Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The mysterious "Green Light"

In film, producers and screenwriters are always trying to figure out how to get the “green light” on their project. I’ve had a recent experience that allows me greater insight into the process. It comes from being the Chair, Chinese Canadian Advisory Panel to the Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP). Our responsibility is to advise Minister for Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney on projects that address the history of the “Chinese Head Tax” and immigration restrictions.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the "Head Tax" was an “admission fee,” levied solely on the Chinese, on those that immigrated to Canada. This lasted from about 1890-1923. Things got bleaker for the Chinese because when in order to stop any immigration, Canada instituted the “Chinese Immigration Act” (the Exclusion Act) which forbade almost all Chinese from immigrating, from 1923-1947. This was a dark time which we hope will never be repeated but yet must be remembered.

With a $5,000,000 fund, we have looked at projects with many perspectives, including artistic, legal, documentary and cataloguing. This is a competitive process and all of the selected projects show most, if not all, of the following attributes. It's an informal checklist that I've personalized.

1. Passion - do I love this idea? How much? Do I love it enough to spend 1, 10, 20 years trying to put this together?

2. Research & Knowledge – Is this a subject I really understand or the people I want to work with understand to a great depth?

3. Bureaucratic considerations – How much red tape do I have to go through in order to make this happen and do I want to go through it?

4. Community Support – How does the affected community feel about this and are they important to the project’s success?

5. Non-community interest - Will this project transcend local concern?

6. Credibility & Experience – Are the people who are proposing the project know what they’re doing or be able to convince others that they will be able to achieve their goals?

7. Creativity – Are we looking at something in a unique way?

8. Financing – Where is the money coming from? Am I expected to foot the entire bill, is there any other potential sources of funds?

When I think about broadcasters and film funding bodies I have dealt with, their decision-making is similar to how I address the issues above. Now in order to have a project go ahead, it is not necessary to score high on every single point but it is necessary to be able to address most of them in a realistic fashion.

For any of you that have a project idea that fits, the CHRP has just announced a new call. Details can be found at: CALL FOR PROPOSALS

Addressing the above is no guarantee of a "green light," but it is another tool you can use in trying to get inside the mind of the decision-makers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How did THAT get made?

As a filmmaker, I often get asked, “How did that horrible film get made?” The acting sucked, the story was no good, the music was too loud…” any number of things.

The easy answer is that someone convinced someone else to give him/her the money. And that is certainly true. But a question arises, “Why did someone give someone else the money?” Let’s look at some of the reasons.

1. FAMOUS ACTOR and REALLY FAMOUS ACTOR want to do the project. Now cast is absolutely critical in making a film work and more importantly to the investor – make people want to go to a movie – but this has always got to be remembered. Actors are human too. They can love script but that doesn’t mean everybody will.

2. PERSONAL CONNECTION. This can be anything – the director is someone I respect and want to work with. The film has a lot of values/minorities/beliefs that I identify with and want to promote. I’m in love with the star. This has nothing really to do with the film or story but more on personal feelings.

3. GUILT. Guilt? How does guilt play in one deciding to make a movie? This is related to “Personal Connection” above. Someone may feel guilty that they haven’t been treating some minority or another as well as they should have and they should “do something about it.” This is tokenism at its worst but it happens.

4. I LOVE THE STORY. One must always remember, “one person’s passion is another person’s poison.” In other words, someone else thinks the script sucks. However, I think as a general, you can say that a good story is the beginning of a good film. (As a side note to this, good storytelling is not the exclusive domain of the professional. Talk to anybody you know and chances are they will have some great ideas for story. The trick is to transform those great thoughts into a cohesive story or screenplay.)

Lastly though, a film is collaborative effort of often hundreds, maybe thousands of people and elements. Any one of them has the potential to mess up a great story.
The truth is that there is no formula for making a film that people will like. Everyone has different tastes.

That's why, when a lot of producers have the time and don't think they'll get sued, they will listen to a story idea, at least for a couple of minutes. You never know where the next Avatar will come from.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Asian American/Canadian

The way, I see it Canada and the United States have two different approaches toward The Changing Face.

I was brought up in a time when institutional racism against the Chinese was alive and well. This made my parent’s generation heritage quite protective of who we were and my father used to say regularly, “Never forget you are a Chinese.” Thanks Dad – I look in the mirror and didn’t really think I looked anything like Morgan Freeman (although I am regularly mistaken for Tom Cruise.) Dad and his generation did that because they had to – Chinese were not completely trusted in North American society and the small community had to protect and build up each other.

To compound the difficulty, many couldn’t tell Japanese from Chinese and with memories of Pearl Harbor still fresh in the North American psyche, anyone with a yellow face was suspicious. As people from Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and more from Asia immigrated, there was an ongoing difficulty with cultural adaptation that still exists for many today.

