Felipe Torres Urso and Xavier Manrique Of Coconut Grove Film Festival On What It Takes To Create and Lead A Highly Successful Film Festival
…The genesis of our festival began with the creation of a foundation called Voices Beyond Borders. Our aim was to support emerging filmmakers, as there’s a real need for organizations that empower filmmakers, particularly in Miami. We noticed a lack of such support here, especially for Florida and Latin filmmakers. We asked ourselves, how can we help? Whenever we discussed our foundation, our ideas for programs… and mentioned hosting a film festival, that’s when people really started to pay attention. Initially, we considered other projects, like a lab or a short film program. However, it was the film festival idea that really caught everyone’s attention. We made a deal with a theater, and we got going. Felipe and I had just six weeks to organize everything to meet this deadline. We chose the dates of January 12th-14th, knowing that if we wanted to attract good filmmakers, we had to schedule our festival not to coincide with Sundance…
I had the pleasure to talk to Felipe Torres Urso and Xavier Manrique.
Felipe Torres Urso, a native of Coconut Grove, is a notable filmmaker recognized for his significant contributions to Latin American cinema. He co-founded the Coconut Grove Film Festival (CGFF) along with Xavier Manrique, marking its inaugural debut in January 2024. Torres Urso’s filmography includes acclaimed projects like “Frost/Nixon,” “Genius,” “Angels and Demons,” “El Medico” and “Inferno,” showcasing his diverse range and expertise in the industry.
Under the aegis of their non-profit Voices Beyond Borders Art Foundation, the CGFF was launched as a platform to celebrate and empower filmmakers, with a special focus on Latin American and Floridian stories. This festival, held in the historical neighborhood of Coconut Grove, Florida, attracted luminaries such as David Frankel, Jorge Granier, and Cristina Umaña, among others, illustrating its high profile and influence.
Torres Urso and Manrique’s vision for the festival is centered around showcasing diverse narratives that transcend clichés and stereotypical portrayals, particularly in Latin American cinema. This commitment is evident in the festival’s programming, which includes a mix of high-profile premieres, industry panels, and a focus on emerging talents.
One of the festival’s highlights was the keynote address by Oscar and Emmy-winning director David Frankel, emphasizing the event’s dedication to excellence and industry relevance. The Festival also included the East Coast USA Premiere of Brando De Sica’s award winning, “Mimi- The Prince of Darkness” Additionally, the festival featured a retrospective screening and Q&A of “Pele: Birth of a Legend,” with Peruvian producer Ivan Orlic, further underscoring its commitment to honoring cinematic legends.
The success of the Coconut Grove Film Festival, under the stewardship of Torres Urso and Manrique, signifies a new era in storytelling and cultural exchange, particularly within the Latin American and Floridian film communities. Torres Urso’s efforts have positioned the CGFF as a cornerstone event, not only in celebrating the richness of Latin American cinema but also in fostering a vibrant, creative community in Miami and beyond.
Xavier Manrique is a distinguished filmmaker whose recent achievements include co-founding the Coconut Grove Film Festival (CGFF) in Miami. His notable work includes the film “Who Invited Charlie?” starring Jordana Brewster, Reid Scott, and Adam Pally. Manrique, a Coconut Grove native, conceptualized the CGFF alongside Felipe Torres Urso, contributing significantly to the festival’s focus on Latin American Cinema and supporting both local and global filmmakers.
The CGFF, launched in January 2024, has been a major event in the film industry, drawing attention to Latin American and Floridian film communities. Manrique and Torres Urso’s vision for the festival is to highlight diverse stories that break free from clichés and provide a platform for authentic, underrepresented narratives. This aligns with Manrique’s broader commitment to enriching cultural exchange and fostering creative talent within the film community.
Manrique’s contributions to the CGFF and the wider film industry reflect his dedication to promoting diversity and excellence in filmmaking. His work not only celebrates the depth of Latin American culture but also paves the way for new storytelling paradigms. As a filmmaker and festival organizer, Xavier Manrique has become a pivotal figure in bringing international attention to Latin American cinema and fostering a dynamic, culturally rich film community in Miami and beyond.
