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For viewers of Asian American film, 2006 was a notable year. It was the year that many first-time feature filmmakers debuted their projects to critical acclaim not only in the Asian American community but also in the greater indie film scenes. However, while quality and quantity were there, acquiring distribution was another hurdle in itself.
Those directors who choose to enter the Asian American festival circuit eventually have to confront the mainstream when it comes to distribution, as there are still relatively-few Asian American distribution channels as there are with African American and Spanish-language cinema. In these past few years, festivals like SFIAAFF, Asian CineVision, and VC have become saturated with professional-looking features such that now even those directors who initially looked inside toward the community now peer outward at the mainstream market. It's a logical next step, especially for a community that has spent so many generations striving for acceptance in their own country. "While festivals are wonderful," says Lee, "films do not reach a broad audience unless they are distributed."
Actually getting distribution, however, presents countless challenges; that the films star Asians and Asian Americans only multiplies the barriers to entry. Kwan, whose film Eve and the Fire Horse found distribution in her home country of Canada, learned that getting the film out wasn't so easy in the U.S. market. "Needless to say, finding U.S. distribution is extremely challenging, especially with all the indie distributors shutting down last year and the difficulty of convincing distributors of the marketability of Asian-themed, non-martial arts films."
Chopra too has encountered similar difficulties. Like most in the Asian American festival scene, he's noticed the quality of the films, but the cold indifference of the distribution companies. "It is a bit disheartening [because] some of these films are just as good as these 'mainstream' American indies that got distribution."
What Chopra sees lacking is an awareness and understanding of Asian American cinema as a constantly-evolving movement. "Distributors don't want to do the research and don't want to do the work. They want easy sales, and I think a lot of these films could be very profitable if given the chance to get out there. Unfortunately, a lot of distributors are still catching up to the change."
Part of that problem is the relative absence of intelligent critical discourse surrounding Asian American cinema, in part because Asian American community issues are completely unknown to most Americans. If Adam Carolla and Rosie O'Donnell can get away with the old "ching chong" joke because they allegedly "didn't realize it was offensive," what chance is there that Americans would understand the complex issues of Asian American religion (as in Eve and the Fire Horse) or South Asian American street culture (as in Punching at the Sun)? Risk-averse distributors aren't in the education game; having to teach audiences about Asian American community issues is not an economically attractive situation. That's why it's so valuable to the film scene that there are social activists like New York City Councilman John Liu and cultural commentators like Jeff Yang and Angry Asian Man to serve as community ambassadors.
Another possibility is to draw attention to Asian American cinema as a film movement. While its films are increasingly heterogeneous, there is value in organizing around certain issues that "define" Asian American cinema at a certain moment and give mainstream distributors and indie audiences concrete terms for reading and appreciating Asian American cinema.
For instance, the SFIAFF in 2006 made Asian male sexuality an important theme. In so doing, the festival drew attention to a community issue; it created a topic for uninitiated audiences to discuss and enjoy films like Eric Byler's Americanese; and it showed how these films are part of a film movement with a history, a present, and a (potentially profitable) future.
So indeed, there is "work" to be done before the mainstream can understand Asian American films. VC Filmfest programmer Abe Ferrer reflects on the relatively low box-office figures of Cavite, Conventioneers, and The Motel. "It says that the mainstream can't be bothered to market Asian American cinema. That's a bold show of disrespect for our communities. These and other films will need our help to reach an audience, and I'm interested to see if the distributors who paid to acquire theme are willing to do the work in order to see them succeed."
Richard Wong reflects a common sentiment. "I think there is a conception out there that films that cater only to Asian audiences will not sell, and to an extent I think this is probably true. I think Asian American films have to be able to speak to all audiences to sell."
But how can Asian American films "speak" if the mainstream doesn't understand the vocabulary?
An ideal case study would be to examine the mainstream critical response to a film that did acquire a distribution deal. Michael Kang's The Motel was handled by Palm Pictures. The film opened in June 2006, and was slowly rolled out city by city in the months that followed. According to its official website, seven months later, the film is still in very limited release.
First-time feature filmmaker Kang is quick to praise the distributor for handling an Asian American subject with sensitivity, but has some reservations about the hesitant distribution strategy. "I do wish Palm was the kind of company that could do a day and date type of release, even if it was only in a few of the major markets, but they are a small company with limited resources. I think that hurt us the most in terms of visibility. The film was forced to play in a traveling roadshow type of way that meant losing a lot of the momentum."
As reported by Asia Pacific Arts in August, The Motel opened to mostly positive reviews, but of the "three-star" variety. In other words, even the critics that liked it made sure to add that there was "nothing special" about it, and that it simply one of many in the banal coming-of-age genre. What these mainstream critics neglected to notice was that The Motel was being hailed in the Asian American film circle for being a revolution of sorts, speaking "Asian Americanness" in a more muted, less obvious way.