Why do I bring this up? It’s because today, Vietnamese, Thai, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Philippinos are lumped together in North America as “Asians.” What makes this crazy is that these peoples historically don’t really like each other. Heck, depending where you were from in China, one village didn’t like another, claiming the others were too haughty or boorish or whatever. You know what? Caucasians don’t hold an exclusive copyright on bigotry. Not even close.

Again, the question is, why do I bring this up? Because this has enormous implications for The Changing Face, especially in the media. In a film, one cannot simply cast any Asian for a role. More than just cultural differences, every group has a distinct look and there are many who will not forgive one ethnic group being cast for another. i.e. to the informed viewer, casting a Korean as a Chinese is as blatantly wrong as casting Antonio Banderas as a Swede. Now with a serious makeover, Banderas could transform into a Scandinavian and that’s the same kind of care that would be needed in transforming one Asian ethnic group into another, a care not normally taken because of the attitude, “Aren’t all Asians the same?”

(For those of you that doubt this, often when I go into a restaurant or supermarket, the waiter or clerk knows what dialect of Chinese to talk to me in - I have the "look" of a Cantonese. Sometimes, the clerk/waiter is astute enough to speak to me in English. I have the "look" of a North American Chinese from the Toisan district of Guangdong.)

This is why the North American concept of the “Asian American” really is a work-in-progress. Many North American-born Asians do not carry the same baggage as their overseas or older counterparts do and the commonality of similar skin colour is enough for them to consider each others a “bro.” They consider me a relic of the Stone Age when I try to explain that there are real differences and that need to be recognized. Canadians are more inclined to agree with this which gives rise to two different attitudes depending on which side of the 49th parallel we reside – the Canadian “multiculturalism” and the American concept of “melting pot.”

Each has its advantages and disadvantages but the important thing is to recognize, not that one or the other is “right” but there are two different philosophies at work here which are inherently in conflict with each other. Depending on who I’m speaking to, I have to adjust my personal outlook and it’s important that you do too because for those that care, that button is white hot.

A Chinese is a Chinese is a Chinese and a Japanese is a Japanese and both have not only Asian heritages but a history of enmity that goes back centuries. And by the time you throw in the traditional animosity of other Asian ethnic groups, you wonder how the countries manage to co-exist in the same general geographic area for so long.

But now that we’re in America, our kids go to the same school, we shop at the same stores, attend the same church, does that mean we’re one big happy “Asian American” family then? Hmmm. Just be careful because for some, not recognizing the differences is a deal-breaker and they aren’t necessarily wrong. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say we are going to “celebrate our differences” from one side of our mouth and then on the other say that “we’re all the same.”

Or are we the same but different?

Happy New Year Everybody - eh?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Disney gets it

Those that read our blogs know we believe that done properly, North America’s Changing Face is more than a social or cultural phenomenon. Done right, there is a huge financial opportunity. Black and Hispanic communities have demonstrated this with the latest proof being Disney’s The Princess and the Frog which has grossed more than $24,000,000 in just a week, the highest gross for an animated movie opening in December. For those of you that don’t know, The Frog and Princess is about a young princess in New Orleans who has an incredible adventure after she is inadvertently turned into a frog.

What is unique is that our Princess is black and the show is set in New Orleans - that's simply ground-breaking and breathtaking. Major American media are showing interviews about how inspiring this is to so many black children. Kids and parents alike talk about how wonderful it is to see that their dreams have a chance of coming true - one of their own is a princess in her own country!

I can remember growing up and having my parents take me to see the beautiful and enchanting Nancy Kwan in The Flower Drum Song.

As a child, it was so absolutely thrilling for me to see so many Asians onscreen. Little did I know how rare this was and that almost fifty years later, things haven’t improved much.

Why is this so important? Because film has become the “new literature.” In any given year, most of us spend much more time watching movies or television programs than we do reading books. With electronic media as the most important means of our receiving messages, we have to be really diligent about the messages that we portray. We already recognize that excessive violence and pornography need to be controlled because of the influence they can have on people’s everyday life.

What we don’t attach as much importance to are the things that don’t directly harm people and their implied messages. One of these things are the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the heroes in our media. Without credible heroes – and even ordinary characters – of diversity, we perpetuate the myth that only white is beautiful, only white is smart, and that "the white man's burden" is alive and well.

Am I advocating “affirmative action” in media? That’s a touchy subject but let me put it this way. I’m not a great fan of government intervention into our private lives but I do feel this - affirmative action is much better than what we have now – “unaffirmative inaction.”

Bravo Disney for “The Princess and the Frog.” You are doing what The Changing Face believes – there is money in diversity and I'm glad to see you are making a ton of it.

I look forward to the day when we have a film about an Asian princess in North America. A group of like-minded individuals and I have been talking - maybe we'll make the film!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Business Lessons from Missionaries

I spend a lot of time with missionaries and mission organizations. They wouldn’t put it this way, but their job is to “sell” a “product” to a culture that is not their own. It's taken them a long time to learn - I cringe at the pain some have caused - but by now, they have learned many lessons about reaching out. They call it “evangelism” but I think they are smart business strategies that can be applied to many groups, both local and overseas. Here are some.

