How the Academy’s New Class Impacts Asian Representation in Hollywood

By  · Published on July 4th, 2016

Two producers weigh in on recent Oscar events, new AMPAS members, and the future of diversity & inclusion in Hollywood.

Some of the new Academy members (L to R from top): Park Chan-wook, Ramona S. Diaz, Cary Joji Fukunaga, James Hong, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Daniel Dae Kim, So Yong Kim, Karyn Kusama, Mynette Louie, Deepa Mehta, Sanjay Patel, James Wan.

T he Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences extended membership invitations to 683 filmmakers, artists, and executives last Wednesday in its largest and most diverse class to date. The addition of new members will increase the Academy’s percentage of people of color from 8% to 11%, and female representation will rise from 25% to 27%. The move is particularly significant for Asians and Asian Americans in the industry as the new list includes over 70 new members of Asian descent including directors Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, True Detective), Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Girlfight), and James Wan (Furious 7, The Conjuring).

Mynette Louie found out about her invitation to join the producers branch from a congratulatory tweet from producer Effie Brown. Louie is President of Gamechanger Films, which aims to fund narrative feature films directed by women including fellow new Academy members Kusama and So Yong Kim.

“I was very happy to see that the list was so variegated and large. I was also shocked to see how many amazingly talented people weren’t in the Academy until now,” She said.

The issue of diversity in Hollywood was hurled into the spotlight when the all-white slate of Oscar acting nominees in 2015 prompted the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The hashtag resurfaced when the same thing occurred in January. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced that the Academy would aim to diversify its ranks by doubling the number of women and people of color by 2020. This plan was in addition to the A2020 initiative introduced at the Governors Ball a few months before, which was a five-year initiative to study practices at the Academy with the aim of improving diversity in the industry.

Things seemed headed in the right direction until February, when the Oscar ceremony hosted by Chris Rock featured offensive Asian remarks including a cringe-inducing skit starring three Asian children as Academy accountants and a crude joke by Sacha Baron Cohen referring to Asian male genitalia. This prompted an immediate backlash on Twitter that added to the already brewing #OscarsSoWhite conversation.

Film producer and Tang Media Partners Managing Director Janet Yang joined best director winner Ang Lee and Star Trek actor George Takei in a group of 25 Academy members of Asian descent that sent a letter to the organization protesting the “tasteless and offensive skits” made during the Oscar telecast. “They truly did not realize how absolutely painful it was for Asians to see those gags,” She said.

By Skyler Rodriguez of AJ+.

Yang and several members met with the Academy to address the issues raised in their letter. “[CEO] Dawn [Hudson] called the parents of the children we felt were insulted. They told us about the A2020 Council which would address issues of diversity,” She said. “Most importantly, what we found in our individual branches, was that there was a sincere and concerted effort to address diversity issues.”

Yang —who got her start in Hollywood by helping studios reintroduce American cinema in China and has worked on films including The Joy Luck Club and Empire of the Sun ‐ noted that 10% of the new Academy members are of Asian descent but marginalized communities still occupy a small percentage of the overall membership. Despite the current numbers, she saw this year’s new class as a big step in the right direction.

“If this is the beginning of a trend, which I think it will be, over time we will be able to look back and say this was a turning point for the Academy, and the industry at large,” Yang said.

The meeting with Academy leadership on May 4, 2016 at AMPAS Headquarters in Beverly Hills, CA. From L-R: Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Arthur Dong, Laura Kim, Freida Lee Mock, David Magdael, Marcus Hu, Jodi Long, Janet Yang, France Nuyen, CEO Dawn Hudson, Maysie Hoy, Peter Kwong, Teddy Zee, Don Hall, Chris Tashima, George Takei. (Source: Asians in Hollywood Facebook Page.)

The new Academy class features 283 new international members from 59 countries, including Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Assassin, A City of Sadness) and South Korean director Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Oldboy). This more global group of members could influence the Oscars from campaign practices to nomination results.

Louie said her membership is an opportunity to speak her mind on systemic Hollywood issues such as problematic white savior movies or the misuse of “art” as a justification for female objectification. She also hopes the new class could kickstart the demise of “Oscar bait”, or movies that appear to have been produced for the sole purpose of earning Oscar nominations.

“The new Academy class represents a victory for democracy. The diverse Twitterverse hashtagged its way to this result. Press covered it ad nauseam, and the Academy listened,” Louie said.

Tilda Swinton as the not Asian character The Ancient One in Doctor Strange.

The diverse hashtags included those specific to the Asian community such as #whitewashedOUT, which was created in response to the controversial whitewashing of Asian roles in the upcoming films Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and Power Rangers. A number of Asian Americans in the industry spoke out on the issue of whitewashing and lack of Asian visibility in Hollywood including Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu and comedian Margaret Cho.

#StarringJohnCho was a hashtag that featured posters for Hollywood blockbusters with actor John Cho as the lead.

Louie acknowledged that the new Academy list is just one step and there is still a long way to go. The Academy Awards take place at the very end of a film’s life cycle, whereas key decisions like casting and marketing are made in earlier stages of filmmaking. These earlier stages markedly affect not just how films are received by the Academy during awards season but how they are produced and released into the marketplace.

“There is homogeneity in every part of the [film] cycle, from development to financing to production to distribution and marketing. Producers, financiers, and distributors all need to get on board with “diversity” for Academy members to even have the option to vote for films that aren’t by and about and starring white people,” Louie said.

The Academy has spoken and its new class marks a shift toward greater diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. Your move, chiefs.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.