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An Asian-American screenwriter I recently met mentioned she’d sold a screenplay whose lead characters are Asian, and the storyline was inspired by a holiday in Taiwan. She’d finished it earlier in the year, but her manager advised her not to take it out to the studios until after the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in August. If the movie did well, studios would be way more interested. If the movie tanked, no one would want her script anyway, and they’d have to wait (presumably until the fumes of Crazy Rich Asians‘ failure faded) before taking it out.
CRA did gangbusters at the box office, and she sold her screenplay that month to a major studio.
I’ve since heard from network development executives and writers that multiple Asian-centric TV and film projects have been bought or are being developed in the wake of CRA‘s success, from Jessica Gao’s Lazy Rich Asians at ABC to Lillian Yu’s feature script Singles Day at New Line. All because CRA did what the industry long thought was impossible: get mainstream audiences to show up (and pay good money) for a movie about … Asians.
I won’t get into the idiotic industry practice of dismissing the stories of entire races and cultures because of puerile assumptions about what American audiences will or won’t watch. (I could sell a show tomorrow about polysexual aliens from a make-believe galaxy, but probably not one about Salvadorans. Fun fact: I co-showran that alien series for The CW.) Instead, I’d like to focus on what this new who-knew-Asians-could-sell reality is doing for female Asian-American writers.
I’ve spent 16 years writing on primetime network one-hour dramas, about a dozen shows in all. But the first time I got to write for a lead character who resembled me at all was when I wrote the CRA screenplay. There are a good number of Asian-American female writers like me in the trenches, steadily working our way up the ranks, running rooms, running shows, selling and developing our own projects, but before CRA, always with leads and casts and stories that are white.
The sad truth is that it never sank in with me that this was imbalanced. When you work in entertainment long enough, you begin to internalize its prejudices, even against yourself. A mark of a good TV writer is the ability to replicate the voice of their showrunner, and they are overwhelmingly white men (usually from elite schools back east). This means having to think and sound and write like a white dude from Yale. It also means having to subjugate your own voice and dismiss your life experiences as somehow being less entertaining, less relevant, less important.
Not anymore. That’s why I find the post-CRA landscape so gratifying. In the Asian-American Pacific Islander writer groups I’m part of, there’s new excitement for the shows we want to create and movies we want to write. For the first time, the stories we’re getting greenlit are our own.
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