Forget the Hollywood system, Asian American indie filmmakers are taking their movies to the masses via the Internet and sites like YouTube.

January 11, 2010

SO YOU'RE AN independent filmmaker. You've sunk your meager savings into your labor of love, you have no industry connections and your parents are wondering when you'll get a real job. What do you do with your finished project, not to mention your artistic dream?

It's a grim prospect, but not necessarily a death sentence for one's cinematic career. Thanks to increased access to rapidly progressing technologies in digital video, editing and online social networking, filmmakers are taking a guerilla approach to making movies and building a global authence outside of the seemingly impenetrable confines of Hollywood. Asian American writer-directors in particular have been utilizing the Internet and other nontraditional resources to tell their stories to the web-surfing masses.

In February 2006, a 10-minute video poking fun at white male-Asian female couples titled Yellow Fever debuted on YouTube, the mother of all user-generated content sites. Fueled by online word of mouth, the video has been viewed over 1.6 million times and its creators, collectively known as Wong Fu Productions, have formed their own entertainment company, making shorts and feature films, selling merchandise on its website and embarking on college tours.

The video's popularity, particularly among Asian American viewers, may not have been a fluke. According to a 2001 Pew Internet and American Life report, 70 percent of Asian American Internet users are online on a typical day. "This is much higher than any other English speaking ethnic or racial group."

Lisa Nakamura, professor of Asian American studies and communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, says that Asian Americans have long been connecting and communicating online. "Asian Americans are highly wired media users. (originally named AsianAvenue or Asian Avenue) was one of the earliest and most successful ethnlcity-based social networking sites. ... This has both served a demand and created one."

With so many Asian Americans online, it makes sense for budding filmmakers to appeal to such a wide, and wired, audience. James Z. Feng, director of short films 600 and Drowning, funds his projects and promotional efforts out-of-pocket and looks to the Internet for help. "To promote your film, you can't just put an ad in a newspaper anymore," Feng says. "Everything nowadays is connected to the Internet. I'm getting all my buddies who are on my Facebook list to really push it out there for me. AliveNotDead. com [an online community for artists and their fans] is a very good resource for Asian American filmmakers to put a banner on themselves because it's free."

Feng has set up his own website where fans can learn more about him and purchase his projects on DVD. "It's not like I've got a business set up in my house or anything," Feng says. "Today's technologies, with PayPal and all that stuff, have really helped people like me get through."

Other up-and-coming filmmakers are combining good old-fashioned networking with the instantaneous connection provided by online social media. Steve Nguyen, producer of short action film Slick, rallied 60 crew members, secured advertising sponsorships with university organizations and convinced local law enforcement and aviation companies to offer up uniformed extras, police cars and helicopters for little to no money. Online networking played an integral part in the promotion of Slick.

"It was very important to use all of the social networking that sites we could," Nguyen says. "I was stationed on Twitter. My production group was more centered toward Facebook. Something like printing ads in the paper is around the $1 ,500 area. Daily Facebook ads cost $20 to $35, so we were really depending on that, too." The combined efforts of utilizing community resources, Twitter, Facebook and a $2,000 shooting budget resulted in 800 people attending Slick's Los Angeles premiere. Not too bad for a film that clocks in at 20 minutes in length.

Feng, Nguyen and numerous other new filmmakers have trailers for their films uploaded onto YouTube, and even established artists are turning to the site to generate interest In their work. In October 2008, acclaimed filmmaker Wayne Wang released his independent feature The Princess of Nebraska for free via YouTube's Screening Room platform. The presence of such a venerated filmmaker on a site as accessible as YouTube provides encouragement to directors who are still trying to make a name for themselves.

"That was very inspiring," Feng says of Wang's Screening Room debut. "You are sacrificing money but you're getting your film out there. You go from nobody to somebody with 500,000 hits. I'd take that any day. Because that's 500,000 people that are going to know my name and see my film."

When it comes to the kind of word-ofmouth promotion that can lead to a flurry of YouTube hits, the Asian American blogosphere deserves some of the credit. If there's a video featuring buzz-garnering Asian American talent, popular sites such as Angry Asian Man and Disgrasian likely have a hand in helping it reach the masses.

Slanty Slant, the man behind Slant Eye for the Round Eye (and a former Hyphen blogger), is one of many Asian American bloggers helping to promote new talent through his site's readership. "It's a chain reaction sometimes," Slanty says. "Angry Asian Man might blog about something, then 8Asians does, then Disgrasian does, then I do, then someone else does. ... Collectively, it all adds up."

With the growing number of Asian American blogs and websites - and the boosts from chain reactions - posting a movie trailer and getting a quick write-up from a blogger could garner anywhere from a handful to thousands of hits in one day. The blogosphere can also facilitate networking, sometimes by happenstance.

"Something like this might happen," Slanty says. "[Director] Gary King sees that someone made a comment or linked to my blog who apparently has some weight in the New York City area, so he asks if I can pass on his info. I say sure, email the guy and he's like, 'Cool.' I don't know what happened, but it made a connection. Somewhere, someone's saying, 'Check out this blog,' as well as the other Asian American blogs out there."

That's not to say that filmmaking success is guaranteed by blog coverage, a Twitter account and a dream. Like most efforts done on the cheap, there are drawbacks to relying on the Internet for promotion. "It's a lot of work," Feng says. "The Internet Is so broad, sometimes you don't really know who's who, who's where, what's this, what's that. There's so much out there. It's not like there's one place that says, 'OK, these are all resources you need to hit up and that's it.' "

Nguyen seconds the labor-intensive aspect of Internet promotion. "It's very tedious. We have to get as many people as we can and send out invites," he says. "We've done a lot of tabling with other student organizations. We've had people handing out flyers. It requires a lot of manpower."

But Nguyen also sees a silver lining of pounding the pavement or logging in online to get the word out. "Overall the results really outweigh the costs. We've been able to pull through with our efforts. At least you know you have a lot of support for your project. And that's all that really matters."

Can the Internet help churn out the next Ang Lee? It's debatable. But it is giving both seasoned and newbie filmmakers the opportunity to reach authences from Boise, ID, to Tokyo - an opportunity that transcends the strictures of mainstream Hollywood. While Asian Americans are slowly but surely gaining a larger foothold in the industry, sometimes a filmmaker has to take the reins in order to garner more immediate results. Got a film that's only missing a marketing budget and an authence? There's hope for you yet. Just make sure you've paid your Internet bill.

Sylvie Kim is Hyphen's film editor and will start the master's degree program in Asian American studies at San Francisco State this fall.


Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.