Media Arts Center San Diego Moves Downtown – San Diego Downtown News


Ethan van Thillo is CEO and Founder of Media Arts Center San Diego (MACSD), a local nonprofit whose mission is to help amateur and independent filmmakers get their foot in the door of the somewhat exclusive world of cinematography. Until recently, its center was tucked away in a modest building in North Park. But earlier this year he found another home at Park & ​​Market, a new modern downtown complex that serves as both a residential tower and an expansion for UCSD.

Thillo is also the founder of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which began as a small program 30 years ago and has grown to an event with 20,000 attendees. However, Covid has imposed the kibosh on most film festivals in 2020 and in-person cinema-going has yet to fully recover since cinemas reopened. But Thillo is determined to get people back into the cinema seats, particularly to screenings of the amateur or student films he is showing. This year seems to be on track as the breakout period for theatrical releases and film festivals, and Thillo is ready to begin.

The Digital Gym Cinema has a full concession stand.

Thillo’s arts center serves as an incubator for the future San Diego and Tijuana cinematographers, and he makes extra efforts to ensure no one is left out. His 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 filmmaking 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 job preparation program — we give young college students or young graduate students hands-on experience and produce content for other nonprofits, organizations, or even news outlets like KPBS, where we have a program called ” Speak City Heights”. And then we also run a cinema!”

This theater, Digital Gym Cinema, was originally located in North Park but moved downtown with the MACSD last May in partnership with UCSD.

A huge LED screen dominates the main room. (Photos by Vince Meehan)

Thillo credits his passion for community service to his mother, who inspired him to become an educator, and to a distinguished professor at his college, who encouraged him to host film festivals.

“My background was primarily in the Latino community. My mother was an educator, so I grew up watching and learning from her what she was doing to help the community and young students, especially immigrants. So when I went to UC Santa Cruz, I started doing Latin American Studies, and I had a cool Chicano Studies professor who said, ‘Hey, who wants to organize a Chicano film festival as part of your senior project?’ I naively said, “Yeah, sure, what the hell?” Not knowing what the hell that was! I had to learn what exactly a Chicano film festival is,” explained Thillo.

He added that in the late ’60s and early ’70s there is an entire movie theater starring Mexican-Americans. His professor taught him how to meet filmmakers. During these early years he also learned to market, finance and contact filmmakers.

In the early ’90s, Thillo started his own Latino film festival here in San Diego, which is still going on today. In fact, next March’s festival will mark a major milestone: it will be the 30th San Diego Latino Film Festival. The film festival features 120 films over 11 days with screenings in four auditoriums at AMC Mission Valley and the main theater Digital Gym at the Digital Art Center. Eighty guest filmmakers and actors from Mexico City, Tijuana, Latin America and the United States will be in attendance. Thillo hopes some of his students will show a film at the festival one day.

The concert hall on the first floor is equipped with the latest lighting and sound systems. (Photo by Vince Meehan)

Thillo hosted the first post-Covid Latino film festival earlier this year, but attendance has been far below average. He says the public as a whole is still a little wary of gathering in a closed theater, but they’ve also got used to watching movies at home via Netflix or other streaming services. He’s hoping people will stop by next year to bring the festival back to the special experience it was before Covid.

“I think it’s going to take a while to get people reacquainted with the movie experience. There’s nothing quite like watching a movie in a theater – the surround sound, the big screen. Even our cinema which is not huge but you still immerse yourself in this wonderful experience that you can’t get at home, you know? So we encourage people to come out,” he said.

The MACSD is equipped to teach students everything about filmmaking, from shooting to editing to what it takes to run a theater. On the first floor of the new building there is a large open multipurpose room with a huge LED screen. It can also be converted into concert or seminar seating with the latest sound and lighting technology. The second floor is the 58-seat working theater, complete with concessions and a cafe area. Classrooms and offices for the film program are located on the third floor. There is also a large outdoor deck with a large video screen that can be used for screenings or receptions.

Thillo credits his success to the community relationships he’s nurtured over the past 30 years. He is particularly proud of being able to include disadvantaged children in his youth programs.

“We’ve been building incredible community partnerships for 30 years, and as a nonprofit organization, you really can’t survive without community partnerships. With our youth media education programs we partner with affordable housing organizations and educate their youth or with local schools we educate their students. Our radio production department will also work with news outlets or school districts,” he said.

At this year’s summer camps, a special grant will enable underserved families to send their children. Thillo believes it is important to provide at-risk children with opportunities to attend summer camps and after-school programs where they can channel their creative energies into positive arts while pursuing a career path. He thinks his media center is the perfect place to do it.

The nonprofit has also partnered with the library system to open a production studio at the City Heights library.

“We encourage families and students to come to this new space because imagine if you could get a student to join our camps at the age of seven? Then they get involved in our Teen Producers Project and then… hey, they want to keep making films and go into the UCSD communications department! That would be perfect if these young students from different parts of town – like Logan Heights for example – would start meeting all the other professors and teachers and everyone else here in this building. That would be pretty incredible.”

Thillo believes moving to this downtown creative hive was a happy accident, but he noted that his relationships with the community have always been key to his foundation’s success, especially as it relates to UCSD.

The Park & ​​Market building in downtown. (Photo courtesy of MACSD)

The MACSD and the Park & ​​Market building that houses it is a brand new marvel with its state-of-the-art features and design. It rivals anything found in Los Angeles. Thillo is not only excited about the media art center, but also about the other creative units that now populate the space. He sees this as nothing more than a plus that all these powerful organizations share the same air and feed on each other’s energy.

“There’s just so much synergy and so many things that are going to happen in this place,” Thillo said with a hand gesture. “There are all these wonderful facilities that are also housed here, various offices of UCSD have their downtown locations here. Like the Qualcomm Institute is down here; The UCSD extension is down here. There’s a college of CETYS — a university from Tijuana that’s here, the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the Economic Development Corporation, and the Malin Burnham Center. So all these different entities will be communicating and working together to figure out how to promote and run programs together.”

The San Diego Latino Film Festival returns in March 2023 for the 30th festival. For more information, visit:

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