The film intervened in the discussion of "Asian American cinema" from a number of fronts: it included a performance by Sung Kang that challenged traditional notions of Asian male sexuality, it took a sensitive approach to a character that could easily be a "nerd" archetype in any other film, and it was perhaps the first feature to ever depict the lives of immigrant motel workers -- a very real phenomenon in the Asian American community. But critics were fixated only on the surface genre and the conventions they knew. In other words, they didn't do the work.
The directors of two other distributed films, Cavite and Red Doors, found that if the distributors weren't willing to move the units, the cast and crew would have to instead. Cavite was in an unusual situation. Hailed during its film festival tour by critics and fellow indie filmmakers, the low-budget production became a low-budget distribution project. When asked what were the main developments for Asian American cinema in 2006, Asian CineVision programmer William Phuan was quick to praise the enthusiasm by filmmakers to get the product out themselves. "These filmmakers were not just sitting around waiting for their films to get picked up. They would go into self-distribution (for example Cavite through Truly Indie) and create their own grassroots and online marketing/outreach."
Having been a hit in the international film festival scene (and screening at the prestigious New Directors/New Films series in New York), the producers of Cavite were able to negotiate a deal to exhibit the film commercially at Landmark Theaters around the country. Co-director Ian Gamazon notes that they consciously targeted an art house audience, "but Asian Americans of all generations came out and supported Cavite, which made a difference in the box office."
Red Doors was released through the slightly more experienced Polychrome Pictures, which like Palm Pictures' handling of The Motel, can hardly guarantee returns. "To be completely honest, very few filmmakers (big and small) have great experiences working with distributors," says Red Doors director Georgia Lee. "No one will ever care about your baby as much as you do, and no one will ever have done enough to market, publicize, and push the film forward as much as you.
"[Producers] Jane [Chen], Mia [Riverton], and I are very obsessive compulsive people and set very high standards for those who work with us. So it was indeed a rather frustrating experience working with our theatrical distributors. We had a tiny P&A budget and could not afford to buy TV spots or big ads in papers."
But rather than accept the fate of the tortured indie artist, Lee and her fellow producers took matters into their own hands, concocting a brilliant and innovative marketing campaign that involved working with not just Asian American community and arts groups, but also Asian American businesses, a huge and largely untapped resource. The work paid off: Red Doors debuted at number one in the North American box office in terms of per-screen average, a huge accomplishment for a relatively unknown film by a relatively unknown distributor.
"It was completely by dint of our friends' and families' elbow grease, e-mailing, talking, grassroots outreach, etc. that we were able to get the great turnout." She adds, "I think that most people don't understand how insanely difficult it is to get a film distributed."
The success of Red Doors also reflected another potentially productive relationship. The film opened at New York's ImaginAsian Theatre, which is also associated with Asian Cinevision's annual Asian American film festival. The theater specializes in Asian (for example Bollywood) films, and as Asian CineVision's Phuan observes, "it's growing to be an important destination for Asian American cinema, but obviously it still has some way to go before it can compete effectively against the other independent film theaters in New York City."
2006 was a big year for ImaginAsian Entertainment. The year saw the aspiring Asian American media conglomerate expand into the home video and film distribution markets, and it will be handling the release of Ham Tran's Journey from the Fall in 2007. In many ways, ImaginAsian (and to a lesser extent cable network AZN TV) represents a home-grown indie distribution network catering specifically to Asian Americans. If the enterprise fulfills its mission, many of the problems related to distributing to a national, mainstream audience will be solved.
In the meantime however, Cavite, The Motel, and Red Doors are looking to tunnel into the popular consciousness through home video. Cavite is already on DVD, while The Motel and Red Doors both come out on January 30, 2007. Red Doors is also currently playing on pay-per-view (PPV), video-on-demand (VOD), and online at cinemanow.com. With the mainstream distribution network becoming increasingly competitive and expensive to do well, and with theatrical exhibition increasingly the domain of tent-pole franchises and name-brand auteurs, distribution via new technologies may be a more profitable solution for Asian American film producers.
Michael Kang expresses his dissatisfaction with the present theatrical distribution channels in connecting his films with his intended audience. "I think the most disappointing thing I seem to run into is that people continually tell me that they wanted to see [The Motel] but didn't go when it was in the theaters near them. Or worse, [they] didn't know it was in theaters near them when it was. The upside of it that is the DVD will be out and hopefully people will be able to get it then." With DVD proliferation on the increase thanks to Netflix and other flat-fee plans which encourage viewers to try out films they've never heard of, DVD distribution could be the savior of Asian American cinema.
Date Posted: 1/12/2007