The Asian Millennium could catch Hollywood flat-footed.
by Wade Major

Page 1 of 7

sk movie industry insiders about Hollywood's Asian strategy and the response is likely to be:

What Asian strategy?

     Hollywood may now be discovering what Asians aren't, but it has yet to fully grasp what Asians are.
"Jackie Chan movies were sitting in warehouses for years and years and years. They couldn't give them away. This year buyers were crawling all over themselves to get at them."
     Hollywood's relationship with Asians has always been shaky, charged with a general skepticism toward a region that has hosted war for America three times in 50 years. Add to that the banning of American films in China following the communist takeover in 1949--a chill which has only recently begun to thaw --and a more distinct picture of Hollywood's Asian relations begins to reveal itself.
     With no significant Asian markets for American films during the intervening time, and little incentive to cater to what were then relatively small numbers of Asians in the U.S., depictions of Asians in American films were, until recently, understandably jaded: villainous tyrants, comfort women, coolies and other assorted stereotypes peppered throughout the background of stories that either glorified a white perspective or trivialized an Asian one. The frequent casting of white actors in "yellow-face," overlooking a long-thriving community of capable Asian talents in the U.S., merely added insult to injury. And with the exception of famed cinematographer James Wong Howe and actor Sessue Hayakawa, Asian faces and talents were all but non-existent throughout Hollywood's golden years.
     It wasn't until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the introduction of films from the Japanese New Wave finally began turning industry heads toward the East, acknowledging world-class talents like Kurosawa, Ozu, Oshima and Imamura. The simultaneous emergence of strong indigenous industries in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, coupled with burgeoning Japanese and Corean economic might, was a firm indication that, for the first time, Asia was on its way to finding the right combination of elements with which to seduce Hollywood.
     But progress since that time has continued to be frustratingly slow, both for stateside studios looking to expand their reach into the world's fastest growing economic region, and for native Asian industries still seeking hard-fought international recognition via coveted exposure in the U.S. market. In the eyes of some, it's symptomatic of Hollywood's parochialism and short-sightedness.
     "Hollywood's strategy is very simple," says Karoll Mun, a veteran Corean acquisitions and distribution executive. "They want as much money as they can get, and not give any back. The general approach hasn't changed since the Sony deal, in terms of getting them to invest. Asians still don't know how Hollywood works. It's all about connections and who knows whom and relationships. I think Hollywood looks toward Asia as a new financial partner, but not necessarily as a creative partner."

Action megastar Jackie Chan co-stars with Michelle Khan (lower) in Stanley Tong's Supercop.

     Mun's insight is especially pertinent given revelations of studio excesses in the current bestseller, Hit and Run: How John Peters and Peter Guber took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood. During the late 1980s, when Sony and rival Matsushita made their respective studio purchases of Columbia/TriStar and MCA/Universal, it was believed that Asian influence had taken hold of Hollywood from the top down. Seven years later, the Japanese are finding themselves humbled by the peculiar economics and politics of this unpredictable industry. Matsushita's disenchantment resulted in unloading MCA/Universal to Seagram's earlier this year while Sony continues to juggle executives in the aftermath of an embarrassing 1994 $3.2 billion write-off--a mere $200 million shy of the original Columbia/ TriStar purchase price.
     "Talent and connections drive the money in this business, not the other way around," says one source--an assessment with which Mun seems to agree. "Asians could exercise more leverage if they wanted to, but knowing the workings of Hollywood means knowing the players. And Asians only know them from the outside. They aren't here all the time. And that's what Hollywood is about: people seeing each other all the time."
     The Sony and Matsushita lessons have slowed but not cut off the flow of Asian money into Hollywood. Asian investors are seen as being content to contribute capital without creative control just to get a foot in the door.
     "Asians will eventually have to learn how Hollywood puts films together instead of just handing over the money and saying, 'Do what you want'," says Mun. "Maybe they'll see their money a few years down the road, but in the meantime they're losing on it." PAGE 2

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