Yitzi: Felipe and Xavier, thank you so much for joining us. Before we dive in deep, our readers would love to learn about each of your personal origin stories. So, I’ll start with Felipe. Can you share the story of your childhood and how you grew up?
Felipe: Well, one interesting thing about both of us is that we are half Nicaraguan. Both our grandmothers are from the same town in Nicaragua. I grew up in Honduras. Our families, like many Nicaraguans, (due to the neverending political turmoil there), had to build their lives in different countries. After Honduras, I went to high school in Florida and then to college in LA, at Pepperdine, studying political science. I was a Model UN nerd and aspired to work in DC. However, I ended up taking a video production class at Pepperdine, which didn’t even have a film school at the time. Next thing I knew, I was on the set of the Oscar-nominated film, Frost/Nixon. This was a turning point for me, especially since I was unsure how to finance my third year of college.
I dropped out of school and worked for the film director Ron Howard for about ten years, from 2007 to 2017. I started as his assistant and then became an Associate Producer on his show Genius. I even got to direct a unit on his film Inferno, in Florence. Eventually, I branched out on my own, creating shorts and directing a feature film. Then, in 2020, after 15 years in LA, I moved back to Miami. That’s where Xavier and I really connected, although we had met before.
Xavier: Yes, like Felipe mentioned, I’m Xavier. I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and lived there until I was six years old before moving to Key Biscayne, Florida. I attended high school here and then went on to George Washington University for college. After graduating, I started working at MTV. My boss at the time moved to Universal Studios and took us, the young editors, with him. He was trying to get his second film made and offered us a deal: if we could raise the funds, we could be producers. We reached out to everyone we knew and successfully produced his first film. We went to Sundance and numerous other festivals with it, doing quite well. At 22, I thought this level of success would be a constant in my career. I remember seeing a massive sign for our film at the Ritz building in Cannes and thinking this was just the beginning.
However, the reality of how challenging the film industry can be soon set in. During this time, I met my mentor, David Frankel, who had just finished directing Marley & Me. A friend teaching his kids golf and tennis mentioned a guy in Coconut Grove claiming to have directed ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ I was skeptical that a director of his caliber would live there, but I decided to meet him. It turned out to be true, and he had just completed Marley & Me with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.
Since I played tennis in college at GW and he played at Harvard, we began playing tennis together regularly. This blossomed into a mentorship. To this day, if he’s not working and we’re both in Miami, we spend hours on the tennis court. It’s been an incredible journey. Interestingly, it’s come full circle because he’s from the Grove too. He was our first keynote speaker at this year’s festival, which we’ll discuss more later.
Yitzi: Felipe, you probably have so many fascinating stories and interesting memories. I’m sure it’s hard to boil them down to just one or two. But could you share with our readers a couple of the most memorable or humorous stories from your career?
Felipe: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I have a lot of fun stories I guess… though I’m not sure if they’re exactly what we’re looking for in this interview. But I guess I can say that working as an assistant to someone of Ron’s caliber for so many years, you’re put in situations where you’re like… “I need to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.” From standing next to Hans Zimmer as he works with his orchestra… to being on a conference call with Elon Musk when Ron was working on their Mars show… to spending my 28th Birthday at Dan Brown’s house… being around such amazing artists and industry leaders, even as a fly on the wall, was something I will forever be thankful for. Not sure if this has anything to do with our festival haha, but there you go…
Xavier: Here’s a story about shooting on the budgets we usually work with. My first film, Chronically Metropolitan, was shot in New York back in 2016. We had to wrap up the entire shoot in just three weeks. A similar timeframe was given for another film I worked on about two years ago, titled Who Invited Charlie? In these scenarios, we often used locations where even the owners were sometimes unaware we were filming. For instance, during the last shoot, there was a scene where we needed to film in an apartment. The husband, who owned the place, hadn’t informed his wife about our filming because she would have likely objected. When we arrived, their daughter was home sick with a stomach flu. We had to persuade the wife to let us shoot, and she gave us only an hour and a half. The scene was crucial — it showed characters leaving New York City for the Hamptons. We shot it in a single continuous take, handheld, quickly capturing it in just three takes. We had to be efficient due to the tight schedule, often shooting 8 to 11 pages a day. No one ever found out we filmed there. That’s just part of the hustle when you’re working with limited resources and time.
