INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Kevin Iwashina’s Second Act: Making Movies

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Two weeks ago I wrote about a documentary I have yet to see titled “The Manzanar Fishing Club,” which had among its behind-the-scenes producers a longtime friend of mine named Lester Chung.

There’s yet another documentary I want to see that has yet another friend  credited as a producer. The movie is “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and this time the person is Kevin Iwashina.

Directed by David Gelb, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a look at an octogenarian sushi perfectionist named Jiro Ono and the extremes to which he goes and the lengths to which he pushes his staff to make sure what his Tokyo restaurant serves is extraordinary. “Jiro” was released theatrically earlier this year.

If you visit the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website, you’ll find that “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” has an astonishing 98 favorable rating from critics. I must admit that I’m all the more curious to see it because I can remember a time when sushi wasn’t available at your typical supermarket. Sushi, to non-Japanese, used to be considered weird, a punchline for hack comedians. Now it’s considered one of the most artistic forms of food preparation, worthy of a documentary. Talk about progress!

Speaking of progress, I wrote two consecutive columns in August of 2003 about Iwashina. He was, at the time, a rarity: a Japanese American talent agent, working for what most consider to be Hollywood’s most powerful agency, CAA.

Regarding his duties as a literary agent, back in 2003 he said, “My primary focus is to find financing, focusing on the international marketplace. I’ll put movies together, raise financing outside the traditional studio system. We call them independent movies.”

One of his coups at the time was signing Justin Lin, who made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival with “Better Luck Tomorrow.” As far as I can tell, Japanese American talent agents are still rare, especially now that he has moved on from that field.

In addition to representing talent in the independent film realm, he also sat in on a Rafu Shimpo-sponsored panel discussion I moderated few years ago at JANM that featured actors Chris Tashima and Tamlyn Tomita, and directors Lin and Gene Cajayon.

At the end of the second half of my two-parter on him, I wrote: “What the future holds for Iwashina as an agent is anyone’s guess. It’s a pretty sure bet, however, that it won’t be a future in retail.” (That was a reference to his life before Hollywood, when he was working at Price Club.)

The life of an agent is high-stress, however, and Iwashina left CAA a few years after I initially interviewed him. I wasn’t quite sure what he was up too but I do know that working in fields related to the entertainment business can lead to burnout.

When I caught up with him, Iwashina admitted that after leaving CAA, he needed to take some time off to “decompress a bit” before getting back into pursuing his love of movies, albeit in a slightly different capacity, beginning in January 2010.

When I spoke with the Inglewood-born Iwashina last week, he said, “I left CAA in May of 2007, so actually yesterday was my five-year anniversary date of my last moment of employment there.”

Upon reading about Iwashina’s involvement with “Jiro,” I looked him up and found that he was a partner with Ross Dinerstein at a company they co-founded, Preferred Content. He now uses the skills and contacts he acquired as a lit agent to produce indie films and raise the funds required to make movies — and make a living.

Iwashina has a slate of movies that his company is working on. One that he is especially excited about stars “Twilight” franchise actor Robert Pattinson and is titled “Mission: Blacklist,” a thriller due to come out next year about the search for deposed former leader of Iraq Saddam Hussein.

Regarding how he became involved with “Jiro,” Iwashina said that a colleague showed some footage shot by a young filmmaker named David Gelb. Recognizing something unique in the footage, Iwashina arranged a meeting with Gelb, who he called “truly an artist, truly a filmmaker.” Learning of Gelb’s desire to make a documentary about sushi chefs, Iwashina says he told Gelb, “Let’s just go make this movie. We’ll raise the money and get this film made.”

Iwashina scoured his database and reached out to some of his “high net-worth friends,” including some wealthy Silicon Valley types. Fast-forward to the Berlin film fest last year, where it premiered, and earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival in its North American debut. Each screening led to distribution deals with Fortissimo Films and Magnolia Pictures.

As I mentioned, it scored 98 on Rotten Tomatoes. “In a typical Japanese fashion I was very upset that we weren’t at 100,” Iwashina joked. But no matter how well rated it may be, a movie must make money. When I asked, Iwashina said “Jiro” looked like it was doing well, just based on box office. “I think all the investors will be very happy with their return,” he said. A report from IndieNewsWire, however, stated that “Jiro” was the year’s first documentary to break the $1 million mark. Not bad.

As mentioned, Iwashina was involved with Justin Lin early in his career, years before his financial success with the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. When Lin landed a multipicture deal with Universal Pictures last year, it was reported that among his list of projects he’d like to get made was a drama about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Since then, I’ve heard nothing more about that, but I used my opportunity to talk with Iwashina to ask him how, in his estimation, a 442 movie might get made. To Kevin, the most important factors would be how good is the quality of the script and how interesting is the story.

Meantime, Iwashina is involved in Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, and he is also pursuing his love of making movies in a new capacity. Whether any will future projects will have a Japanese or Japanese American angle remains to be seen. Regardless, if whatever he works on can come close to the kudos given to “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” I’m pretty sure we’ll be hearing more from Kevin Iwashina in the coming years.

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 © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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