How California's Asian-American Legislators Made the Film Tax Credit's Diversity Provisions Happen

WME event - H 2018
Courtesy of WME

"We were just sick of the whitewashing," assemblymember and Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus chair Rob Bonta tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Asian-Americans are typically seen as a silent or invisible minority in both politics and entertainment, but they were the surprising drivers behind the unprecedented diversity provisions contained in the new extension of California's film and television tax credit.

"We were just sick of the whitewashing," assemblymember and Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus chair Rob Bonta tells The Hollywood Reporter. Bonta, the first Filipino-American state legislator in California history, joined nine other speakers at WME's Beverly Hills headquarters on Tuesday morning for a press conference touting the new legislation, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on June 27.

The API caucus, which at 12 members is the largest it has ever been, stood firm as a voting bloc in demanding the addition of the diversity provisions, which most notably involve requiring applicants to report the diversity of their workforce, including the key above-the-line positions. "We don't need another Ghost in the Shell or Aloha," Bonta says. "We want to see our stories being told by API writers, directors, producers and actors, and this [reporting provision] isn't a crazy or overly aggressive ask. This is a fair ask, exceedingly achievable and doable."

Productions don't have to meet any quotas to be considered for the credit, but the objective is to motivate change by starting with self-awareness. "By including reporting on diversity above the line, this bill creates accountability," said Stacy L. Smith, founding director of USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in her remarks at the event. "Rather than waiting for reports like mine, content creators have to tabulate their own scores on inclusion, and creating this awareness opens up a space for people to make intentional choices in who is hired, and it forces filmmakers to recognize when they have not made choices toward inclusion."

Focusing on above-the-line inclusion is important because it creates a trickle-down effect, multiple speakers testified at the press conference. Westworld actor Leonardo Nam credited four women of color — The Perfect Score co-producer Sharla Sumpter, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 producer Debra Martin Chase, Ava DuVernay (who cast him as an FBI agent in her 2015 CBS pilot For Justice) and Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy — for flouting Asian male casting conventions to deliver significant milestones in his career. Said Nam, "I stand before you as living proof that diversity above the line works in creating opportunities for equality and diversity in all ranks of the entertainment industry."

The extension, which also includes calling for productions to disclose or establish initiatives to promote women and people of color, as well as the establishment and funding of a Career Pathways Training pilot program for residents from underserved communities, will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and the first report from the data collection is expected at the end of that year.

At Tuesday's press conference, which also featured addresses from WME partner Nancy Josephson and producers Nina Yang Bonjiovi and Jon Jashni, George Takei spoke movingly of the power that Hollywood's decisions have in influencing culture and policy, drawing a connection between 1940s pop culture depictions of Japanese — "evil, inscrutable, untrustworthy" — and the government's decision to intern 120,000 Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"The president of the United States, affected by those images that added to the hysteria of this country, signed an executive order that ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to be rounded up with no due process — the central pillar of our justice system — and put into barbed-wire prison camps," the former Star Trek star said in his press conference address. "We were loyal Americans, yet we became enemy aliens. That is the power of images projected by the media."

The event, which came about in part through the friendship and collaboration between assemblymember David Chiu and WME partner Theresa Kang-Lowe, was a demonstration of the impact that underrepresented individuals can have in generating change. "[The new legislation] wouldn't have happened but for the partnership of an African-American budget chair [state senator Holly Mitchell, who authored of the bill], Latino majority leader [Ian Calderon] and the API caucus pushing for diversity," says Chiu.

Inclusion in entertainment has long been a pet cause for the San Francisco legislator, but he can point to an incident in the not-so-distant past as a formative moment — Feb. 28, 2016 — that galvanized his latest efforts. "I was at the hospital, my wife was in labor, and the television was on," he tells THR. "It was the Oscars, and the host [Chris Rock] brought onto the stage three little Asian kids and proceeded to make fun of them. I was watching this and thinking about the future of my son. Is he going to be the butt of jokes, and what do we have to do to change that?"

Mitchell delivered a key take-away in her podium remarks. "If you don't think elections matter, look at the contents of this bill," she said. "Quite frankly, if there wasn't a woman of color chair of the budget committee or an API caucus with strength in numbers and leverage, who could make this a top priority, maybe [this legislation wouldn't have happened]. So if these issues are important to you, then elect people who share your core values, can take these policy issues to the table and make it happen for all of us."