The community group known as Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment — or CAPE, as most refer to it — is pushing the quarter-century mark now. It recently announced what may be its most significant changes since its formation.
CAPE was founded in 1991 by three executive-level folks who worked in showbiz: Wenda Fong, Fritz Friedman and Chris Lee. There may not be tons of Asian Pacific Americans in Hollywood now, but compared to 1991, there are many, many more. It’s safe to say the landscape has changed when you can have someone like Kevin Tsujihara as chairman and CEO of Warner Bros.
The organization started a place where actors, writers, directors, producers, agents and executives of Asian heritage could network and interact with others of a similar background, instead of being the lone Asian at a particular Hollywood company.
CAPE held social events as well as panel discussions and such. They also developed a new talent, as evidenced by something I was happy to see them sponsor, mainly the CAPE New Writers Fellowship, now in existence for more than 15 years. As a writer, I was glad to see that CAPE understood writing was the foundation upon which everything else — directing, producing, acting — in theater, movies and TV needed to rest upon.
When we outside the entertainment industry complain about lazy stereotypes or the dearth of Asian faces in a particular TV series or in the casting of a movie, it’s not usually out of malice. It’s because the writer or writers — mostly male, mostly white, if you go by membership figures from the Writers Guild of America — didn’t see fit to go beyond a stereotype or even include an Asian. Someone in CAPE must have figured that increasing the pool of Asian American writers might increase the odds of said writers including someone of Asian ancestry as a character in a show or movie, or even attempting to produce a something in which an Asian American or Asian actor could star in, or perhaps a story specifically about an Asian person or community.
But I digress.
For most of its existence, CAPE has been a membership organization, meaning it collected dues. I joined years ago, but also have to admit my membership lapsed and I never rejoined. It’s a problem many membership-based community organizations face, I’m sure.
Although my memberhip lapsed long ago, I still receive emails from the group, which is great since it keeps me apprised of its activities and members. For instance, back in June, CAPE sent out an email that the aforementioned Fritz Friedman, who was at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment for 34 years, was being let go as part of a round of layoffs at the studio.
As alluded to in the opening paragraph, another email in late July announced that CAPE would no longer be a membership organization. Rather, it would become mission-driven. To quote from that email: “What this means for you is that we are eliminating all paid memberships and opening up our programs, services and events to anyone seeking to make a meaningful impact in support of the AAPI community.”
It was co-signed by CAPE’s co-founder Wenda Fong and Kevin Iwashina, CAPE board chair. That email was followed by another, dated Aug. 18, in which it was announced that the group’s executive director, Jennifer Sanderson, was resigning after five years.
It sounded like a lot of changes happening at CAPE, so I contacted Iwashina to get more details. I’ve written about him several times in this space, going back to when he was an agent at CAA and also with regard to his role in the indie movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
Iwashina, once you can pin him down when he has time to talk, has always been forthright, opinionated and open, and when we chatted, he came through again. I asked him how he would characterize the changes that were announced. He said, “The change is there to actually continue the same mission and frankly re-orient ourselves from a member-based organization to a mission-based one.
“Historically we had members and we had to, because there were a few so Asian Americans in particular in the entertainment arena that membership and the idea of a club was very important. I think Asian Americans have had to think that way because I think historically we were slightly marginalized from mainstream American culture.”
He said CAPE would continue to push forward its mission of “educating, empowering and connecting AAPIs both in front of and behind the camera,” but make it so that “you don’t really have to be a member of CAPE to support the mission; you can just support the mission in your everyday lives by the choices you make, by the things you choose to create, by the type of entertainment you choose to consume.”
Iwashina noted too that all of CAPE’s founders are still active with the group and were supportive of the changes. He also said that while CAPE won’t be membership-driven, it still will have its mailing list and continue to produce events. “I think the minimal amount of revenue that we were generating from membership, all that time and energy, can now be spent towards other types of fundraising both in the granting area and corporate as well as continuing to promote the agenda of all of our mission as opposed to servicing club dues.”
As for the departure of CAPE’s ED, Iwashina said Sanderson had accomplished most of her goals. “I think just like any ED, they accomplish their things and they want to move on and now I think to we’re in Cape 3.0,” he said. “The board has evolved, the goals have evolved and our ED has accomplished all she had set out to in her commitment to the organization.”
According to Iwashina, Sanderson was inspired by CAPE’s mission and is “going to pursue filmmaking on her own … She’ll have a whole board and organization behind her to accomplish those goals.”
As for CAPE’s future, he sees it as a fully functioning 501(c)(3) or nonprofit group — “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run it like a for-profit” organization.
When I asked him what to look forward to from his company, Preferred Content, he just said his company has a “very thriving domestic sales business,” noting that they ended up representing the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury winner in documentaries for the past two years. A quick look at the IMDb Pro website shows his name attached as executive producer on at least seven projects and producer on one.
Under Iwashina’s leadership, CAPE is undergoing some fundamental changes while continuing its core mission. But if CAPE has no impact on your life or profession, it’s probably true that something with Kevin Iwashina’s fingerprints on them will be seen by you, in your Netflix cue, on TV or in a movie theater.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.