I just came back from a pitch meeting (basically this is when you meet with film executives and “pitch” your idea for a potential movie) and it was one of those times when everything seemed to go well and everyone was on the same page. Such instances are rare so when it does happen you feel heartened. I was pitching a take on a novel written by a very famous author so even if things go well, it’s likely it’ll take months of legal wrangling and negotiations before anything happens. Things could also fall apart as often happens in Hollywood even under the best of circumstances.
However, for now, I’m not going to worry about any of that. I’m just going to enjoy this small victory. What made this experience especially heartening wasn’t only that I felt the executives got the story. But it’s that my vision involved taking a book that features all (white) American characters and changing the context so there would organically be a strong Asian presence. And in this case, not only did they still get it, but I think the cross-cultural elements this change would add may have made this particular story even more interesting and attractive. That’s an even rarer thing.
As a writer, I have an “advantage” that folks like my fellow Offenders Roger and Sung (who are both actors), don’t have. Because it’s not my face you’ll be seeing on screen, I can choose to hide my Asian-ness. As actors, they don’t really have that option. If I wanted to write a project that had nothing to do with anything Asian, I have the freedom to go ahead and do that (and yes, there are scripts I’m working on that have nothing Asian in them).
Yet, I’m constantly thinking of movie ideas that can include an Asian (American) presence and still be commercial by Hollywood standards. It isn’t an easy thing to do because Asian Americans don’t really have a proven commercial track record and I have to admit that sometimes I ask myself why I even bother trying. Why not just focus completely on writing scripts that can be cast with pretty white people and have a shot of being produced? Again, I’m not knocking this path as I do have things in the pipeline that fall into this category, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure if this alone would feed my soul in the same way.
So since I’m feeling positive today, I thought I’d write about a couple of the things that makes me hopeful about being Asian American in Hollywood and trying to do work that reflects that identity in some way.
I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of the workings of Hollywood is limited when compared to some others, but in my personal experience, I’ve never really encountered anyone in Hollywood with an overt anti-Asian agenda (well, with the ironic exception of some Asian American executives/producers trying too hard to prove they can play with the white boys). I know it may not appear that way from the outside when you constantly hear about things like how some studio is making some project and casting white actors in roles where the characters were originally Asian, but I think these decisions are driven more by commercial considerations than any agenda based on race. If anything, Hollywood is more whore-ish than racist. Hell, if they thought a film about a constipated monkey sitting on a toilet and shitting for two hours would rake in the box office, they’d green light that in a second.
Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make things easier but it provides you with viable options to deal with the problem. If you dismiss Hollywood by saying it’s racist, then in effect, you have to dismiss Hollywood as an option for producing Asian American work because it’s much harder, maybe impossible, to change someone or something that’s racist. There can be no further dialogue. There would be no hope at all. But if you recognize our exclusion as something more rooted in “business,” you can find ways to address the situation. Again, not an easy thing but at least it offers a shred of hope. And in this industry, hope is not just important but vital to our survival.
Finally, I think the thing that really makes me not throw in the towel are the great friends and colleagues I get to work with. It’s the reason I started and have run an Asian American theater company for no pay for the past ten years. It’s the reason why all of us in the Offenders family are trying to do what we do. It humbles me to see someone like Justin, who can easily spend the rest of his career making big-budget Hollywood films, devote as much time and effort as he does to also develop projects that are Asian American. Or to have someone like Elaine who’s had a career as a studio executive to bounce questions off of and get career advice from. Or to see talented guys like Sung and Roger struggling to find good roles and realizing that it’s really up to us to do all we can to provide those opportunities for our talented brethren because really–who else will?
When I hang with my fellow Offenders, we often talk about the things we’re working on and the things we hope to do including our dream projects. And it’s inspiring because it really is a family of sorts—like-minded Asian American artists who may not always agree on everything, but who share a common goal and provide a support system for each other. I wish that sort of artistic family for all my Asian American peeps out there who are in the business and struggling to create work that you’re passionate about. Actually, if you’re a regular reader of our humble, little blog, then you are a part of the Offenders family too.
The truth is, in all the years I’ve been pursuing this career, I’ve never felt more optimism then I do nowadays. And I’m not generally an optimistic person so I don’t think my feeling is misplaced. I do think great things are looming just over the horizon. And I hope that’s something that all of us who are a part of this family will be able to share in together.