Yitzi: That’s amazing. So let’s talk about our main focus. Xavier, can you tell us the backstory behind the Coconut Grove Film Festival? With so many festivals, including the Miami Film Festival, what sets yours apart?
Xavier: The genesis of our festival began with the creation of a foundation called Voices Beyond Borders. Our aim was to support emerging filmmakers, as there’s a real need for organizations that empower filmmakers, particularly in Miami. We noticed a lack of such support here, especially for Florida and Latin filmmakers. We asked ourselves, how can we help? Whenever we discussed our foundation, our ideas for programs… and mentioned hosting a film festival, that’s when people really started to pay attention. Initially, we considered other projects, like a lab or a short film program. However, it was the film festival idea that really caught everyone’s attention. We made a deal with a theater, and we got going. Felipe and I had just six weeks to organize everything to meet this deadline. We chose the dates of January 12th-14th, knowing that if we wanted to attract good filmmakers, we had to schedule our festival not to coincide with Sundance.
Felipe: Yeah, having hard deadlines can be really beneficial. It pushes you to work tirelessly to meet them. Otherwise, we might have postponed our festival to August or September of the following year, and perhaps not given it our full attention. By the way, forgot to mention this before.. but we’ve had a connection with Coconut Grove for 40+ years, since my family owned a place here. Xavi and I practically grew up in that local movie theater, where I fell in love with movies during the 90s. It wasn’t called Cinepolis back then; it was an AMC. Returning to Miami and being back in the Grove was like coming full circle. Speaking of David Frankel, he lived in the same building my family has owned for over four decades. Our building manager, Spencer, who’s worked there for 35 years, attended our festival and saw David speak. Spencer is family. David actually put him in a couple of scenes on his tv shows years ago.
Miami has undergone incredible growth, as has the Hispanic population in America. However, as Xavier mentioned, there are few organizations supporting up-and-coming filmmakers. We often see clichés in how Latin characters and stories are portrayed in Hollywood. They’re frequently depicted as victims or stereotypical roles like janitors, victimized immigrants, or drug traffickers. Voices Beyond Borders was established to challenge these clichés and tell diverse, authentic Latin stories. Our programming at the film festival reflected this mission, showcasing a wide range of stories from films with battleships in the Spanish conquest, to animated movies and narratives about personal experiences, like coming out as a lesbian to your grandmother. Being Hispanic is only one part of these stories. Like any other culture, we have deep, interesting characters and stories.
Our foundation and festival aren’t exclusively for Hispanics; we also focus on Florida filmmakers. For example, Natalie Metzger, a producer from Boca Raton, presented her film, Shadow Brother Sunday, which was phenomenal. We featured a variety of films, including an Italian Dracula love story by Brando de Sica, which was the East Coast premiere and represented the film that crossed the most borders to be featured in our festival.
Yitzi: For those interested, how do you select movies for your festival? Can people submit their films, or is there another process for getting a movie featured?
Our first year was a mix of methods. We followed the standard procedure by listing our film festival on FilmFreeway, which is a common platform for applications. However, as Xavi mentioned, we organized this event very quickly. One major challenge was our limited budget, particularly for marketing. While it’s one thing to list the festival on FilmFreeway, attracting submissions without marketing is another. Surprisingly, people did apply.
The second part involved direct outreach. Xavi and I leveraged our contacts. For instance, we approached Mexican composer Juan Carlos Enriquez, who has been instrumental in scoring numerous Latin American movies. We asked him about recent films from the past couple of years. This led us to review tons of amazing movies and engage with the filmmakers, focusing on those who were not only willing to showcase their films but also showed genuine enthusiasm and belief in our project. We sought active participants for the festival.
Yitzi: Amazing. Okay. This is our signature question. So I guess we’ll switch off between both of you. So based on your experience, for someone who in the future would like to create a film festival, can you share five things you wish you knew before you started your film festival?
