of Heaven” (documentary feature), “Conversion” (short documentary), “Journeys of the Pacific Northwest” (short documentary), “Navajo Oral History – Rug Weaver” (short documentary), and Skorodin’s own film, “Tushka” (feature film).
A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Skorodin grew up outside Chicago, one of two boys raised by his mother Linda, a nurse, and father, Morton, a doctor at the Veteran’s Hospital. He spent two years at Oklahoma University before transferring to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to focus on making movies.
His eyes were opened to the magic and potential of telling stories on film after seeing Sergio Leone’s epic 1984 gangster film “Once Upon A Time In America.”
“This was his pet project,” explains Skorodin. “It’s a quiet, small movie starring [Robert] De Niro and [James] Woods, but it runs for four hours. I was amazed. I didn’t leave the theater saying I have to do that. But it’s like I started out on a path without realizing I was on it.”
After graduating Tisch in 1996, Skorodin made his first feature, “Tushka,” a story set in the 1970s about a Native American activist who leads a rally to the steps of FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. There, he burns an American flag, and two days later, his house is fire bombed, killing his wife, children, and parents.
Skorodin says his film was loosely based on musician-poet-actor and activist John Trudell, but also incorporates incidents that happened to other activists of that era. The movie is available now with XFINITY On Demand.
“It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and then I got to do the festival circuit,” he says. “I went to Germany, France, and traveled around the U.S. for about a year.”
In 1999, Skorodin move to L.A. and started making documentaries, shorts, and animated films. He has also directed commercials, TV pilots, and taught film and TV on reservations in California, Oklahoma, and Canada. It was while looking for work, competing for jobs, and shopping scripts that he started the LA Skins Festival in 2007.
“Though I’m Native American, I was in Los Angeles trying to be a filmmaker, and in that sense, your background doesn’t matter. It’s a level playing field. There are a lot of talented people and not everyone gets to work.”
And he saw it was even harder for Native Americans.
“Los Angeles has the largest urban collection of Native Americans in the United States,” he says. “There are about 150,000 of us here. We live here, but we’re not really involved in the business on a significant level. I saw there was a void that needed to be filled in terms of highlighting and exchanging our culture.”
“Our community is not involved in this kind of career or vocation. Providing this kind of opportunity for Native filmmakers to have their films shown to such a large community of Native people was a challenge, but also a blessing.”
For its first six years, the LA Skins Festival was headquartered at the Autry National Center, formerly known as the Gene Autry Museum. This year, the festival is moving to the larger and more centrally located Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live entertainment complex, the epicenter of the city’s downtown nightlife scene. It’s a significant move.
“We haven’t really been in a movie theater, so it’s a big deal for us,” says Skorodin, who has also added other features this year, including an opening night reception, a sketch comedy showcase, and an awards show.”
The LA Skins Film Festival is open to Native American filmmakers as well as non-Natives whose films are Native American or indigenous themed.
“I show films from South America, Mexico, Canada, and Australia,” says Skorodin. “We even have a relationship with a film festival in Morocco.”
In conversation and career, Skorodin exudes creativity, energy, and ambition, along withan easy-going nature. Listen carefully, though, and you hear he is equal parts realist and radical.
“This is Los Angeles,” he says. “I remind Native American filmmakers that they came out here to work in the system and be part of it, not to change the world. If they wanted to change the world, they would have stayed where they were and made independent films.
“It’s all about understanding the marketplace, and that the marketplace is hard. If we want to tell stories as Native Americans, we have to look where the possibilities are viable and right now the opportunities are in television.”
That said, Skorodin is working on a new film that he plans to shoot in its entirety the weekend before his festival opens.
“I instituted a 48-hour shootout as part of the film festival,” he explains. “It’s with myself and three other Native directors. All of us are making films this weekend within a 48-hour span. Then we are screening them next Saturday.”
Lest anyone think the schedules are too rushed, Skorodin explains the films grew out of the monthly writers group and directors workshop he launched a few years ago. Participants were filmmakers Skorodin knew from their submissions. He brought in established writers, directors, actors and creative executives from studios and networks to provide mentor-type guidance and feedback.
“Really harsh, honest feedback,” he says. “So when we shoot these films, the scripts are going to be good scripts. All of us, as Native American filmmakers, we get to learn and grow.”