INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Kevin Tsujihara — Where No (Asian American) Man Has Gone Before

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Friday, March 1, will be a great leap for Asian Americans — and for one Japanese American in particular, a giant step up Hollywood’s corporate food chain.

That is because on that day, Kevin Tsujihara will become the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, for those of you who were nodding off in class back in January when Time Warner Inc. rocked Hollywood with that announcement.

Although he was a known quantity to many in the entertainment industry, the appointment put the reportedly low-key, low-profile but very smart Tsujihara in the spotlight as never before.

By all accounts, it was that combination of personality and smarts, not to mention business savvy, that led his bosses — Time Warner Chairman/CEO Jeff Bewkes and retiring predecessor Barry Meyer — to pick him for the leadership position over rival execs Bruce Rosenblum and Jeff Robinov, who were also in contention for the post.

According to showbiz website DeadlineHollywood, Bewkes and Meyer issued the following joint statement: “Given the talent, depth and strength of the Warner Bros.’ leadership, selecting our next CEO was not a decision that could be made hastily or lightly. But we both agreed that Kevin is the right person to lead Warner Bros. and to build on its proud heritage as the world’s most storied content producer… In 2005, Kevin was appointed to head the then newly formed Home Entertainment Group, which he has skillfully led through a difficult transition and which remains number one in the industry by every measure. Just as importantly, he is a leading voice in creating and deploying new digital models to ensure that we remain market leaders. We’ve both been very impressed with Kevin’s strategic understanding and intuitive grasp of the evolution of the consumer’s interaction with our television shows, films and video games, and his ability to visualize how our products will be enjoyed in the future.”

Kevin Tsujihara

That paragraph essentially explains that Tsujihara will lead the media giant’s film, TV and video games as it competes with rivals Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal, Disney, et al., for eyeballs and butts-in-seats. (Just an interesting aside, DC Comics is owned by Time Warner — and its co-publisher is Korean American Jim Lee. How’s that for progress?)

For a Hollywood exec, it doesn’t get much bigger than being in charge of Warner Bros. Entertainment. Over the years that I’ve been observing Hollywood, I’ve not heard of another Asian American in such a high-level, high-profile post. Scott Sassa (NBC), Stephen Chao (Fox), Steve Tao (ABC; J.J. Abrams’ production company) and Chris Lee (Columbia Pictures) are some names that immediately come to mind with regard to other Asian Americans who were high in the pecking order at one time or another in their respective fields.

But Tsujihara’s appointment trumps all those.

In that sense, it’s heartening, not unlike seeing the NBA’s Jeremy Lin spark Linsanity about a year ago. In a sport dominated by African American players, along comes this Asian American kid who turns the world upside down, even if it was for a few, short-lived weeks.

Who knows, maybe there was some sort of subconscious realization that in an industry dominated by Jews (I know you’re not supposed to say that — unless you’re Jewish), maybe this was a chance to let a capable person who was Asian American take a crack at leading the entertainment arm of one of the world’s leading media companies?

While I have no doubts that Tsujihara is more than up to the task, I hope he has more staying power in his field than Jeremy Lin — who is still a work in progress — in his.

And, with regard to the whole “Jewish thing,” some of the comments with regard to race and religion — not to mention whether a “digital guy” like Tsujihara is fit to lead a film and TV studio — at the end of the Deadline Hollywood piece I quoted are real eye-openers. (See http://tinyurl.com/aqfalpg)

Reading some of those comments, it’s personally fascinating how we as a nation had no problem electing (and re-electing) a president who is of African heritage — and yet some of those same people who presumably voted for Barack Obama as POTUS can’t compute Kevin Tsujihara serving as a Hollywood media company’s CEO. (It’s worth noting that a few years ago, Time Warner Inc.’s CEO was Richard Parsons, an African American.)

In a way, it shows that despite the impact of folks like Jeremy Lin, Asian Americans — especially men — are still curiosities and anomalies, be it in corporate America or sports.

That said, is there anything we can expect from Kevin Tsujihara becoming a bigger wheel at Time Warner that is directly beneficial to Asian Americans?

The answer is what it should be: no.

While it’s inspirational that a Nikkei can make it so high up there in corporate America, his duty is to his company, its bottom line and its shareholders. So, for an example, as much as I’d like to see Kevin Tsujihara send a private memo to comedian Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s “Real Time,” telling him stop already with his racist Asian jokes or maybe add an occasional Asian American to his lineup of weekly panelists, that simply isn’t going to happen.

Indirectly, though, having Tsujihara at the helm sends a positive message that when it comes to being behind the steering wheel of a major American corporation, contrary to what Bill Maher and his ilk seem to believe, Asians can drive.

Lil’ Tokyo Reporter Dept.: Just a reminder: There are three screenings set for that aforementioned movie this Saturday, Feb. 23, in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are supposed to be $9 for general admission and $7 for seniors and students, with matinees at 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. (The website is ltreporter.com; check it before the screening, when it is sure to be updated with more specifics.) The address is 251 S. Main St. Hope to see you there!

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 © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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