Rethinking Asian American Storytelling in Hollywood
By Mas Moriya
In Hollywood, there are many ways to break into the film and television industry, but as Asian Americans, it seems there are only a few ways. How are Asian Americans supposed to rise through the ranks of the industry if the system itself is not giving us a fair opportunity?
The rise of Asian American talent and films has been great, but Asian Americans still make up a relatively small portion of the film industry, even though there are over 60 million Asian Americans in the US.
Despite the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Searching, many Asian American actors, filmmakers, and writers still find it hard to find opportunities in Hollywood.
Why Are Asian Americans Under-Represented in Hollywood?
One of the biggest problems for Asian Americans in the film industry is that Hollywood is dominated by white men. White men own the majority of film studios and advertising agencies, which means most of the decision-makers about the kinds of films that will be produced are also white men.
Even in the diversity conversation, Asian Americans are left without a voice. Although times are changing and this is getting better, every single day, I find an area of diversity where Asian Americans are left out, and even more often, Asian American men are left out of the conversation.
For Asian American writers, it’s almost impossible to get a script into the right hands. Screenwriters face enormous competition, so it’s very difficult for them to find managers who will take a chance on them.
What’s the Solution? What can we do to help change the situation? First and foremost, it’s important to continually help Asian American filmmakers and actors get their films. This is always a factor.
The Strong Asian Lead solution is to focus on the writers. We support everyone up and down the line of Hollywood, but the screenwriter and storytellers who put the story on the page are the ones who have the most power when it comes to generating the ideas and writing the emotionally gripping relevancy of any story. But this means that writers can’t just be good writers, they must be great writers. And great writers are more than just writers who can put it in the screenplay format. They know how to tell a story.
What is “story”? There are many ways the term “story” can be discussed. I even had a debate about what “story” meant once with someone I no longer trust, but they had a good point. Their point was that story is anything that can capture the emotion of an audience and preserve a journey.
I don’t disagree with this, but I want to take it in the context of Hollywood and actually having a career in Hollywood.
If you don’t know that screenwriters need managers to break into the industry, here is a bit of background context.
TL;DR: This is why it’s important who you know, and who knows you.
The film industry is an incredibly competitive place and, unless you have contacts in the industry, it’s unlikely that you will break into the industry as a writer. The main way to break into Hollywood as a writer is to network with producers and directors, so your best bet is to work with an agent or manager who can help them build up those contacts.
A literary agent is someone who acts on behalf of a writer, but a literary manager is someone who helps to write and adapt scripts.
Literary agents are nearly always hired through literary managers, so anyone interested in breaking into the industry as a screenwriter should prioritize finding a literary manager.
Now, back to why this is an important context.
If you want a career in Hollywood, no matter what your position is, you need to make money to support your living situation/style. This means whatever you do, you need to sell the product that you’re making. After all, this is show business, not show hobby.
If you want to sell a film, you have to be both unique, but also play by the rules and know your market. If you’re playing to the American market, then you must know how Americans like to be told a story. Shakespearian Comedy is the structure most classic and memorable films are structured. Any movie where the hero or heroine overcomes a struggle or problem and returns a stronger or changed person because of it. In simple terms, this means that the main character persevered, not just survived, but actually accomplished something.
If I’m being honest, I’d say about half of the Asian American movies don’t follow this structure. They generally fall under the tragedy structure. There’s nothing wrong with this structure. It’s a good way of storytelling. But let me ask you, how many of these movies and stories are making money? How many of those people who tell these types of stories have a full working career in the industry? Not many. And let’s be honest, even the ones who are telling the comedy structure aren’t getting the jobs they should, but at least more people are willing to re-watch those movies.
Why do I bring all this up? It’s because for writers, signing with a manager is the next step towards breaking into Hollywood, but if a manager (who’s probably a white man) can’t see how to sell your story to a producer, studio, or agent, then you’re going to have a harder time signing with a manager and thus a harder time getting the support from a big name studio. You’ll either end up giving up or trying to raise the money yourself to make it, only to still not sell it and be in the hole. Maybe you’ll get to be on some panels or in a festival, but are you selling yourself as a writer or as a director?
In a future post, I will talk about how to think of your career as more than just the one project and how to land a manager even if you haven’t won any contests or made any festivals, but in this post I just want to plant the seed of an idea that we, Asian Americans, cannot just write what we want to write and then hope for the best. We must think about writing the story we want in the format a manager can sell. This is how we play the game, and that game is to make great stories that sell so that we can make more great stories.