Building For 'Tomorrow'

Filmmakers hope ethnic pride can prove good for business and open doors for Asian-Americans.

April 19, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

You're starring in a movie that's being hailed as the most important Asian-American film in a decade. It opened last week in big cities such as Los Angeles and New York and earned stellar reviews. Better yet, it earned good box-office receipts, mainly because of an underground marketing campaign focused on Asian-Americans.

Hoping to capitalize on that success, you visit as many colleges as you can, including the Johns Hopkins University, urging students to see the movie because it will open doors and keep Asian-American actors from being pigeonholed into playing, say, bulletproof monks.

But now the film, Better Luck Tomorrow, is about to open in Baltimore, a city with such a small Asian population it doesn't even have a noticeable Chinatown. And, to be honest, you're a little worried.

"We made it through the first weekend really well, and one side of us was like, `Now we can take a deep breath and be happy,' " said actor Roger Fan, who plays Daric, a cynical, high-achieving student in the film, during a visit to Hopkins this week. "But, the other side is wondering, `Are we a fluke or is this repeatable?' "

This is the classic dilemma for films with ethnic casts, experts say. While filmmakers want their work to become mainstream hits, they have little choice but to reach out to ethnic audiences in hopes they will spread the word. This strategy may work in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but places like Baltimore, Houston and Tempe, Ariz., are another matter.

There are about 10,000 Asians in Baltimore and nearly 210,000 in Maryland, according to the most recent U.S. Census. By contrast, there are nearly 386,000 Asians in Orange County, Calif., one of the areas where the film opened last weekend.

"If a film is targeted toward a specific audience, it helps to have that film in places where there are a lot of people in that audience. They are the ones that help you build the buzz that will get other people to see the movie," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., a box-office-tracking firm in Encino, Calif.

Better Luck Tomorrow 's supporters are quick to point out that the film, which features an Asian-American cast, is intended for a wide audience. It centers on a group of high-school students who start selling answers to tests to earn extra money and eventually descend into a drug-induced haze of partying, sex and murder.

While the movie slyly plays off Asian stereotypes - "Never underestimate an overachiever" is its tagline - the characters are typical high-schoolers in many regards, dealing with the stresses of school and friends.

"This is an American film that happens to be seen through a specific view," says Fan, who was born in Baltimore's Charles Village neighborhood but now lives in Los Angeles. "It's about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's the all-American story."

"We thought our audience would be very interested in this film, and our audience is a very diverse group," said Troy Poon, senior director of business development and marketing for MTV Films and one of the executive producers of Better Luck Tomorrow.

But even Poon acknowledges that "it's an untested market if you're talking about an all-Asian-American cast."

It's obvious the film has connected with Asian-Americans in big cities. Last weekend, it earned about $400,000, a paltry sum for big-budget action films but a major coup for a movie that cost only $250,000 to make.

About 60 percent of ticket buyers were Asian, according to Paramount Classics, one of the movie's distributors.

That number is partially due to design. The film's stars have been sending out mass e-mails urging Asian-Americans to support the movie, and traveling throughout the country to drum up support on college campuses.

During Fan's visit to Hopkins this week, he and Ernesto Foronda, one of the film's writer-producers, showed a short documentary on the making of the film and nearly pleaded with the audience to attend the movie, which opened yesterday at the Charles Theatre.

"Even if you're going to another movie, buy a ticket to Better Luck Tomorrow and just sneak into the other theater," Fan said.

While obviously trying to increase the popularity of the film, those connected to it also assert that the near future of Asian-American art rests on the success of Better Luck Tomorrow.

Asian actors have long been forced to play delivery boys, martial-arts experts or foreign-exchange students like Long Duk Dong, the character in Sixteen Candles with the heavy accent who Molly Ringwald has to take to the dance.

Fan said if the movie earns enough money, it will pave the way for other Asian-American films and better characters. "If our film is considered a Hollywood success, you will see [Asian-American] projects get made. ... Within six months, you will see an Asian-American lead on Friends," he told the audience.

"If this film does fail," he continued, "it's literally five to 10 years before we get another chance."

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