Congratulations to CAPE President Steve Tao on being the keynote speaker for the 35th Annual Asian Business Association (ABA) Awards Banquet The Invisible Asians!
The full transcript of Steve’s speech, can be read exclusively on the CAPE website.
Remarks of President Steve Tao – As Prepared for Delivery
To encourage me to give the Keynote for tonight’s gala, ABA Executive Director Dennis Huang told me the theme of the evening, THE INVISIBLE ASIAN. My first thought was, as I’m sure was most of yours, “Is he crazy?”
There are visible Asians in media everywhere. In 2011, there were two Asian American musical artists who hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 – Bruno Mars and Far East Movement. Ask your kids.
In films, we saw Asian actors in two of the summers’ biggest blockbusters – Mason Lee, Jamie Chung, and Ken Jeong in THE HANGOVER 2, Kenny Choi in CAPTAIN AMERICA. Did you see either of them?
And look at YouTube. Ryan Higa, KevJumba, WongFu, Michelle Phan. They are superstars in the Digital space. Have you logged on to Nigahiga? Ryan Higa runs the #2 most subscribed YouTube channel. He has more than 4.5 million subscribers, a bigger audience than most TV shows.
So while the general perception is that Asians are “Invisible” in media and entertainment, in some areas, we are doing pretty well. You just may not know it.
I am the President of CAPE, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. We are the largest professional organization of Asians in entertainment and media, and our mission is to advance diversity by educating and promoting APIs in key leadership roles. Our membership is comprised of actors — the ones you know, many you don’t — and executives, writers, directors, and producers — the ones you definitely don’t. It is our job to know all of the APIs in the Industry.
For 20 years, we have been connecting Asians in entertainment. We hold networking events for aspiring artists to interact with seasoned professionals. In an industry where it’s all about “who you know”, CAPE provides one of the few opportunities for APIs to connect with each other. We act as an Asian family in a very clique-y entertainment community.
We also hold programs to open doors and develop the talents of our members. One of the biggest problems Asian actors face is they don’t get to go on as many auditions as their counterparts, aren’t as experienced in auditioning, and have difficulty landing the job. They rarely receive constructive, professional advice on how to present themselves. CAPE gives our members a free audition in front of casting directors and executives at these networks. From these programs, we are getting actors seen by networks, and more importantly, hired on TV shows and in films.
But in a 2010 Screen Actors Guild report, it was revealed that Asians represent only 4% of available roles on network TV series, most as guest stars, and even that number is falling. This compares to Asians comprising 5.6% of the generation population. In films, the percentage is even less. Getting Asians cast is an uphill battle. Surprisingly, the biggest challenge is not getting the Industry to hire Asians (although it is still a big challenge). The bigger challenge is we don’t have enough actors in this next generation.
Let’s move to writers, which I think is equally or more important for us. They create stories and characters. For 12 years, CAPE has held a competition for aspiring TV and feature film writers. Winners receive a cash prize and more importantly, meetings with Industry professionals. The writing competition has grown in stature and we have seen more participants landing professional writing jobs. The latest statistics from the Writers Guild of America suggest that the number of API writers is stable, if not slightly growing. It is a slow and intensive process, but training more API writers is a huge priority area for CAPE.
In terms of the number of executives making creative and hiring decisions, we are doing well. When I first started as a feature film executive 22 years ago, there were MAYBE 10 Asian executives in both TV and Film. Today, we count at least 150, and I think that’s a conservative number. It is gratifying to see so many API executives, and more importantly, how many API agents, producers, and managers, as we are the keys to making creative decisions.
Grace Wu, Chinese American, is head of casting for NBC. Keli Lee, Korean American, is head of casting for ABC. Andrea Wong, Chinese American, is President of Sony International Television. Kevin Tsujihara, Japanese American, is President of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, Quan Phung, Vietnamese American, is Executive Producer on NBC’s hit new comedy, WHITNEY. Craig Robinson, Chinese American, is EVP of Diversity for NBC Universal. And I meet more and more junior level executives I know will achieve great success in the corporate ranks.
So with all of these executives in place behind the camera, why aren’t there more of us in front of it?
Is it because the studios and networks are narrowminded and discriminate against Asians? There likely is some degree of ignorance and intransigence, but of course they’re not discriminating against us. We Asian Pacific Islander executives are in those studio and network ranks.
If you talk to these top executives, they want nothing more than to find diverse casts, writers, and producers. Not because it is the right thing to do (although it is the right thing to do). It’s because they know it’s the profitable thing to do. Let me repeat that to you members of the Asian BUSINESS Association. It is good business for the media companies to put Asians in TV shows and movies. And that is ultimately how Asians will become more “visible”.
According to the 2010 US Census, Asians are the fastest growing ethnic minority in the US increasing by 63% from 2000-2010. Faster than Latinos at 39%. Despite a horrifyingly large portion of us living below the poverty line, APIs are the most affluent of all ethnic groups, including Caucasians. We consume more entertainment than any other group, we consume more product than any other group. And we spend a smaller percentage of our disposable income on consumption, which means we have money leftover to spend on more stuff. The stuff that advertisers sell. The advertisers that advertise on the networks that make them profitable. We have finally reached the level where they want and need us because we make them money. Asians = profits.
Remember that story about Ryan Higa and his 4.5 million subscribers? They are aged 14-24, well-educated, well-to-do, and big consumers, a prime demo, and they are NOT watching TV. When I told President of CBS Nina Tassler about him, without missing a comedic beat, she quipped “who do I kill to get them?” And she told her casting department to find out about him.
So again, why aren’t there more of us in front of the camera? Let me digress just a moment. When I was a kid, I was a good student and was the designated one to become a doctor. But I had a passion to get into entertainment. My mother and I watched TV every night, and my dad took me to see double features every weekend. It was their fault I was a consumer of entertainment. My Cantonese mother was a 2nd Generation American, born in Arkansas, and she was fine with my career choice as along as I could pay the rent. You would have thought my dad, who immigrated from Shanghai in the 1950s, would have been the traditionalist, but he actually encouraged me to get into film. So here I am, with my parents’ blessing. They knew they had raised me to take care of myself. They had also raised a defiant son who couldn’t be told you can’t do something.
So let me turn this to all of you. When was the last time you encouraged your kid to pursue that acting career? How about steered them to major in English Literature? Let them capture every excruciating detail of their lives on camera? To some degree, we can only blame ourselves for not encouraging or promoting more of the younger generation of Asians to become actors, writers, and directors. The studios and networks would love to find that next star. They can’t invent them out of thin air. It starts at home, with us.
So we need you to support your kids, the next crop of talent, to pursue their dreams. Some may go on to be doctors, lawyers, businesspeople. But others could go on to become the next Tom Cruise, Whitney Houston, or Ryan Higa. You should watch and embrace the shows, digital shorts, and music of our existing Asian stars and spread the word. I think you all are pretty good on Facebook. You can help CAPE, the ABA, and others change the perception of the Invisible Asian, because we are much more visible than anyone realizes, and much more powerful when we all believe it.