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Of the top one hundred films made since 2007, 4.8% of characters are of Asian descent. Seventy percent of television shows set in New York City have no recurring Asian or Pacific Islander characters. In the past eleven years, of the more than 1,200 top directors in Hollywood, only 0.1% were of Asian descent. Characters from diverse backgrounds are least likely to be shown in action and adventure films. Underrepresented racial/ethnic groups comprise 29.3% of speaking characters in Hollywood films versus 45% of movie ticket buyers.*

These stats paint a picture of just how underrepresented Asians and Asian-Americans are in Hollywood. Even though America is becoming more and more diverse, Hollywood, like many industries, is still dominated by white (mostly male) executives who typically cater to white audiences and assume these audiences are only interested in hearing stories featuring white characters.

The problem of diversity has been highlighted in recent years by movements like #OscarsSoWhite, which was designed to highlight under-representation of people of color in the industry through the lens of who gets recognized at the Academy Awards. People who win awards get more work. So while the Oscars has only ever represented a small portion of films made each year, the lack of diverse winners and nominees makes it even more difficult for non-white actors, directors, writers, and production members to find steady jobs.

But the problem extends beyond the ability of POCs to be hired in film and television. Well-financed, produced, and marketed shows and movies that go on to be successful become a huge centerpiece of American culture. The stories they tell impact their viewers’ perceptions of the world around them–for better or for worse. Traditionally, white kids have grown up seeing people who look like them play superheroes, princesses, love interests, and presidents. Children of color grow up seeing people who look like them play, at best, sidekicks, and, at worst, criminals, thugs, or terrorists.

It was in this environment that Seattle filmmaker Bao Tran decided to make The Paper Tigers, a forthcoming feature film that follows a trio of lifelong friends who set out to avenge their kung fu master’s murder. On May 22, 2019, Bao visited Gravity, along with producer Al’n Duong and Northwest Film Forum Executive Director Vivian Hua, to talk about the movie and the challenges of getting Hollywood to believe that there is an audience for stories about Asian-Americans.

As Asian-Americans themselves, the three spoke about wanting to make a film that featured people of color–specifically those of Asian descent. Bao and Al’n were particularly drawn to the kung fu genre having grown up watching the films of Bruce Lee (who spent several years in Seattle upon moving to the United States) and other Hong Kong filmmakers of that era. “This is my love letter to martial arts here in Seattle,” Bao said.

They estimated they’d need to raise about $1 million to make the film they wanted to make. But, given how hard it is to get financing for any film, coupled with the fact that Bao had never made a feature before, they knew they weren’t going to get what they needed by asking alone. They decided to shoot the first ten minutes of the film (at a cost of $100,000) and used that footage to create a trailer they could use to pitch producers. They applied to Frontières, an international program designed to connect genre filmmakers with industry professionals, and were one of thirty projects selected from around the world for 2018 and one of ten selected to pitch their proof of concept at the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite the attention the film received, most of the studio executives the team encountered remained unconvinced that The Paper Tigers had broad appeal. “We had a lot of questions about our cast,” Al’n said, “about whether it was ‘universal’ enough.”

“Universal” in this case was code for “white,” as producers assumed the overwhelmingly diverse cast, led by one African-American and two Asian-American actors, would not be marketable to audiences so used to seeing Caucasian leads. But Bao, Al’n, and the rest of The Paper Tigers team were committed to using actors whose race fit the context of the story. They were so committed that when one company offered them $4 million–four times their budget–if they cast a white lead, they turned it down.

“That just wasn’t the story that we wanted to tell,” Al’n said. “We knew that this was a vicious cycle that continues to happen where people of color write these great stories and then pitch these bigger studios. And all [the studios] have to do is flash this big check and then they get their story. And then the wrong movies continue to be made.”

They also knew they were not alone in their desire to see more POCs on film. Black Panther–the first Marvel movie to feature an almost entirely black cast–had recently made history by shattering box office records and would eventually become the highest-grossing film of 2018. Meanwhile Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy with an all-Asian cast, had become a late-summer hit and one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, proving that a movie about Asian people starring actual Asian people could resonate with mainstream audiences. Still, studios kept dismissing these success stories as one-offs, exceptions to the rule that “universal” equals “white.”

