Sometimes a single moment can spark inspiration for something bigger. For Steven Amato, co-founder and president of L.A.-based marketing and entertainment company Omelet, that moment came while sitting in a room with some of Los Angeles’ most powerful gang leaders, those known as having a "license to operate." License to operate (LTO) is a term given to those who hold ultimate power among their ranks, including if and how to retaliate for strikes against rival gangs, and Omelet was in the room at the request of A Better LA, an organization founded by NFL coach Pete Carroll and well known for bringing together these gang leaders and providing a framework for them to help stop the violence of which they were once a part.
At this meeting Omelet was asked to document ABLA’s positive impact in a short film to help raise awareness of its certificate program designed to transition LTOs into leaders of positive change. But as the leaders—once the most notorious and dangerous men in L.A.—talked about how and why they were using their stature in the community to help bring peace to the streets, Amato couldn’t help but be moved.
"We were invited to what they call the roundtable of all the gang leaders. You can tell they’re not comfortable in the same room together, let alone having strangers there," says Amato, recalling the meeting. "Hearing them talk about the reason why they’re doing this—that it’s about their children and how being a dad has changed them, and what they’re leaving behind—it was such a powerful moment for me. As a father, I saw all these crazy parallels between our lives even though we live completely different situations." At this point he knew the story of these men, those licensed to operate, had to be told.
That moment led to LTO: License to Operate, a feature-length documentary created by Omelet Studio. A passion project, Amato says the film is intended to build broader awareness of the ABLA program, which has been exported around the world to help combat gang violence, and to tell the stories of the people making a difference on the streets.
"LTO is a term given to a leader of a gang based on the amount of credibility they have. It’s like being made. You represent your community at the highest level. So when something goes down on the streets of L.A., it all ladders up to one kind of leader and those leaders decide if there’s going to be retribution for a strike. That’s a very powerful position," says Amato. "What we’re documenting is watching people retain that power but actually using it for good and not actually retaliating. The way they got that power was bad, but now they’re showing people it's about growing the community. Leaving a legacy for their families is a lot more powerful than trying to be destructive."
The film, which is currently in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the editing process and music licensing fees, follows several LTOs over the summer of 2013. Amato says summer offered an interesting narrative opportunity. With kids out of school and the heat testing everyone’s nerves, summer is widely and unfortunately called "killing season."
A very small crew from Omelet Studio, including director James Lipetzky of Foundation Content and DP Jeremiah Hammerling, spent May to September with gang leaders and riding along with police, who are a highly supportive force in ABLA’s efforts with the LTOs. The film addresses the history of gangs, follows the LTOs over the course of the summer, and closes with an assessment of the summer on the streets in South Central Los Angeles.
Over the course of the program, overall crime in the area has reached a 20-year low but Amato says this summer in particular was a little more volatile. "The stories we’ve gotten are breathtaking because the summer of 2013 turned out to be a real shit show. There was a lot of stuff going on this summer, like the Trayvon Martin case, that turned it up even more, compounding complexities," he says. "That made this summer very interesting and difficult to document at points because even though we’re using DPs that have shot in wars, they couldn’t even get access to some of these situations because 15 minutes after we’re shooting, there are bullets flying. It is war on the streets of L.A."
Don Kurz, chairman and CEO of Omelet notes the intricacy of the situation. "It’s hard to believe you’d have these ex-gang members being embraced by law enforcement. It’s a pretty remarkable transformation that’s happened. Having said that, it’s a never-ending battle—for every three steps forward there are a couple back."
Because so much of what happens between law enforcement and the LTO leaders happens beyond the purview of cameras and onlookers, Amato says they’re working closely with the leaders to give them input into the final product. "We’re not going to do something that will expose someone in a way they’re not comfortable with. That’s not what we’re in it for. Even though they’ve been up against unbelievable hardship and they’ve grown up in it without a choice, they’ve now found the courage to turn their back on that and have an impact for good. We’re not trying to glamorize gang culture. We want to help make the streets of L.A. better, period."