INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Universal Pictures Has Write Aid for Screenwriters

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

One of the reasons for the genesis of this column more than two decades ago was to provide a continuous forum to discuss and raise awareness of how Asian Americans and Asians had historically been  misportrayed and misrepresented in popular American media.

The approach applied to pretty much everything: straight news coverage, or TV shows and movies simply meant to entertain; books and magazines; cartoons and comics; and dramas and comedies.

Despite occasional breakthroughs like Disney’s “Mulan” or Warner Bros. Pictures’ “The Last Samurai” or New Line Cinema’s “Harold and Kumar” pics in movie houses or short-lived attempts on TV like ABC’s “All-American Girl” or the WB’s “The Black Sash,” there was so much that was just plain wrong and often offensive with regard to how Asian Americans and Asians were shown. Stereotyping and race-baiting. Yellowface and Yellow Peril politics. Negative roles and no roles.

It seemed endless.

Personally, however, I came to realize that pointing out the flaws, and protesting and complaining — while helpful — only went so far. The bigger problem was that Asian Americans lacked the clout and numbers to press for real change, leaving us grateful for the occasions of benevolence but resentful toward the standard operating procedure, i.e., being shown as perpetual foreigners and asexual science nerds, gangsters and villains, prostitutes and dragon ladies.

It was a numbers game. Too few Asian Americans were in the media infrastructure to make a significant difference. Yes, there was a scattering of Asian American executives, not to mention producers, actors, directors and writers — but there simply weren’t enough Asian Americans in show business and the news-gathering business to turn the tide.

In other words, change via outside pressure was one thing. Changing the internal culture was another, and not necessarily easier.

I’ll be the first to admit, however, that the status quo has improved, when comparing now to 1992. Getting back to the numbers, a visit to any California college or university campus will verify that compared with national or even state demographics, the percentage of students of Asian heritage is higher than off campus. On some UC campuses, for instance, I’m told it’s as high as 40%! (Compare that with just below 15% at the state level and just under 5% nationally.)

That means on the campus of a public university like UCLA or UCI, or a private school like USC or Stanford, there are bound to be some Asian Americans pursuing, in addition to business, engineering, science, math, poli sci, English, medicine, law or journalism, fields like film and TV. Those college kids in those last two fields, once graduated, would become part of the media/entertainment industry ecosystem.

Over the years, they’d become decision-makers who could effect change, like director Justin Lin or Warner Bros. Entertainment chief Kevin Tsujihara. Once in position (and having proven himself to be a rainmaker), a guy like Lin could make sure that Universal Pictures’ most-successful franchise, the “Fast and Furious” movies, included actor Sung Kang among the actors in its ethnically diverse ensemble cast.

I saw this phenomenon on the personal level, having spent 12 years at the entertainment industry trade paper Hollywood Reporter. When I joined, I was the only person of Asian ancestry in the daily side’s newsroom, and might not have even been seen as such by some, what with my surname and appearance. Now, however, the much-changed publication is run by Janice Min, a Korean American.

Also on the personal level, my belief is that improving the status quo begins on the ground floor, with the writing. Getting more Asian American actors in front of the camera, as well as more directors, producers, executives and below-the-line types behind the camera is all well and good and necessary — but without a strong stable of Asian Pacific American writers with some level of social consciousness to make sure that Asian American and Asians were included in the stories being told, improving that status quo would be more difficult.

“If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage” may be a cliché, but it’s true.

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So, after this laborious build up, I’m here to tell you that if you have a movie script or two filed away on a bookshelf or on your hard drive, you might want to consider dusting it off.

That’s because my pal Dan Mayeda, co-chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (part of the bigger Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition) last week informed me that Universal Pictures has announced its inaugural Emerging Writers Fellowship.

According to Scott Bernstein, Universal’s VP of Production, whom I also spoke with briefly on the phone, it’s a yearlong program that pays an annual stipend of $65,000 for five talented (and lucky) writers over 18 with U.S. citizenship to get plugged directly into one of Hollywood’s major movie studios. It’s the sort of opportunity that could literally change one’s life.

Bernstein said the five would be mentored by execs at the studio and get to pitch original ideas and work on projects in development.

Bernstein said Universal has had a tremendous run of late and that success reflects the diversity they’ve promoted. He said the success of the aforementioned Justin Lin, who has a production deal with Universal, is a “prime example of an Asian Pacific American filmmaker” who has demonstrably succeeded in seizing the opportunity to reach the worldwide audiences that Universal desires. He added that Universal is also working with rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube, comedian Kevin Hart and director Tim Story (“Ride Along”).

So, kudos to Universal Pictures and its corporate parent Comcast for giving this a try. It’s one of those potential “win-win” opportunities where they can do good and do well simultaneously.

In our conversation, Dan and I also discussed the current controversy over the Fox Network’s upcoming live-action sitcom “Dads,” which has raised the concerns of the umbrella group that he co-chairs. (Not having seen it, I’m nevertheless not surprised that Seth MacFarlane is an executive producer. He’s talented, without a doubt, but I have to admit that I didn’t find his lowbrow hit comedy “Ted” very funny or clever; same with his “Family Guy” show.)

Nevertheless, regarding the direction things are headed, the longtime activist who, for as long as I’ve known him, has been genuinely concerned with portrayals of Asian Americans and Asians, said, “I’m optimistic. There are some many more Asian Americans involved in telling our own stories now.

“Before, we used to have somewhat of a task convincing people in Hollywood why they should be doing this. We would tell them it’s good business and all that, and some got it and some didn’t. Now I think everybody gets it. This is a significant way of making money.”

So, now that you’ve made it this far, here’s your reward, namely the URL with instructions on how to enter Universal Pictures’ Emerging Writers Fellowship. Just go to: www.nbcunicareers.com/universal-pictures%E2%80%99-emerging-writers-fellowship and see what happens; the doors open at midnight on Sept. 3. Good luck!

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

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