Making Their Own Luck

Guerrilla marketeers hit the streets to push a new film about Asian-American high schoolers gone bad

Evan Leong, a Bay Area native who wears baggy pants and hides his cornrows under a silver skullcap, has been working for free since he graduated from UCLA in June. As the San Francisco “street team” leader for Better Luck Tomorrow, a stylish but dark film about suburban teens featuring an all-Asian-American cast, Leong has been living with his parents in the Richmond District and volunteering his time.

With creativity and heart but no budget, Leong has been put in charge of Bay Area publicity for the picture, which opens Friday in theaters in San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose. For months — out of sheer love of the movie and a belief in its complex portrayal of Asian-Americans — Leong has spent his days employing guerrilla-marketing tactics to encourage people to see the independent film that he has been involved with for more than three years.

A few months ago, he sent out an e-mail to nearly every Asian-American studies professor in Northern California, and for the past few weeks, he has visited college classrooms to tell students about the movie. He is aided by a splashy, drama-filled documentary he directed about the making of Better Luck Tomorrow called BLT Genesis, which will air on PBS in May.

During classroom visits, he addresses the students coolly and casually, in a tone that belies his passion for the film. “This was a community, grass-roots effort where people came together to work on this movie,” Leong said recently at San Francisco State. “And then it became this fairy tale story where it went to Sundance, and got picked up by MTV Films [for distribution], and it's actually being released in theaters on April 11. So I'm here to get you guys to support it.”

Though Leong admits he doesn't enjoy speaking in public, and his audience sometimes asks questions about the film that he can't answer, most students seem genuinely interested in the movie clips and in Leong's message.

“It's important, I believe, because it's going to open the door to Asian-Americans in the film industry,” says Carl Ngo, a San Francisco State business administration major, in a noisy hallway after Leong's presentation. “Not a lot is known [in mainstream media] about the darker side of Asian America. From the clips that we saw, it actually portrays a lot of things that we really deal with in the neighborhood. I related to the kinds of things I saw.”

Better Luck Tomorrow has, indeed, followed a fairy tale- like trajectory. After making the rounds at various prestigious film festivals such as Sundance and collecting rave reviews, the movie was bought by MTV Films and Paramount Classics in early 2002 — a first for an independent Asian-American film.

A moment at Sundance helped launch the picture and distill its importance. After the third and final screening of Better Luck Tomorrow, a man seated near the rear of the theater raised his hand to ask the evening's last question during the post-film discussion with director Justin Lin.

“I'm really depressed from the film,” the man said, a clear edge in his voice. “Because one, it looks very good. Two, the actors are very good. You know how to make a movie. But why would you, with the talent up there, and yourself, make a film that is so empty, amoral for Asian-Americans and for Americans?”

Well-paced and entertaining, the film can also be challenging and shocking as it chronicles the downward spiral of six overachieving high school students into a criminal lifestyle; the question ignited the audience.

Various audience members attempted to address the query, and actor Roger Fan defended the film from the stage by saying that it was “the most damned progressive script for Asian-Americans I've ever seen in my life.”

But it wasn't until Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert — who usually remains silent during Q&A sessions — stood up to speak that the audience quieted. “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is, nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, “How could you do this to your people?'” Ebert said, gesturing passionately. “The film has the right to be about these people, and Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be.”

With that inadvertent endorsement by a film-world heavyweight, the controversial Better Luck Tomorrow had been catapulted to a level of mainstream attention that no other Asian-American independent film has ever experienced.

Though Asian-American independent cinema has a rich history dating from the 1960s, Better Luck Tomorrow is the first film to garner major studio backing (The Joy Luck Club was conceived by studio executives, and movies featuring Asian martial arts stars are a different animal altogether).

As a first of its kind, the film could serve as Hollywood's barometer of the viability of Asian-American cinema in the mainstream, depending on the way it fares at the box office. Industry executives and Asian-American filmmakers are said to be watching Better Luck Tomorrow closely.

“If Justin's film does well, and there's excitement in the air, then it could help my film do well,” says director Eric Byler, whose Charlotte Sometimes — about the unconventional relationships of a Japanese-American car mechanic — opens in art-house theaters in May. “And I have a film I'm getting financed right now. We have half a million. We're trying to raise $2 million more. It'd be much easier if Justin's film makes it.”

Darrell Hamamoto, an Asian-American studies professor at UC Davis who writes frequently about film, agrees. “There's a lot riding on this film,” he says. “If it goes well, the industry will be there, waving cash at these talented Asian-American writers and directors. If it gets a lukewarm reception, then the next person with a hot movie is going to have to work from ground zero.”

This point has not been lost on Asian-Americans in the Bay Area, who have eagerly joined Leong to form street teams intended to encourage people to “vote at the box office” and send the message that moviegoers support Asian-American films. [page]

Using grass-roots tactics popular with indie filmmakers and pioneered by African-American moviemakers, the Bay Area street team has been meeting at local arts spaces and college campuses to dream up ways to encourage people to see the movie during its opening weekend. Those initial box office receipts determine how long the film will be kept in theaters — and, potentially, if Hollywood will finance more films like it anytime soon.