Al’n Duong, Vivian Hua, and Bao Tran

Bao and Al’n decided they needed to prove there was an audience for The Paper Tigers by appealing to that audience directly. Using the footage they’d already shot, they launched a Kickstarter campaign with a goal to raise $110,000 in thirty-six days. Most other movie projects on Kickstarter set more modest goals of between $30,000-$40,000, but since they were trying to raise $1 million, Bao and Al’n knew they needed to be more ambitious. They also knew they were taking a risk since Kickstarter doesn’t release any money to fundraisers unless they reach their goal. Ignoring the statistics that show most Kickstarter campaigns fail, they decided to forge ahead anyway.

Things started off slow, but a few weeks into the campaign, the film attracted the attention of the Angry Asian Man blog, which posted a positive piece about the film on its website and Tweeted to its 66,000 followers urging them to fund the campaign. That caught the attention of Asian-American actor Ronny Chieng (best known as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and for his role in Crazy Rich Asians) who started following the campaign and sharing it with his own followers. By the time the campaign ended, the team had raised more than $124,000.

Although the Kickstarter funds still fell short of their seven-figure budget, the success of the campaign gave Bao and Al’n much-needed exposure as well as proof that The Paper Tigers had an audience. This has helped them raise enough funding to move forward with the production later this summer, even though many producers continue to dismiss these numbers as insignificant. “[There’s] this type of exceptionalism we have to hit to even make a mark,” Bao said in describing all of the rejection they faced even after they could prove the value of their film.

It’s been eight years since Bao first started working to make The Paper Tigers and six since Al’n joined the production. There’s no doubt things would have been easier if they’d listened to Hollywood and agreed to cast a white lead and secured all of their financing in one fell swoop. But despite the hurdles, the team stands by their decision because they know they are doing something much more important than just making an action movie. “Our goal is to become another data point because we faced that problem of there’s just not enough content out there or projects to really point at,” Al’n said. “Bao put this movie together to not really become an answer to a social problem, but it just so happened [that’s what we’re doing].” Al’n pointed to NBA player Jeremy Lin, who became a household name after leading the New York Knicks through a winning streak in 2012 known as “Linsanity.”  “Now [Lin’s] the face of this whole generation of Asian-Americans,” Al’n said. “But he just wanted to play basketball. We just want to make movies. And for us we literally just want to make this movie the best that we can and be a comp for another Asian-American filmmaker out there.” 

They also realize the impact they’re having on the film industry itself by hiring people of color to work on the film. After displaying a photo of an overwhelmingly diverse cast and crew, Al’n shared the story of a Vietnamese-American production assistant who had volunteered to work on the initial shoot. “After we shot [that footage],” Al’n said, “he actually pulled me aside and said ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been on a film set that was led by people who looked like me.’ And it was one of those things where we kind of forgot where we came from a little bit…I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do or where to go and we just realized that we’re not doing this just for representation on the silver screen. We’re also hiring people just like us who are trying to get a piece of Hollywood behind the scenes. The fact that we are able to pass on this knowledge and information to someone like our production assistant, that’s just growing the next generation of POC filmmakers.”

“I feel very fortunate to be able to be a creative at this time and survive,” said Vivian, whose position at the Northwest Film Forum allows her to work with up-and-coming local filmmakers, including the cast and crew of The Paper Tigers. Vivian spoke about how Seattle can be a tough place for any filmmaker–even those who don’t face discrimination–due to the city’s relatively small film industry. “I think part of my reason for wanting to create platforms for other communities is coming from that place. Everyone does not get to do this, so how do I make situations so others get to do this?

It remains to be seen how The Paper Tigers will be received once it’s complete and shared with the world. Regardless, it’s likely to be some time before Hollywood starts representing people of color accurately and equally. In the meantime, Bao and Al’n have some advice: don’t listen to the naysayers, don’t compromise, and follow your gut. “Yes, you should do your research,” Al’n says, acknowledging that if he’d looked at the data about getting indie movies made, he probably never would have tried half the things that have allowed them to be successful. “Do your research, do your due diligence, get better. But at the same time, if it’s time to pull the trigger, then take your shot. You have to take your own shot.”

By Brooke Carey, Lead Storyteller

The Gravity Speakers Series brings experts from a wide range of fields–from business to politics to arts and entertainment–to our office to share their insight and knowledge with our team. For more about recent speakers, click here.

*http://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/inequality-in-1100-popular-films.pdf; https://www.aapisontv.com/uploads/3/8/1/3/38136681/aapisontv.2017.pdf

Categories: Gravity Speaker Series, News from Gravity