1. Few things are more offensive than someone parachuting into their culture to “convert the heathens.” For hundreds of years, this was the traditional Western missionary approach. While it worked sometimes, it also backfired. Lesson to be learned? When you go somewhere new, you are a guest in their culture and you are not superior. Act humbly until you’ve proven your mettle.

2. It takes time. When I tell people/organizations this, this is usually when they turn off because they are “too busy” to invest the time that it takes to genuinely know a people. But if you don’t know them, how can you possibly reach them? It sometimes takes years or decades before a different culture will trust you enough to allow you into their world. It’s why mission organizations want long-term commitments from their missionaries. In business, you want to reach across cultures – be prepared to spend some time. So-called "quality time" isn't enough. Quantity counts bigtime. This ties in with the next item.

3. Tokenism is not enough. A major organization recently said something to me to the effect of, “We did this six months ago, this last year… and so we just don’t feel we need to do anymore especially as it’s outside our mandate.” Hey, if you want to reach out, it must be on an ongoing sustained basis. If missionaries only did their big efforts at Christmas and Easter, they’d be out of business fast. It’s the everyday being part of the community doing small things that makes them effective. That way when there is a big issue to talk about, the credibility and trust to receive the message is already there.

4. Equip, not convert. One of my mentors was the head a mission organization overseas. Rather than being the focus of attention, his modus operandi was to train a few select individuals who would do a much better job of reaching into the community than he could. When he retired, he had sufficiently trained the locals so that they could do everything themselves. The business lesson here is, “Get the local community involved.” If you want to reach China, get the Chinese involved. You want to reach the First Nations, get First Nations peoples involved. You will never be as effective in getting the marketshare of a community as those that have a lifelong personal stake.

And you thought missionaries were only good for… hmm. What on earth are they good for?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Changing Face

In my lifetime, I have seen the American black go from the back of the bus to being the most important passenger on Air Force One.

I have seen an immigrant from India rise to become Premier of British Columbia, a Chinese go from person without the right to vote to representing Canada at the United Nations and I’ve seen a member of the First Nations hold a feather in symbolic defiance against the establishment of inequality in Canada.

The face of North America is changing. Minorities are becoming mainstream.

This applies to more than reality, it applies to how we spend our entertainment dollars. Hollywood is unprecedented in its portrayal of the black person as an integral part of the American fabric - Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, Dennis Hasybert in the television series 24 and Danny Glover in the feature film 2012 are all black men who have portrayed Presidents of the United States. This from an industry that once had to put black paint onto Al Jolson because it didn’t believe the public would accept a “real” black man portraying a black man.

I believe Asians in the next few years will become as important in mainstream film and television as the black communities have become. I don’t expect it will be easy – it wasn’t easy for the black community – but enterprising people saw the shift in society and said, “There’s an opportunity here.” By being part of and leading the trend, they changed society - and became fabulously wealthy.

Some day, again hopefully in my lifetime, there will be a Chinese/Asian Prime Minister of Canada or President of the United States. If history will repeat itself, this will more likely happen in filmed entertainment before it happens in real life.

BTW, my late father used to say, “When you stop being better, you stop being good.” I don't think taking a comedy writing course from Humber College was what he had in mind but if you ever doubted it before, now you know for sure, Wes is certified.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Canadian content - eh?

Most Canadian filmmakers owe at least part of their career, either directly or indirectly to some level of government, government program or government initiative. However, in the last number of years, it seems that many of our film and television bodies are no longer helping maintain a strong Canadian identity.

There is no doubt that much of this is due to the growing complexities of contemporary Canada, the ever-shrinking financial resources available and the vast growth of new means of communication.

However my feeling is that in times of difficulty, leadership needs to emerge with ideas to deal with the situation. If that leadership is not forthcoming from within the organizations themselves, then it is incumbent upon the government to provide some.

Here are a couple of things that drive me crazy.

I really can’t get my head around that my tax dollars are being used to get the American Game show, “Wheel of Fortune” on CBC. (Jeopardy is another but it has this tiny tiny link to Canada through Ontario-born Alex Trebek.) Can’t we come up with something of our own? If we want to have game shows, let's make our own. Game shows are fairly cheap to make and given enough time, we could build an audience there too.

The Canada that I see everyday is a wonderfully diverse community of people with heritages from around the world. Cultural diversity is part of our essence. Let's not be ashamed of showing what it really is.

Why is this so important? Because film, television and the internet is how most of us get information and allow ourselves to be entertained. If taxpayer supported messages are, "It's only entertaining if it's American" or "There are mainly Caucasians living in Canada," you know what I say?

I don't want to pay for this. Reduce my taxes.

Isn’t it about time that we start having Canadian content that is truly Canadian?