Throughout her impressive career as cinema administrator, advocate and activist in New York City, Cynthia López has combined her love of film with her commitment to public service to effectively create opportunities for filmmakers and to enhance cinema culture. She has been shaping NYC’s cinema landscape for two decades, starting with her influential input at the award-winning documentary series, POV, where she served as executive Vice President and co-Executive Producer, through to her appointment by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio as Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, and on to her most recent post in as Executive Director of New York Women in Film and Television, Cynthia López has paved the way for female filmmakers to have greater opportunities to attain their career goals.
The Path to Film
A native of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, López thought from a young age that she’d be a pediatrician—a career path that was quickly made untenable when she took an internship at a pediatric burn unit while studying pre-med at Hunter College in Manhattan. “I had a little bit of an existential crisis,” López recalls. “I’d always thought, ever since I was four, ‘I’m going to be a pediatrician. I’m going to help little kids who are sick.’ I remember a guidance counselor looking at my paperwork and saying, ‘But you have 65 credits in communication and marketing. What happened there?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, that’s just for fun. I don’t want to be an on-air personality.’ And he said, ‘There’s a full range of careers that are not on-air personalities!’ He started talking to me about the distribution of public information. I was connected, through the Center for Puerto Rican Studies and other departments within Hunter College. They said, you should really look at media, because you’ve already been doing it.’
Once López made the decision to focus on media, things moved swiftly. She became the executive producer of Hunter College’s Satellite TV Network and acting executive director for the Deep Dish Satellite Network. She also served for a time as an advocacy director for Libraries for the Future, working to raise money for underfunded libraries. That might stick out a bit on a résumé filled with film work, but for López it all ties into passion for public information, which should be accessible to all regardless of their background or how much they have in their bank accounts. That passion led to her PBS, where she was the executive Vice President and co-Executive Producer of their award-winning documentary series “POV” from 2000 up until her appointment by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014.
NYC Film Czar
Prior to her appointment as Media and Entertainment Commissioner, most of López’s experience had been in the realm of indie filmmaking. As Commissioner, she was in charge of attracting film and TV projects to come to New York City, a task that entailed dealing with Hollywood and international projects and bigwigs. She was enormously successful. To cite stats, the number of films shooting in New York City in 2014-15 went up compared to a year previous, from 192 to 242 (two of them massive $200 million productions). Ditto episodic series, which saw a jump from 29 in 2013-14 to 46 in 2014-15.
During her tenure as Film Commissioner, in addition to bringing more productions (and, needless to say, more jobs and more money—the average annual spend of productions in NYC is $7.1 billion) to New York City, López took particular pride in her increased work with community programs, such as grants for an outdoor film program in Queens’ Socrates Park, and the an expansion of NYC’s Production Assistant Training Program, a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Brooklyn Workforce Innovations.
“When I came on, the program was working really well,” she explains. But there were more opportunities to be had, specifically creative opportunities that could be given to those in the program. Together with NYC Service, López and her office established a partnership with Marvel/Disney that resulted in three NYC PAs writing scripts for PSAs that were then produced for New York taxi TV—with Avengers: Age of Ultron actors Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth as the on-air talent. “Just imagine!,” López exclaims. “I wish I had that kind of chance when I was growing up.”
It takes a bit of orchestrating to pull these kinds of things off, but Commissioner Lopez put it together.
A Champion of Diversity
One of the neatest things about the PA Training Program is that 94 percent of those who graduated from it were people of color—which dovetails nicely with López’s long-held desire to increase diversity in the entertainment industry. As Commissioner, she convened diverse groups to foster discussion. Specifically, she worked with the Black Filmmaker Foundation, NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers, of which López is a founder), and CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) to forge creative partnerships that advocated for and opened opportunities for film workers from underrepresented groups.
Striving at NTWIFT
During López’s first year helming NYWIFT, the organization grew substantially to embracing more than 2,500 members, women who work in all aspects of the TV & film business: producers, directors, executives, marketers, below-the-line crew, actors, writers, agents, scholars, and more – all gathering together to support one another and move the dial forward for inclusion in all areas throughout the industry. NYWIFT is now the largest of the 50+ Women in Film chapters worldwide.
To the benefit of NYWIFT’s membership (and all women working in film), López convened the first NYWIFT Summit on Inclusion, Equality and Safety (supported by The Ford Foundation) to address issues of gender and pay gap, diversity/inclusion and sexual harassment. She secured a NEA grant of $20K to support the 2020 NYWIFT Summit, which will (in partnership with the International Documentary Association, now headed by her former POV co-Producer, Simon Kilmurry) present a program that marks the centennial of women’s voting rights and celebrate women artists as powerful civic figures. Additionally, she launched NYWIFT’s Finance Her, a series of discussions designed to tap into the entertainment and finance industries of NYC, connecting professionals from both fields to make financing options available to women filmmakers.
We Need Top Level Changes
López has said that she believes change comes from the top down, so having more women working at executive levels where decisions are made is crucial, especially when women hire other women. She’s dedicated to seeing the number of women executives expand. She cites as an example Courtney Kemp Agboh, the showruner of Starz’s very successful series Power. “As writer/producer for The Good Wife, Courtney Kemp Agboh worked many years looking at character development and writing, and when she was offered the opportunity to develop her own series—if you look at who she’s hired behind the scenes as well as her talent in front of the camera, you see a very, very diverse group. So I’m hopeful that we, moving forward in New York City, will be able to have more examples of that.”
In recognition for her outstanding leadership, López received two awards in 2019. She was honored with DOC NYC’s Leading Light Award and she was named one of Women’s E-News’ 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.
Moving forward, López hopes to see media-oriented educational programs developed to ensure that the curriculum in public schools builds our infrastructure of future writers, producers, and directors who will be part of the film industry.
Why We Chose Her
Cynthia López puts progress in motion, and she does it with complete dedication, and very effectively. She tirelessly works to improve conditions and enhance opportunities for the women in New York City’s film community, with a strong focus on increasing diversity. We at AWFJ applaud López for her accomplishments before and at NYWIFT during year one, and we are excited to see what she achieves in the future. – Jennifer Merin