In Sonali Mehta’s television crime drama “Fifty Thousand,” a widowed Indian woman starts an illicit green card-marriage brokerage business to make ends meet. But an encounter with an ICE officer at the airport puts both her enterprise and her immigration status in jeopardy.
Mehta, a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, said she wanted to explore the moral compromises that immigrants sometimes have to make to build a better life for their families — a complicated dynamic that she feels audiences are ready for after the success of TV series and movies starring Black and Asian actors, such as “Black-ish” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”
But unlike those productions, "Fifty Thousand” was never produced. It’s one of dozens of independent films and television pilots featuring Asian American characters and experiences that weren’t made last year in part because of the many barriers AAPI creators face in the industry, including fewer connections in a predominantly white field and the perception that stories about Asian Americans aren’t commercially viable.
“Many immigrants share the idea that the system doesn’t make it straightforward for us to succeed,” Mehta told NBC Asian America. “We’re all trying to figure out what our line of what the right thing to do is, and sometimes we make mistakes.”
Despite the popularity of films such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell,” “Always Be My Maybe,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” it can still be difficult for storytellers to find success exploring the depth and diversity of the Asian and Pacific Islander community, the fastest-growing and most economically divided racial group in the country. (It’s a different ballgame for films made in Asia, like the South Korean thriller “Parasite,” which won four Academy Awards in March.)
To address these challenges the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) recently partnered with the Black List, which releases an annual list of Hollywood executives’ favorite unproduced screenplays. In the past, the Black List has highlighted “Juno,” “Argo” and “The King’s Speech,” all of which went on to win Academy Awards. The year-old partnership now creates a similar list of unmade scripts by AAPI writers as a way to amplify Asian American voices and reveal more complicated layers of their experience before a mainstream audience.
To assemble the CAPE List, the two groups put out calls for submissions from filmmakers of Asian descent whose works include an Asian protagonist or at least two Asian characters.
This year’s selection, unveiled on May 29, includes 10 features and 10 television pilots by both emerging writers like Mehta, who have yet to get a script into production, and seasoned writer-directors.
“If you don’t have clout, it’s very hard to get someone to invest in you as a creator,” Mehta said. “CAPE has been hugely important in getting the gatekeepers to look at us seriously.”
On the motion-picture side, Arun Croll got a nod for “Tighter,” a story about an Asian American woman whose life takes a dark turn when she enrolls in a Japanese bondage, or shibari, workshop. Croll said he often mines his Japanese ancestry for inspiration when writing.
“It’s a good time to be writing Asian American stories because there’s such a push for diversity right now,” he said.
But one common challenge in lifting these stories to the screen is casting.
For a writer, attaching a big-name actor or actress to a script can clear the path for production by making it seem commercially viable. But due to the scarcity of A-List Asian stars, Croll said, it can be difficult to generate interest in an Asian protagonist. He said he realized this problem at a pitch meeting recently, when he was asked to identify actresses to play his heroine. It took him a moment to figure out he didn’t know anyone with mainstream credentials who fits the role.
“The question totally blindsided me,” Croll said. “There are only a handful of recognizable Asian actors, and the odds of me getting my script to them is very low.” He noted that if he were casting for white characters, he’d have a much wider pool of A-Listers to choose from.
An additional obstacle is generating interest for lived experiences that are rarely told on screen.
“Mother-Daughter,” the feature script by Tricia Lee, explores an unlikely friendship that develops between an undocumented Asian mother and a transgender teen.
Lee said she had to research undocumented immigration in the Asian community because the issue is so infrequently discussed and covered by news outlets. And while the subject might be controversial given the current administration’s hostile stance toward immigration, Lee said she wasn’t trying to make a political statement.
“This isn’t a story about being undocumented or transgender,” she said, adding that the narrative thrust grows from the characters and their world. “It’s important for representation on TV and film to show people of color as people, not the sum of their circumstances.”
In an industry that often runs on nepotism and connections, CAPE has become an incubator for indie talents. Since 1991, the coalition has sought to bring more diversity to entertainment by supporting writers of color and connecting them with agents, producers and directors.
A number of emerging writers have already found some success through the organization.
Since her pilot “Dust Child,” a television series about a Vietnamese woman’s quest to find her American GI father, appeared on the CAPE List, Dona Le has signed with a manager and met with several executives. “It’s been an exciting spring,” she said. “People are recognizing that Asian Americans are not a monolith.”
The opportunities for independent Asian creatives can extend beyond writing. Tiffanie Hsu, perhaps the most experienced screenwriter on the CAPE List, has already directed several shorts and the Netflix documentary “Waterschool.”
Last year, Mason Novick, the producer of “Juno” and “500 Days of Summer,” asked Hsu to direct his new film about an Asian woman who harbors dreams of rock stardom. As she prepares to take on this new project, Hsu is also securing funding for “Wonderland,” her feature-length script featured on the CAPE list about a preteen navigating the adult playground of Las Vegas while trying to keep her mother’s gambling habit under control.
“I don’t think any of this would have happened five years ago,” she said.