Saturday, March 25, 2017

Asian-American representation in Hollywood

With the casting controversies over the live-action Ghost in the Shell movie and the Marvel Netflix series Iron Fist, the outcry over "whitewashing" of Asian characters in American entertainment has reached a fever pitch. So I thought I'd write a post about that.

Why care about whitewashing?

Why do I, who am not Asian, care about whitewashing? Well, there's a not-so-important reason and a very important reason. The not-so-important reason is that I have a lot of Asian-American friends, and it pisses me off to see movies depicting an America in which they don't seem to exist. But that's very unimportant compared to the real issue, which is racial integration. 

Most of America's immigration now comes from Asia, meaning that the nation's future will be greatly affected by how well we integrate Asian-Americans into American culture and society. Keeping Asian-Americans invisible will cause non-Asian Americans to keep seeing them as perpetual foreigners and outsiders, while denying them representation in the mass media will make Asian-Americans themselves feel disaffected and anti-nationalistic.

To see what I mean, watch this short film by Chewy May and Jes Tom. A lack of Asian-American heroes on the silver screen has made many Asian-Americans feel that their country doesn't really consider them normal, mainstream citizens. That's unacceptable. 

Why changing Hollywood will be hard

If it were easy for popular outcries to change Hollywood whitewashing, it would have happened already. There must be some deep reasons it hasn't yet worked. 

One reason is that Asian people, being only about 6.5% of the U.S. population, are a small part of the American movie-going public. If everyone demands to see characters of their own race on screen, then movies directed at American audiences will feature mostly white, Hispanic and black people. Even if this same-race preference is only a slight one, it's probably enough to make many risk-averse studio execs shy away from putting Asian people on screen.

But the American audience is not the only important one anymore. The Chinese box office is increasingly crucial for U.S. film studios, especially in the face of the ongoing U.S. shift toward home viewing. And Chinese audiences may even more strongly prefer to see white people on the screen. Chinese moviegoers, used to seeing Chinese people in film, might view Hollywood as a chance to see exotic-looking white heroes. The Chinese-made movie Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, could be an indicator of this.

Finally, Hollywood studio execs, in addition to being a bunch of old racist white guys, might simply be stubborn and contrary. All the protesting and criticism may have just caused them to assert their control more strongly by doubling down on whitewashing. No one likes to be pushed around by angry bloggers and Twitter trolls if they can help it (believe me, as a blogger, I know). 

An alternative path

I've often criticized the Millennial generation (of which I'm technically a part, just barely) of relying too heavily on "appeals to liberal authority" as a way of bringing about change. Educated people of my generation and younger have grown up under more benevolent and more liberal institutions than anyone in America's past - public schools, universities, the Obama administration, the media, corporations trying to look good for the media, etc. When something about society is wrong, we instinctively appeal to authority for a redress of the injustice. We make demands on university administrations, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, big companies, Hollywood execs. And when there's no obvious power to appeal to, we call out injustices to society at large, imagining that there must be someone listening with the power to respond.

I'm not saying it's wrong or bad to complain about whitewashing on Twitter or The Verge or Kotaku. I just think this approach has serious practical limitations. The problem with appeals to liberal authority is that there won't always be a liberal authority to hear and respond. Often, the authority isn't as liberal as we would like to think. And often, authorities have less power than we implicitly assume. Yes, I realize this is a grumpy-old-man critique. But sometimes the grumpy old men are onto something.

Maybe there's a different way to end whitewashing and get Asian-American actors onto the screen. Maybe the answer is not to demand representation, but simply to seize it. Maybe the solution is for Asian-Americans, and also those non-Asian Americans who (like me) want to see more Asian-Americans on screen, to make and distribute movies themselves.

That sounds crazy, but it isn't actually crazy. Hear me out.

Hollywood is ripe for overthrow

The U.S. big-budget film industry is an industry in crisis. Ticket sales are in relentless decline. Revenues are up (which must be due to soaring ticket prices if sales are down), but profits are hurting. Hollywood has to spend more on marketing and expensive spectacle every year just to cajole an increasingly bored public to see its low-quality product. The studios have adopted an insanely risk-averse attitude, focusing almost entirely on sequels and remakes. Meanwhile, Americans are sensibly shifting to Netflix and Amazon and HBO streaming TV, because that's where all the quality is.

