The other day I was talking to an acquaintance who was very involved in the recent protests against the film The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. I’m sure most of our readers know about the scene from that movie which has outraged some Asian Americans: Ken Jeong plays a car salesman who gets assaulted by his white co-workers after another salesman, played by Jeremy Piven, invokes Pearl Harbor. You can read about it here.
Now, this acquaintance was very passionate about protesting this film, as well as the whitewashing of the upcoming live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender. He planned to participate in on-going actions against these two films because of the “vital” need for us to demand that Hollywood increase its representation of Asian (Americans) and to portray us more accurately.
Of course, I totally agree with this brother’s agenda. But then, the conversation turned to the work of Asian American filmmakers. And it turned out he had not paid to see any of the following films in the theaters—Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, Finishing The Game, The Motel, In-Between Days, The Debut, Journey From The Fall. In fact, he couldn’t think of one Asian American indie he had paid money to see theatrically—the closest he came was the last Harold and Kumar movie, which hardly counts as an independently produced Asian American film. He was talking passionately about how we need to force Hollywood to change and show respect to our community, but even he admitted he had not done much to support our artists and our work.
Unfortunately, this brother’s story is not isolated. And herein lies the problem—it’s great that we’re willing to speak out when we see something that offends us. But until Asian Americans as a whole are willing to put down our money to support the work of our Asian American filmmakers—nothing will change. We can protest all we want, but real change will not happen until Hollywood knows we are an economic force that can make a difference in their bottom line.
I know some Asian Americans are proclaiming the protest against The Goods a success, but is it really? What did we really gain in this victory? The studio agreed to cut the offensive scene out of the trailers and promotional materials after the movie’s already been released and playing in theaters for a couple of weeks. Hello, the trailer and commercials aren’t running anymore anyways—it doesn’t seem to me the studio is really giving anything up at all.
And their willingness to engage in a dialogue with the community? Of course, they’re going to throw that out there to placate protestors. Even if they follow through and set these meetings with community leaders, you’re just going to get a bunch of mid-level suits, including the token Asian American employee, promising to keep our concerns in mind for future projects. But these suits will be fired or leave the studio within a year since that’s the way the system works, so it’s doubtful there will be any significant long-term change when a new crop of people will soon take their place.
Look, we’ve gone through this before—most prominently when Asian Americans protested Year of the Dragon in 1985 and Rising Sun in 1993—and it’s always the same song and dance. The studio will give us some small concessions that may be enough for us to save face and claim victory, but in the long run doesn’t mean shit. They’ll offer to talk to us about our concerns and maybe even follow through on that promise, but a few years later something else that’s offensive will be released to get us riled up again; negating any progress we thought we made. It’s 2009 and we’re still stuck in the same time loop and have made very little progress.
But you may be saying—well, you’re wrong, we need to protest loudly. African Americans and Latinos have done that and that’s why the studios are more likely to think twice before doing something to offend them. Yes, there is truth to that, but that’s only partially the story. It’s not just because they raise a big stink that these groups are further along in the Hollywood system then we are. It’s also because these groups put their money where their mouths are and buy movie tickets en masse.
Let’s look at African American audiences. Last year there were 11 films with a predominantly Black cast and/or writers/directors that grossed more than $400 million at the domestic box office—that’s about $1 out of every $24 dollars spent at the movies. Over the years, independent films made by and about African Americans have proved they can make money and this is what’s created a niche for more of these sort of films to be made. Here are some domestic box office grosses starting with Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (all box office figures are from Box Office Mojo):
She’s Gotta Have it (1986): $7,137,502
Menace II Society (1993): $27,912.072
Eve’s Bayou (1997): $14,842,388
Madea’s Family Reunion (2006): $63,257,940
Madea Goes To Jail (2009): $90,508,336
Now, here are the domestic box office grosses of some of our recent and more successful Asian American indies:
Saving Face (2004): $1,187,266
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002): $3,802,390
The Debut (2000): $1,745,778
(Full journalistic disclosure for the two people reading this who are unaware of this fact: My fellow Offender Justin directed Better Luck Tomorrow as well as other films that will be mentioned here and many of the other Offenders have worked on/are working on various films with him as well.)