Xavi: Well, first of all, the amount of hours we spent trying to figure it out was quite significant. Maybe next year, we’ll get a staff. I think just having a two-person staff is challenging with creating, raising funds, getting sponsors, managing the IT aspects. And Felipe, he must have spent countless hours working on the interviews with all the filmmakers to ensure they were engaged. It was a learning experience for us. Hopefully, next year, we will have a longer runway and also more helpers who believe in the festival as much as we did. Felipe, how about you?
Felipe: I’m my biggest critic… and am hard on myself on everything I do. For example, I can’t watch my movies anymore, but honestly, the festival went so much better than we ever expected. I’m not looking back with regrets, wondering what we should have done differently. Instead, I’m amazed at how we pulled it off. But let’s consider what others should know for the future… Well, given that we’re a young film festival, I thought it was essential to maintain a sense of intimacy, which might have been lost if we delegated too much. The feedback we got from filmmakers was that they really appreciated the intimate nature of the event. As we grow, Xavi and I might not be able to conduct all the interviews ourselves, but doing them was incredibly rewarding and helpful. It allowed us to know each filmmaker and their project intimately. So, whether we were presenting them at the opening party at Mr. C or conducting Q&A sessions, our interactions weren’t superficial. We didn’t just ask, “What inspired you to make this movie?” We knew their work deeply, asking about specific aspects like lens choices or a particular piece of music in a scene we knew incredibly well by then. I believe this deep familiarity with the filmmakers and their films was one of the key successes of our film festival.
Here’s another thing for you. We learned something on the fly. In a post-pandemic Zoom-friendly world, if someone can’t be there in person, audiences still appreciate seeing them on the screen. For instance, our jury was incredible. We had a production designer currently working on a movie in South Africa, a fantastic cinematographer in LA known for Cobra Kai and 13 Reasons Why, an amazing actress from Colombia, and talent manager working in London. They couldn’t be in the room, but they watched all the movies closely and had in-depth discussions about them. It was a beautiful process. Since they couldn’t be there, we set up something like a Zoom meeting, not for deliberations, but to explain why each award winner was chosen on the big screen. I remember one of your friends, Xavi, was amazed, saying he had never seen this at a festival before. Not just announcing the winning movie, but explaining the reasons behind the choice. Whether it was the jury, Camilla Bell introducing one of the films, or Andrea Arnone, the cinematographer for the Italian movie who won Best DP at the Locarno Film Festival, having them speak on screen was impactful. So, I would say, even if you can’t have people like David Frankel, Jorge Granier, or Patrick Feldman in person, the audience still appreciates it when you include participants via the big screen. This was something we tried, and it really worked.
Xavi: Here’s something that I think is really important for anyone starting a first-time film festival. I would suggest allocating funds beforehand for PR to ensure that everyone knows about the festival. That’s something we learned from Lon (Lon Haber), who is now helping us with publicity. When we contacted him with maybe just a week left before the festival, he told us we should have reached out earlier. We weren’t even thinking about PR; we only had about four weeks to prepare at the time. Looking back, I would definitely focus more on PR from the start.
Felipe: By the way, Xavier mentioned that we reached out to Lon a week before. But just a week and a day before that, we weren’t even sure the festival was going to happen. So, we couldn’t publicize something that might not have occurred. It was a bit like walking a tightrope.
Yitzi: That’s great. These are great answers. So yeah, how can our readers continue to follow your work? How can they attend the festival next time? How can they support your work in any way?
Our next film festival dates are January 15th to January 19th, 2025. This next year, instead of a three-day festival, it’s a five-day event with many more screens at the same theater. It’s going to be bigger and bolder. We’re hoping that as we release more information for next year, we’ll receive even more submissions from filmmakers. What’s interesting is that we’re also introducing two labs. We’re planning one lab in the spring and another in the fall, where we fund five up-and-coming filmmakers to create short films. As we promote these programs, people can stay informed about the upcoming film festival. You can also learn more by visiting our official website, www.voicesbeyondborders.org and by following us on Instagram at www.instagram.com/coconutgroveff/ .
Yitzi: I wish you only continued success and blessings. I hope we can do this again.
Absolutely. Thank you so much, Yitzi.
Felipe Torres Urso and Xavier Manrique Of Coconut Grove Film Festival On What It Takes To Create… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.