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APA caught up with filmmaker Georgia Lee to discuss festival politics and programming, distribution, and the perceived gayness of her film "Red Doors."
At the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, biochemist-turned-consultant-turned-filmmaker Georgia Lee and her producing partners Jane Chen and Mia Riverton told an enthusiastic audience that it's been harder to sell their debut feature Red Doors to distributors than to actually make it. Since premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2005, Lee, Chen, and Riverton have done the festival rounds and ultimately secured domestic theatrical distribution with Polychrome Pictures and home video distribution with Warner Bros., essentially guaranteeing that the film will have a life beyond the international and local film festival circuit.
Making countless stops on the festival circuit and amassing several awards along the way have turned Lee and her partners into young veterans of the festival world. Lee talked to APA about their year-long journey and the film's flexible identities -- Asian and Asian-American, gay and straight, New York and American, digital and analog -- which have made Red Doors such a festival success.
APA: I tried to compile a list of all the festivals at which Red Doors screened, but it turned out to be much more than I expected. I stopped counting at eight. How many more were there?
Georgia Lee: We started with Tribeca. Then we did the Cinevegas Film Festival, and then we did Outfest, followed by Pusan -- which is actually a great festival for Asian films and also Asian-American films -- and the Hawaii International Film Festival. We were also the closing night at the VC Film Festival in Los Angeles. Then we did the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. We're about to go to the Milan Film Festival and then the Toronto Reelworld Film Festival. We're closing night at the Chicago Asian American Showcase that's coming up in two weeks. We're screening at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. We're going to be either opening or closing night at the Calgary Imaginasian Film Festival. We're going to be either opening or closing night at Pittsburgh' Silk Screen Film Festival. After the big international festivals, we'e starting to do the local ones. Tribeca' coming up again now, so it's been almost a year since we started doing the film festival circuit.
APA: Why did you choose to have the film open in Tribeca?
GL: It was timing and also because it was our hometown. We finished the film right before Tribeca. Basically I had shown a fine cut to David Kwok who's one of the programmers at Tribeca at the end of 2004, and he liked the film. It was then a mad dash to complete the film in time for the world premiere on April 22, 2005. I think we literally finished the film a week before that. And frankly it was the perfect city to open at because Jane Chen, Mia Riverton, and myself (the three producers) are from New York. The film is about a family in New York, the crew is from New York, we shot it in New York, and we did post-production in New York, so it was a very New York film. It made sense for us to launch the film at Tribeca.
APA: And it won an award for New York feature?
GL: Yes, it won the best narrative feature award in the New York, New York competition.
APA: I suppose Outfest would present a different challenge for selling the film. What was that experience like, and how was it different from Tribeca?
GL: In only a few years, Tribeca has increasingly become a top film festival in North America. People often describe film festivals as either a market or a retail festival. Tribeca is definitely trying to be a market, like Sundance or Toronto, whereas festivals like Outfest, the VC Film Fest, and the SFIAAFF are for the audience. So Tribeca was where we tried to sell the film to the industry and get a distributor. With the other film festivals, we were trying to reach out and get exposure for the film to our target audience, which are Asian-Americans, gay and lesbians, women, and the general arthouse community.
It's funny because at Outfest, David Courier, who is one of the festival directors, had called Jane just shortly after Tribeca and said he'd really like to have Red Doors for Outfest. Jane, Mia, and I thought that was strange -- we didn't really consider our film very gay. We didn't think we were gay enough -- the lesbian plot is just one of four or five storylines. We love that part of the film, but we always thought it was an Asian-American film or a woman's film, but never a gay film. So we told David Courier of our concern. We were totally happy to play the festival, but we were just concerned for the audiences that go to Outfest, because we're not completely about gay and lesbians -- we're not Saving Face, which is about a lesbian experience. David said not to worry about it, and that it's actually something the audience will appreciate, because they want to see lesbian characters in a holistic context and not just as lesbians, just as we don't want Asian-American films to be just about the Asian-American immigrant experience. It's to see characters who happen to be Asian-American or gay living normal lives and grappling with the trials and tribulations that we all do. So we showed the film at Outfest and it had one of the most enthusiastic audiences. It was a great experience and we realized that we do play to gay and lesbian audiences. I guess we are gay enough! [laughs]
APA: That's one of the great qualities of the film: it's very flexible in that way. It's not about one group or another, yet everyone can still see themselves in it.
GL: Exactly. We've come to realize this while we play the film at festivals. We didn't set out to make the definitive Asian-American film, definitive gay and lesbian film, or definitive woman's film. When I wrote the script, I simply wrote it because it's based on my own life and the lives of my family and friends and interesting characters that I know. And I do believe that the more specific you are with characters, the more universal and relatable it becomes. When you try to tell an abstract story about a person, you inevitably seem like you're generalizing. What's great about the festivals is that we get people from all walks of life -- across age, gender, sexuality, and race -- who latch on to the one particular character in the film who resonates with them. It was funny. There was a 70-year-old Long Island Jewish man who came up to us after one of the screenings and said, "Wow, thanks for making this film. I hadn't seen a film which told the story of an older man' retirement, and I really related to that." Forget that he's Jewish or that he's from Long Island; he was going through very similar life stages. And then a 13-year-old African-American girl just happened to stumble across the film at Vegas and really related to the Katie character, the disaffected suburban youth. That's been kind of heartwarming. It's something I feel very strongly about. It's not that the characters are Asian-American or that Julie Wong is gay. It's that they're people first and foremost and are fully fleshed out. The fact that they're Asian helps them relate to them as people. If we try to tell too much of an immigrant or coming-out story, it does put some distance between the audience and the characters on the screen.