About 35 percent of the audience for Better Luck Tomorrow was Asian American. That roughly means that, at best, we can expect maybe $1 million to come from Asian American ticket sales. And keep in mind, these are the most successful of the bunch. Most Asian American projects don’t even crack the six-figure mark at the box office so even $1 million is a long shot. In most Hollywood box office reports, the Asian American demographic isn’t even included because we are too insignificant to make any real impact at the box office.
Now, let’s turn to the Latino audience. As this article points out, Latinos don’t always support indie works aimed at them as consistently as Blacks do. But the sheer box office force of their population cannot be denied. Take the example of this spring’s Fast & Furious (another film directed by Justin), which was a huge hit and broke records everywhere. Although Latinos only comprise 15 percent of the U.S. population, they made up 46 percent of the audience for that film. Considering the domestic gross was over $155 million, I guarantee you that Hollywood is listening. The Fast & Furious series already features elements geared toward that audience, like the use of Latino actors in prominent roles, but you can bet there will be more of that in the next installment as well as other projects. Repeat after me—studios will care about you and cater to you if they think you will pay for their product.
I’ll admit I’ve heard some valid arguments for why Asian Americans don’t support work by Asian American filmmakers. The big one is that a lot of Asian American films suck. And I agree with that. It’s hard to muster enthusiasm and support when you keep getting bombarded with these emails about how you have to support such and such film to show Hollywood that we have box office clout and you go to the theater and wind up watching one crappy movie after another.
The quality of our films is a complicated topic that’s best suited to its own, separate blog entry, but I will say this—most of the films being released independently or by a small company won’t even register on the Hollywood radar. I’m not saying not to support them because there are small films that deserve your money, too. But if we’re talking about “sending a message” to Hollywood—you need to look at the films that have a shot in this world. They will usually be indies that have played in the major festivals like Sundance or Toronto and are being released by distributors with a track record. Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers and The Motel were all films that fit into this category and those are the ones most in need of our support and dollars if we’re talking about getting Hollywood’s attention. Yes, it doesn’t mean these films won’t suck either, but if you care, hey, sometimes you just have to take one for the team. Let’s be honest–Tyler Perry’s films suck, but that isn’t stopping African Americans from supporting him in a major way.
According to the census, in July 2006, there were 14.9 million Americans of Asian ancestry in the U.S. Between 2005 and 2006, the Asian population grew by 3.2 percent—the highest growth rate of any group. I’m sure there are even more Asians now but I’ll use the 2006 numbers for the following exercise:
If there are roughly 15 million Asian Americans and only 10 percent of them consistently bought tickets to Asian American indie films, that would be an audience of roughly 1.5 million. At an average ticket price of $10, that’s a $15 million box office gross just from the Asian American demographic.
That’s significant. That means that even if no one else supported our films except our own community, Hollywood would still take notice and decide that it makes good business sense to greenlight “Asian American-themed” movies in the under $8 million range. That may not seem like much when you hear about movies costing over $100 million, but it’s enough for us to create a niche for ourselves and hopefully build on that and grow. Like African Americans who complained that they weren’t allowed to make anything but the low-budget “ghetto/gangster” or minstrel type films in the ‘90s, we may be plopped into our own genre ghetto, but I’ll happily take that because it’s still a chance for our people to make films, to learn, to grow and eventually break out of our ghetto like African Americans have been doing.
Because right now—there is no market for Asian American films. I’m sorry to burst the bubble of my fellow filmmakers working on their great breakthrough Asian American film, but the reality is–the odds of your project finding success are close to nil.
Nothing will change, if our community won’t step up and show Hollywood the green. It’s a cliché, but the truth is that really is the only color that matters in the biz. Otherwise, the status quo will remain and expect more of the same old: every so often another film will come out that raises the ire of the community, we’ll protest, get some small concessions, but then it’ll be right back to business as usual. And that would be a shame.