Meanwhile, it has never been cheaper to make a movie. I just bought a used camera for $1000. That camera, which can also shoot digital video, was one of the cameras used to film the IMAX movie Jerusalem, which won awards for its cinematography. One thousand dollars. And I bet if I had tried, I could have found the same model for cheaper. One of the top films at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was shot on an iPhone.

Editing software is also cheap, and the price of high-quality computer graphics is falling relentlessly. This doesn't mean making a movie is cheap or easy, but it's a lot cheaper and easier than before. In 2014, the average independent film cost $750,000 to make. That's not peanuts, but for the price of one house in San Francisco you could make three indie films.

Moonlight, this year's Best Picture winner at the Oscars, was made for $1.5M and grossed $55M.

Get Out, by Jordan Peele, was made for $4.5M and has grossed over $140M so far.

As for distribution, this isn't nearly as big of a problem as you might think. With the rise of streaming, it's possible to create new video distribution channels (streaming services, or even entirely new business models people haven't thought of yet) much more easily than in decades past. Only a few can succeed, but those will succeed big.

Netflix and Amazon and Hulu are desperate for new content. TV is often a stepping stone to the movies, and is where all the quality is nowadays anyway.

And traditional channels for independent movies still exist - plenty of Hollywood directors and producers got their start from indie hits, and that will probably continue to be true. 

And capital costs in the United States (and much of the world) are near all-time lows. Bond rates are historically low, the stock market is at all-time highs, money is flowing out of China and looking for somewhere to go, and venture capitalists are pushing up the valuations of unicorns like Uber. More and more capital is chasing smaller and smaller returns. That doesn't mean capital is easy to get, but it means it's out there in large quantities. 

To sum up, we have just experienced technological revolutions in video production and distribution, at a time when capital costs are low and incumbents are vulnerable. It's time for some disruption.

Who will do it?

Obviously most people who care about Hollywood whitewashing have other careers to keep them occupied; most people aren't going to throw their other plans away and launch a quixotic quest to make movies with Asian leads. I'm not going to be a filmmaker, and most of you probably aren't either.

But a few of you might be. The entertainment industry is an exciting place to be right now. Here's a small anecdote just to illustrate. In the summer of 2009, just for fun, my friend Peter Chang and I went to make a documentary in Japan. We never finished it. But Peter realized how cheap it now was to make indie films for someone technologically savvy and artistically gifted (both of which he is), and he went on to start his own film production company, Golden Gate 3D. He's now shooting movies in Cuba and Greenland, and about to launch more projects. He's commercially successful, and works on the bleeding edge of filmmaking technology (which is one reason he's successful). Peter's interest is in documentary rather than narrative film (at least for now), but if he can do this sort of thing in the documentary space, other people can do it in the narrative film space. 

Peter's operation is still pretty small, and I single him out because he's my friend and because I got to see his success up close. The people making the immediate changes would be bigger, more established folks. There's no lack of Asian-American filmmakers out there. Justin Lin and Joseph Kahn are out there doing awesome stuff. And there's a rising tide of Asian-American acting talent. What's needed are for some of these or other filmmakers to turn into big-time film producers, and for entrepreneurs to start innovative new production and distribution companies.

What I think American entertainment needs is a Pro-Diversity Mafia. The PDM would be a loose network of funders, entrepreneurs, content creators and industry workers who share creative ideas, technology, funding leads, networks, and resources. It would include Asian-Americans, members of other "invisible" groups, and others who are supportive of greater diversity and inclusion in visual media. There are many examples of this sort of "mafia" allowing marginalized groups to break into an industry. Don't be ashamed of doing this sort of thing; this is how capitalism works, not the idealized frictionless market of an economist's model. (In fact, this "mafia" would help not just Asians, but other marginalized groups break into the visual media world - Muslims, for example. Intersectionality!)