APA: But when you were submitting the film to festivals, did you try to avoid these obvious categories, for example in the way you wrote the press notes?
GL: The funny thing is that the only festival we actively submitted to was Tribeca. To be honest, we were totally crazed trying to finish the film. All these festivals reached out to us, which was great. A lot of the niche festivals -- VC, Outfest -- reached out to us.
APA: What about when these festivals tried to sell the film? Did they try to avoid these categories?
GL: You know, actually, I think film festival programmers are really savvy and sophisticated in understanding where their audience is at. I think they really have their finger on the pulse of what that specific group is looking for. I think Outfest understands -- even more than we did -- that gay and lesbian audiences are beyond the coming-out story. They definitely knew how to position the film. In addition, VC and SFIAAFF understand that we're at a watershed moment where there's a critical mass of filmmakers who want to just make films with Asian Americans in them. It's not the Joy Luck Club, which was great and important, but it was 13 years ago. I think we are at a point where Mike Kang can make The Motel which is a lovely little independent drama, and you have Eric Byler who did Americanese which is a great drama, and you have Alice Wu who did Saving Face which is a great romantic comedy, and you have Grek Pak who did a science fiction. Everyone's sort of expanding beyond the immigrant experience and just making films that have Asian-Americans in them. That's definitely something that people like Abe Ferrer who runs VC and people like Chi-hui Yang and Taro Gato who run SFIAAFF understand, and they're definitely starting to position the film to audiences that way too.
APA: What about Pusan then, because that's a very different case. Did they categorize it as an Asian film?
GL: Pusan's really interesting. You and I, because, we're in America, are really aware of the distinction between Asian and Asian-American film. You should talk to Tim Hugh with the Chicago Asian American Showcase, because he feels very strongly about the difference. He and I have spoken at length about the distinction between Asian and Asian-American films. His film festival is the only festival that does strictly Asian-American films and doesn't program any Asian films. It's a very interesting philosophy of his, because he loves Asian films, but lots of film festivals cover Asian films. Every film festival wants Wong Kar-wai's film, but who is going to support the fledgling, more ghetto, more fragile Asian-American film community? So he actually made a philosophical decision to program just Asian-American films.
So back to your question, we know the difference between Asian and Asian American films, although I'm not sure the general audience knows the difference [laughs]. An interesting question then is whether the Asian audience in China, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong make the distinction. What's interesting about Pusan last year is that they started to program Asian-American films. That's actually where I met Ham Tran, who did Journey to the Fall. Mike Kang's film The Motel was out there. Pusan has a really wonderful festival. The funding they have and the attention the government and the local community give to it make it the Cannes of Asia. And they take it very seriously. It was exciting because it had a handful of Asian-American films, and it was exciting that all three of our screenings were sold out. Our film is completely in English, so it was subtitled in Korean, and we were really nervous about whether the humor was going to translate or not. At festivals, the audience watches the film and Jane, Mia, and I watch the audience [laughs]. We were really curious about how different demographics responded to different parts of the film. They laughed at totally different things, and there's also a delay because of the subtitles. But it was great; they seemed to really embrace the film. It was encouraging because it'd be great if Asian-American films actually had a market in Asia.
APA: So how's it going to be presented in Milan? Do you know yet if it's going to be programmed as an Asian film, or as world cinema or American cinema?
GL: I think it's just part of the international section. We might be the only Asian-American film at the festival. They're showing things like Lucky Number Slevin.
APA: Did Pusan actually put you in an Asian-American category?
GL: No, we were part of "world cinema." It's interesting though that they just happened to have a lot of Asian-American films.
APA: I was at the Taipei Film Festival last year and Ethan Mao was programmed in the "Global Chinese" category.
GL: How interesting. It's kind of like "The Diaspora" then.
APA: The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival held the premiere of the 35mm print of Red Doors. Was that struck at the insistence of the distributor?
GL: We struck the print because we are planning for a theatrical release in early fall -- maybe late August or early September. We have to strike prints for a theatrical release.
APA: It's still not possible to project on digital for theatrical exhibition?
GL: There are theaters that allow you to do so, but not enough to make it worthwhile. That's a whole other industry-wide problem. Right now, if you want to show your film theatrically, you need to make several 35mm prints.
APA: It's ironic because analog to digital preservation is such an important metaphor for family preservation in the film, and now for your film to live on, it needs to be transferred from digital to analog.