Determined to bring out a crowd, the enthusiastic volunteers — primarily twenty- and thirtysomethings wearing all black or Adidas gear — drive around the Bay Area, dropping off posters and postcards at cafes and bars. They send a constant flow of messages to the BLT listserv to discuss promotional strategies, and circulate e-mails about the film's release (I received nearly a dozen such e-mails, including one from my father who caught wind of the film from the Bay Area chapter of his Hong Kong high school alumni association).

The San Francisco street team also is trying more ambitious tactics. One member, Gary Chou, a former software-company marketeer and a strong supporter of Asian-American artists, has rounded up nearly $3,500 in donations to buy out the AMC 1000 theater on Van Ness for one Friday night screening, and is distributing the tickets to community organizations (similar buy-outs are also happening in Los Angeles). And at UC Berkeley, six students got dressed up like the main characters in the film to pass out information about the movie during chaotic campus elections this week.

“I'm excited about the movie because it deals with universal things that youth can relate to, but it's an Asian-American movie and it's really empowering,” says Jack Song, an energetic Cal sophomore whose passion for the film is audible in his quavering voice. “And they're not portrayed as a kung fu fighter or kimono-wearing people. They're regular Americans who went to high school in America, and that's who I am. It makes me feel legitimized.”

Last year, Justin Lin, who maxed out 10 credit cards to make Better Luck Tomorrow, showed up at a memorable meeting with studio marketing executives wearing Vans tennis shoes and jeans. He was curious about learning how to publicize his film to Asian-Americans, and the studio he was working with at the time — Lin declines to reveal the name — obliged him.

Five studio reps, all dressed in suits, sat around him at a table in a bare and windowless conference room, armed with documents containing esoteric demographic data. After sifting through numerous pages, they came to a pie chart that broke down the American filmgoing audience by race. Lin studied the chart and noted the large slices marked “African American” and “Caucasian.” He located a sliver marked “Latino.” He turned to the executives and asked, “What about Asian-Americans?”

“They said, 'Asian-Americans don't exist in the film marketing world,'” Lin recalls. “They said, 'We consider them the same as a white audience.'” Lin was stunned. “We don't even have our own piece of the pie,” he says. “Afterwards, I thought, 'How can we get our own piece of the pie?'”

MTV Films' Troy Poon, one of the executives who championed the movie, acknowledges that very little is known about how to reach Asian-Americans. “[It's] an untapped and unknown quantity as far as film goes,” Poon says. “It's unclear how big an audience is out there and how to mobilize them.”

Karen Narasaki, who monitors Asian-American representation in the media for the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, says she has been struggling against this invisibility for years. “Whether it's TV or movies, the entertainment industry doesn't know what to do with Asians,” says Narasaki, whose organization gave Lin an American Courage Award for turning down a large sum of money to allow a major studio to make his film with non-Asian actors. “They don't know who we are, and they haven't taken the time to find out. What's important about this film is that … corporate [media] is having to think about that question.”

But this inattention to Asian-Americans is not malicious, industry insiders say. “For the most part, Hollywood doesn't really care what color you are, as long as there's green,” adds MTV Films' Poon. “Ultimately, it's how much money can be made.”

Though Lin has everything to prove with Better Luck Tomorrow, advertising dollars for the film have been limited, with a small rollout of trailers on MTV and ESPN and minimal print advertising (but no billboards or prime-time TV ad buys, like some bigger films enjoy). Finding the Asian-American audience has become the filmmakers' responsibility. And they are relying on the guerrilla-marketing street teams to attract the audience that the film industry doesn't know how to capture.

Quan Phung, vice president of comedy development at Fox Broadcasting, says the grass-roots strategy could yield dividends, even as he cautions about placing too much emphasis on a single movie. “I hate to put that much pressure on the film because it's the only one out there,” Phung says. “But I think the guerrilla marketing is really smart. Hollywood is still trying to figure out ways to tap into this market. Part of what filmmakers have to do is show Hollywood that there is an untapped market that will go and support a product that speaks to them. Guerrilla marketing is a way of doing that, and quite frankly, it's one of the few ways that the community can support a film.”

But some film critics say the political and social implications of the movie shouldn't overshadow its artistic merits. “[This film] is important because it's a film by an Asian-American director that has a chance to break through to the mainstream, so if people don't support it, then it won't,” says B. Ruby Rich, a Berkeley-based reviewer who selected Better Luck Tomorrow for inclusion in the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. “It's also important because Justin Lin is an extremely talented director and if people go to see his film, then he'll be able to make more,” adds Rich. “And finally, it's a good movie that people ought to see. It's a great spin on a genre we thought we knew — the high school film. But it finally puts race in the mix.”

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