Art Works Blog

Making Media More Diverse

When it comes to water cooler talk, conversation generally centers around last night’s game, next summer’s vacation, or the latest office gossip. But a few years ago at Facebook, a series of comments on an internal message board (the modern version of a water cooler) led to a headier topic: the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in media. Philip Fung, Julia Lam, and Franklyn Chien---all Facebook employees at the time---continued the conversation offline, and went on to found the A3 Foundation, which aims to support Asian-American artists in film, television, and new media. Launched in 2012, the nonprofit currently has two main components: the A3 Fellows Program, which pairs emerging artists with more established, mentor artists, and the A3/Sundance Fellowship, which sends participants to the prestigious Directors Lab and Screenwriters Lab at the Sundance Institute. We recently spoke with Philip Fung about the A3 Foundation, and the importance of its mission.

NEA: All three A3 founders were involved in the tech industry as early employees of Facebook. How did you become interested in the arts and particularly this issue of diversity?

PHILIP FUNG: Like many Asian Americans, we grew up not seeing many people that looked like us on TV. I think Asians represent something like five percent of the [American] population, but they only represent two percent of people on TV. It's been getting better in the last year or so, but it's historically been pretty poor. And that affects how we think about ourselves. So this was an issue that we'd been thinking about for a long time.

NEA: Your website states that you three met on a mission “to make the world more social.” With A3, it can be said that you’re trying to make the world, or at least media, more diverse. Do you see an overlap between the two goals?

FUNG: I definitely think there's a connection there. Being social means telling stories and understanding other people. I think a lot of people aren't understood right now. To really connect with others you need to understand where others come from, and that they're normal people. I think it will be a huge benefit to society if everyone's stories are heard, especially good stories.

NEA: Why did you choose to target TV and film as opposed to say, literature or theater or radio?

FUNG: Everyone watches TV. Everyone goes to the movies. It's sad to say that these days, not everyone is reading a book. A lot of people are using the Internet, and diversity is doing very well on the Internet. But traditional media---in the sense of TV and film---has much higher barriers of entry, yet these are still areas where people spend a lot of their time. These are the areas that are harder to change but are worth changing.

NEA: Tell me about the Sundance initiative, and how it came about.

FUNG: What we need is role models. There really aren't any lead roles that are Asian American right now. [We thought about] how we could get more role models on TV and in film. Sundance was a way that we thought this could be done. Sundance is obviously the cream of the crop of film festivals, and some of the pioneering Asian-American films actually came out of there. The best example is a film called Better Luck Tomorrow, which came out of Sundance Film Festival in the early 2000s. It's by Justin Lin. It was an example of how Asians in the U.S. can be portrayed as normal people that do normal things. They're not Kung-fu heroes; they're just regular people. We wanted to see if we could further that, so we flew down to the Sundance Institute and we talked with Kerry Putnam, who's the executive director. We came to the conclusion that we could work together and establish an official Asian-American program at Sundance. So that's one way we've been helping out.

The other way we've been helping is in digital media. Asians and other people of color are doing really well on YouTube---five out of the top 20 stars on YouTube are Asian American actually.

NEA: Why do you think that is?

FUNG: I think it's a combination of a few things. There's less barrier to entry: you don't have people telling you that you don't fit a certain role, and so you aren't cast in that role. It's easier for people to get in there without any training. And it disproves the theory that there is no audience for this type of work, that there's no audience for Latino stars or Asian-American stars. There are a lot of people of different colors and genders doing things on YouTube, so we are trying to further that.

NEA: The Screenwriter’s and Director’s Labs at Sundance are meant to foster innovation and creative risk-taking. How does this coincide with the mission of A3?

FUNG: I've grown up my whole life in the US---I grew up in Brooklyn---and I'd turn on the TV and I'd never see someone that looked like me. So having people take a risk and show people who are not just typical white Americans doing normal things is inspiring to many people. It does so much. But it's also a risk for a director or a producer to cast someone in that role because it's not traditional, and it might not work with everyone. I'm glad that Sundance is taking that risk and is helping foster [diversity]. The Sundance Institute has done this for a variety of different cultures, including Native Americans. [Asian Americans] as a culture don’t really like to talk about these issues a lot, but it's important. We're pretty successful in the tech field, and now that we are, we want to figure out how we can help in other ways and in [other fields] that we felt have always been missing in society. 

NEA: How would you describe the potential impact of greater diversity in media, both for Asian Americans and society in general?

FUNG: I think it's important that media represents accurately what society is. If you're a child, what you see on TV is what you think is important, what you think is real. Another issue is gender. Females are constantly stereotyped into these roles, and that affects how [girls] grow up and what they think about themselves. But for Asian Americans, not to see themselves on TV makes them think that they're not important, that they can't do certain things. On the flip side, for other people, seeing more diversity enriches the experience of what media is about. You get more stories. There are a lot of interesting stories about race and gender that are not being told right now. There are only really a couple of stories that are being told again and again. It's enriching for society as a whole to see more diverse stories.


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