GL: I know! The bizarre thing is that our film was shot on Super 16, so it was shot on film, and then converted to HD because we didn't have the money to blow it up to 35mm for Tribeca. It was shown on HD for a lot of the festivals after that. But for a proper commercial release, we needed a 35mm print. The quality is just as good, plus you save a lot more money. We've actually gone from Super 16, to HD, to 35mm. So analog to digital to analog [laughs]. I can't wait for theaters to be equipped with HD projectors, but that'll be a while.
APA: I've been reading some of the blogs on the Red Doors website, where Jane has written that some of the mini-major distributors were nervous about being able to sell the film. Was that surprising to you?
GL: Yes and no. Even though once people see the film, they realize that it's a family film and that it should translate and transcend any social, political, and racial lines, yet I think distributors still think that it's specifically a Chinese-American family. I've actually heard from some of my friends who are big distributors that love the film, but the real question is whether it speaks to audiences who are non-Asian, because they need the film to cross over for it to make any money. They are on the fence about it, and I think in general, distributors tend to be risk-averse, so the burden of proof --fortunately or unfortunately -- lies on our community. I was having a conversation with some people in San Francisco over the weekend about the distribution of Asian-American films because that's really where the rubber hits the road: we can all go off and make our little gems, but if they don't have the proper distribution channels, they'll just be shown at film festivals and never reach a wider audience. How do we prove to Hollywood that these films can translate to a larger audience? Justin Lin did it with Better Luck Tomorrow and then there's Saving Face and hopefully Red Doors.
It's so important to mobilize the community and go out in the first two weekends and support the film. It's the box office numbers from those first two weekends that really matter. It's interesting. Some of my acquisitions executive friends --and some of them are Asian -- point that African-American audiences support Barbershop, Madea's Family Reunion, and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, but when Saving Face and Better Luck Tomorrow come out, it's not the same kind of response. They say it's because Asian-Americans don't go watch Asian-American films, they go watch Spiderman 2. Marketers and the whole industry view Asian-Americans' consumer behavior as Caucasian. I think it's important for us to show that there's demand for films with this material, and that we're going to support it. And then hopefully it will ultimately do what African-American and Hispanic-American films have done and cross over into the mainstream. We're on the cusp of it about to happen. Better Luck Tomorrow and Saving Face have really begun to push that envelope.
APA: This question of the Asian-American audience is probably the most pressing question. I remember when Better Luck Tomorrow first came out, the Asian-American community really responded during the first two weeks, but the numbers dropped dramatically after that.
APA: How would you avoid that?
GL: I don't know! That's the question every studio executive wants answered!
APA: I know a lot of people that didn't like Better Luck Tomorrow, or at least didn't find it that great and considered much of it "inauthentic," so a negative buzz began to brew.
GL: Interesting. At the end of the day, whether it's an Asian-American or gay and lesbian film or whatnot, what matters is that the film must be good. If Brokeback Mountain wasn't a good film, no matter how many gays or women went to go see it, after a few weeks, people would stop seeing it. Word of mouth is so important. The film actually has to resonate with the audience, and that's what happened with films like Saw, which I also view as anAsian-American film, since it was made by an Asian-Australian, James Wan, who is one of the most talented and successful filmmakers in Hollywood right now yet the Asian-American community doesn't really pay attention to him, perhaps because he's Asian-Australian. It was a really good film. So what makes a film go beyond the first two weeks of box office will have to be that it resonates with an audience and have good word of mouth. So hopefully, we'll get the troops out there the first and second weekends, and I hope they like the film. At the end of the day, it has to be a good film.
APA: Did you consider selling your film to a distributor that specializes in gay and lesbian films, like Strand Releasing for example?
GL: Yeah we had a lot of interest from gay and lesbian distributors and had a lot of offers. We were very interested in them because we felt they knew how to target one of the most important demographics for the film, but to be totally honest, we had a better offer from the Warner Brothers/Polychrome folks. It was just a business decision.
APA: Have any international distributors picked it up?
GL: Yeah, we signed with Forward Entertainment -- who are the ones who used to run Wellspring -- as our worldwide sales agent, and they just sold the Australia rights, which we're very excited about.
APA: Have any Asian distributors picked up the film?
GL: Not yet. We'll see. China's an interesting market because everyone's so afraid of piracy. Japan's a big market for foreign films, which ours is considered in Asia.
APA: Which is another interesting question.
GL: Yeah it's considered a foreign film because it's in English, which is interesting. It depends too because our film doesn't have a star in it. Foreign films [in Asia] usually come out after they do in the U.S., which sets the demand and price for the film abroad, so we were very happy to sell Australia [early]. Maybe it's because they speak English in Australia and there's a huge Asian population there.
APA: Local films don't do too well in Australia anymore, so to those audiences, this probably seems like just another Hollywood film.
GL: Oh, interesting. It's so weird thinking of Red Doors as a Hollywood film! [laughs]
APA: Is that something you're worried about?
GL: No, I don't mind it. I just never thought about it that way because we made it for no money at all! It was so not done through the Hollywood system. It was just done by Jane, Mia, and I by borrowing and stealing [laughs].
APA: And gathering all of your friends and family.
GL: Yeah it was really a friends and family affair. Really, really indie.
Date Posted: 3/30/2006