If this type of thing shows signs of being successful, of course, Hollywood is going to want a piece of the action. If Asian-American actors are starring in surprise indie-hit films made on shoestring budgets and demonstrating eye-popping margins, it won't be long before the big dumb studios come calling. But by then, Asian-Americans will be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

But by then, pro-diversity filmmakers won't need Hollywood. With a disruptive business model in hand, the creators of the PDM could then simply muscle in on Hollywood's territory, going upmarket into big-budget films and beating the tired, boring sequel-mongers at their own game, stealing eyeballs and dollars with new distribution channels. Many times in history, a tight-knit subculture of highly talented people frozen out by discrimination has created a hotbed of creativity that eventually took over the industry that once shut them out.

Really? All this, just to put Asian-Americans on screen??

No, of course not. To do all this just to put Asian-Americans and other underrepresented groups on screen would be overkill. What's also at stake is a potential revitalization of American visual media. Movies are going down the tubes. They need new blood, new geniuses, new perspectives, and new business models. They need to be revitalized creatively, in the way that Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola and others revitalized them in the 1970s and 1980s. And they need to be revitalized technologically, in terms of both production and distribution. The people who are bold enough to put Asian-American actors on screen will also be bold enough to experiment and improve movies and TV in a huge number of other ways.

And the payoff to whoever does this won't just be making the world a better place. There's a lot of money to be made here, both on the production and distribution side. The disruption of Hollywood's old-economy oligopoly is a revolution that is long overdue, for more reasons than just this. And young Asian-American and pro-diversity entrepreneurs and artists have the smarts and the creativity to make that revolution happen and grab that pot of gold.

And you know what? I might be wrong about all this. Maybe none of this is necessary to get Asian-Americans on screen. Maybe the outcries and the Twitter trolling will work, and we're on the verge of seeing Asian-American actors headline superhero movies and big-budget Hollywood adaptations. And if that does happen, great. But then we wouldn't get a film renaissance out of the deal.

Fight injustice and make money

Capitalism is about taking what you can get. Until some imagined future day when we all live under the protective wing of an immortal, invincible, benevolent liberal authority, capitalism will have to do. It isn't fair, but it isn't the ossified hierarchy of power and injustice that its critics make it out to be, either.

The lack of Asian-Americans on the silver screen isn't just an injustice - it's the sign of an overlooked business opportunity. It is money being left on the table. Someone needs to pick up that money. And when someone does, whitewashing will soon be relegated to the history books - possibly along with Hollywood itself.

Update: As if the Universe read my post, Jordan Peele might direct the live-action Akira.


  1. This is anecdotal, so don't take it as gospel truth. Growing up I had a lot of Asian-American friends. Occasionally they would confide in me their grievances towards the American media portrayal of them on the big and small screen. White washing wasn't a big deal for them, or the amount of representation they got. Rather, the biggest issue for them was the stereotyping of Asians as "asexual losers".

    They saw themselves as being over the top nerds, uncool, and sexually inadequate. Japanese, Chinese and Koreans on tv had no masculinity and were their as cliche token minorities or to laugh at.

  2. Anonymous6:39 PM

    Iron Fist is a blonde white guy in the comics, so that really isn't "whitewashing" unless the argument is that martial arts=Asian, which seems like . . . a racist trope. I understand some people feel he's some sort of "mighty whitey" character, but he's not, he's actually a bit crap as superheroes go. To be honest, I'd question why they gave him his own show as opposed to making him a supporting character in the Luke Cage show, which would fit his role in the comics as Cage's best friend (and that is a black/white friendship that has inherent dramatic potential, re-cast Iron Fist as another minority and you lose that). There are plenty of other interesting B-team street level characters (Moon Knight?) they could have based a show around, so that would be my critique, not "whitewashing" per se. Also that they didn't make it a good show either.

  3. Anonymous12:18 PM

    I don't have any of the easy ways to include my identity. My son suggested that I read your blog so I will sign in if I post again.

    My biggest concern about the anti-Asian bias is when Hollywood decides to change a true story and eliminate most of the Asians. "21" the movie about the MIT blackjack team was changed to virtually eliminate all of the Asians.

    But can you blame Hollywood if their data shows the US is a bunch of racists who would be willing to watch a Brit use a fake American accent rather than an Asian?

    After all, the US just elected Trump and there is no doubt that if you eliminate the racist vote then Trump would have lost. (Easy to say because he barely won so eliminating virtually anything would have changed the election.)