INTO THE NEXT STAGE: With ‘Red Tails’ Set to Fly, Is Hollywood Ready to Go for Broke?

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on Dec. 8, 2011.)

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Have you heard that Hollywood is finally ready to release a major motion picture about a celebrated, segregated WWII unit that won a Congressional Gold Medal for heroism and loyalty to the United States, despite institutional racism and second-class citizenship?

If you think I mean that a major movie studio is finally ready to debut a big-budget dramatization about the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, I’m afraid that is not the case. I’m referring to 20th Century Fox’s “Red Tails,” which much-deservedly tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, which was comprised of African Americans who trained to be fighter pilots in pre-civil rights movement America and saw combat duty in the skies over Europe. (The trailer can be viewed at: http://tinyurl.com/85sgljf)

Movie poster for “Red Tails,” set to open on Jan. 20.

Set for release Jan. 20, 2012, “Red Tails” is directed by Anthony Hemingway (a TV guy getting his big-screen break) and among its African American cast are rapper-actors Method Man and Ne-Yo, as well as normally named actors Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., the former who was nominated for an Oscar, the latter who has won one.

The screenwriter is John Ridley; I wrote about him in January and February 2005 in this space when another aviation-related work of his was in production, a play about kamikazé pilots titled “Ten Thousand Years.” (As I noted then, Ridley is African American and his wife is Japanese American.) I closed Part 2 of my interview with him by writing: “… Ridley is living proof that success in Hollywood is achievable by those who in the past would have been considered on the margins. We’ll see more from him without a doubt.” Good to learn he’s still doing it and making a living.

The preceding is all well and good — it sounds pretty solid to me. I’m also happy to learn that the Tuskegee Airmen story is receiving cultural validation via the motion picture, in what would have been a song or epic poem in centuries past. (Worth noting is that there was a 1995 telefilm titled “The Tuskegee Airmen.”)

What I find most interesting, however, is that its producer is George Lucas, who is, among many things, the producer of the “Indiana Jones” franchise, and the man behind the “Star Wars” franchise and special-effects house Industrial Light and Magic.

Lucas’ image has been diminished in recent years among “Star Wars” fanboys because he insists on modifying his original movies with computer graphics, changes in character actions and so on. Current word is that he is reconfiguring all six “Star Wars” movies in 3D. Sigh. But it’s an undeniable fact that he is still a giant in movies.

This fact underscores something that I’ve observed over the last several years, that in Hollywood’s present-day modus operandi to get a big-budget movie made by a major studio, you need an “A-lister” — an actor, director or producer with the requisite mojo to get a studio to go from the usual “no” to a “yes.”

If you don’t have an A-list type, what’s needed is an adaptation of an existing work, a remake or a sequel/prequel. When a movie is made that was intentionally created to be a movie from the get-to, it seems it’s either an independently financed work picked up by a studio (generally meaning it was a low-budget project) or it’s a reward to someone who made lots of money from other projects for the studio. Think Chris Nolan with “Inception” or James Cameron with “Avatar.” Each director had massive hits with prior movies and was thus rewarded with the chance to make something they personally felt strongly about.

George Lucas is just the sort of A-lister who brings enough heft and influence to get something that might otherwise be deemed “uncommercial” made — something like a “Red Tails” — regardless of how compelling a story it might be.

All this considered, I have to be heartened that “Red Tails” is coming to theaters. It tells me that the chances for a big-budget 442 movie are greater than ever; if “Red Tails” makes money, then it in theory reduces some of the reluctance on the part of a studio to back a movie about Japanese Americans that has undeniable parallels to the saga of the African American Tuskegee Airmen.

As I noted in my Sept. 29 column, the Hollywood Reporter published an article that said filmmaker Justin Lin has a 442 movie in development, thanks to his multipicture deal with Universal Pictures. That is probably the most positive news one could think of with regard to a big-budget 442 movie ever getting made by a Hollywood movie studio. In theory at least, he has the clout and will to make it happen.

Whether Lin will do this in reality, however, remains to be seen. No offense intended to Lin, but there actually have been several attempts to make a 442 movie. Years ago the Hollywood Reporter ran a slate story, reporting that Paul W.S. Anderson (“Resident Evil,” “Mortal Kombat”) wanted to make a 442 movie. Needless to say, that never panned out.

Also, a few years ago — Aug. 18, 2007 in this space, to be exact — I wrote about an aspiring filmmaker named Jesse Kobayashi who shot a trailer to sell a 442 movie he wanted to make, titled “Little Iron Men.” That, sad to say, never happened, either.

As it turns out, earlier this year I met with someone else who is very interested in producing a 442 movie. His name is Martin Kubota, a Pasadena-area native whose main occupation is as an accountant. I spoke with him after he sent me an email outlining his ambitious plans to produce a movie that tells the 442 story. Not coincidentally, he is working with Kobayashi.

Kubota’s goal is to raise $25 million, beginning in 2012, to make his pet project, despite having no background, track record or experience in making movies. I told him my opinion, basically that making a 442 movie in today’s environment is tough nut to crack for a number of reasons.

It is true that in 1951 a major studio made “Go for Broke” — but that was a different era and the movie is, by today’s standards, really lacking in many ways. To me the real difficulty in selling a 442 movie is that, from a studio’s perspective, making a movie that puts the focus on an Asian American individual or Asian American group isn’t going to attract enough people to see it and make the studio’s money back. It is show business, after all.

I don’t necessarily buy into that point of view; I believe audiences are more sophisticated than Hollywood gives them credit for and that significant numbers of people will go see a movie if it’s well done and if a studio’s marketing and publicity departments sell the heck out of it.

Still, Kubota is undeterred. “I’m a person who always wants to do something relevant,” he told me. “If I’m going to spend my time, I want to do something that’s going to make a difference in this world.

“The thing that really changed my life was when I had a heart attack five years ago and had to have bypass surgery. I realized that the reality in my life is, I’m on the last lap. I only have so many years left, and I haven’t accomplished what I thought I’d like to accomplish. If I’m running out of time, I better start focusing on what’s really important.”

That important thing for Kubota, it turns out, is a 442 movie. While he wants to start by raising funds within the greater Japanese American community, he wants to make it a broad- based effort, no matter how difficult it might be. He’s not willing to wait for Hollywood, Justin Lin, George Lucas or Santa Claus to make it happen. And for that, I have to give him credit.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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(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 © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

 

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