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Robert Rodriguez inspires audience at UT while laying out the vision for his new cable channel, El Rey

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

When Robert Rodriguez premiered his award-winning film "Bedhead" at Burdine Hall in 1990, he was a college student with a head full of dreams and no shortage of ambition.

Last week, he returned to the building on the University of Texas campus a media magnate.

The director of "Machete," the "Spy Kids" franchise and more than a dozen other films teamed with Comcast Corporation earlier this year to create El Rey, an English-language cable channel targeting the Latino market. Rodriguez said the new channel will help give a sense of identity to U.S.-born Latinos.

Rodriguez, in a conversation moderated by his former UT professor Charles Ramirez Berg addressed a couple of hundred students and members of the general public. The filmmaker discussed his growing vision for El Rey and encouraged the audience members to blaze their own trails and follow their own creative urges.

The Troublemaker Studios founder began his talk with some background on his time at UT, how he came to make "El Mariachi" for less than $7,000, and the lessons he learned along the road.

A big believer of karma and the dynamic forces of the universe, Rodriguez said that half of the battle in any creative endeavor is knowing what you're doing. The other half is not knowing. Sitting still accomplishes nothing. Only by moving forward and setting a high bar for yourself will you find inspiration.

"Don't question your inner voice. That's the part that's wiser than you," Rodriguez said, channeling his inner Yoda.

Even in perceived failures there are lessons to be learned, he said. Although the multi-director "Four Rooms" tanked critically and at the box office, Rodriguez said aspects of the narrative and style of the 1995 film helped shape his vision for "Spy Kids" and the anthology story "Sin City."

But at the center of Rodriguez's talk was a question that had eluded him and Berg for two decades: Why are there not more Latino filmmakers?

After traveling the country to promote El Rey, which included visits with members of Congress and President Barack Obama, Rodriguez said he finally realized the answer.

No place exists for Latino filmmakers to exhibit their work. And nobody wants to be the first person to step out on that ledge and take the risk. El Rey will change that.

Rodriguez said the channel, scheduled to hit the air in 2014, has been created not as a bridge for Latinos into an indifferent Hollywood but as a battle ram to knock down the walls.

Latinos will make up a third of the U.S. population by 2050, according to census estimates, yet, Rodriguez, joked, there was a dog channel before there was one like El Rey.

By giving voice to Latino filmmakers and subject matter, El Rey will help Latinos express their identity and culture to the country, he said.

"We gotta go from being a number to being a people," Rodriguez said. "When you can show people the truth, that's how you change things."

Although El Rey targets Latinos, the programming will appeal to a wider audience, he said.

"Others can see it and still relate to it and think it's cool," Rodriguez said. "You don't have to be British to watch James Bond."

Rodriguez said the cable channel will be cutting-edge, underground and imbued by an indie sensibility. He has already had multiple conversations with Hollywood stars such as Benicio del Toro and Michelle Rodriguez, who have expressed interest in collaborating with El Rey on original programming.

One programming idea is " ‘El Mariachi' Theater," in which El Rey would give $7,000 to a Latino filmmaker to make an indie feature. Rodriguez would then join the filmmaker on air to discuss the filmmaking process. At the end of the season, viewers would vote for their favorite movie, and the winning filmmaker would get the "El Mariachi treatment" — their film, like Rodriguez's breakout, distributed by Columbia Pictures.

El Rey will allow "people to make things they wouldn't have made before," Rodriguez said.

The 90-minute talk drew an audience from UT, as well as students from outside town.

Marisol Arellano, a student at Dallas Community College, drove from North Texas after seeing the talk advertised on UT's website the previous week. A massive fan of Rodriguez's "Sin City," Arellano says she has a strong interest in getting into the business side of filmmaking.

"I think about doing something like that," Arellano said of the creation of El Rey. "I think it's awesome. He's my hero."

The talk also attracted the attention of UT Radio-Television-Film students Ryan Hadden of Shreveport, La., and Victor Gutierrez of Robstown near Corpus Christi, both of whom expressed admiration for Rodriguez's ingenuity, family loyalty and business savvy.

"He's one of the reasons I came to Texas," Hadden said.

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986.