Karin Chien Discusses the “Next Frontier” of Creative Ownership, Increased Agency for Asian American Filmmakers

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On April 11th, the Asian Studies Department and the Film and Media Studies Department welcomed Karin Chien for the annual Genevieve Ching-Wen Lee ’96 Memorial Lecture. The memorial fund, endowed in memory of Lee ’96, seeks to support the development of multi-disciplinary Asian American studies at Swarthmore.

Chien, this year’s lecturer, is an independent film producer and the 2010 recipient of the Independent Spirit Producer’s Award. She is the president and founder of two production companies. The first, dGenerate films, is a non-theatrical distribution company dedicated to exposing worldwide audiences to independent, uncensored media from mainland China; the second, i Love 2, is a video production company that focuses on socially-conscience marketing. She has also created the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Fellowship, a mentoring program committed to fostering Asian American talent in film, TV, and digital media.

Chien’s talk was based on a series of conversations she has had with other filmmakers and media investors about the shrinking half-life of new technology. She titled the talk Present/Future, asserting that rapidly changing technology has faded the distinction between the present and the future. As the industry scrambles to keep up with the new technology, Chien believes that underrepresented groups such as Asian Americans are able to carve out a niche for themselves and take creative ownership of their work.

Having graduated from Berkeley in 1996, Chien was inspired by the unprecedented number of Asian American narrative films released during the following year. These filmmakers, nicknamed The Class of ’97, were expected to initiate a boom in Asian American media. Yet, the initial success did not manifest into any large-scale creative movement. She cites Berkeley as being the foundation of her “politicized consciousness,” and the Class of ’97 as inspiring her to harness this consciousness to work on media distribution for Asian auteurs.

Chien described the film industry as being guarded by a series of gatekeepers. Traditionally, only a select few had access to the cameras, editing software, and other tools of production. Yet, with digital cameras attached to every phone, and Final Cut Pro easily downloadable online, distributors became the primary gatekeepers.

“Whoever owns the means of distribution has the power,” Chien asserted.

When YouTube was created in 2005, a generation of Asian American filmmakers who had been previously denied distribution were able to share their vision through this new platform. Chien described this as the “next frontier” of creative ownership, a means of asserting agency. On YouTube, Chien observed that the representation statistics were “inversed,” with Asian Americans “almost over represented.”

While these YouTube filmmakers discovered an alternative to the traditional production pipeline, Chien stressed that their work is now truly mainstream. Stars such as Freddie Wong have garnered over 980 million views, meaning that over four times as many people have watched his videos than saw Gone with the Wind in theaters.

Alternative means of video distributions are not just highly visible, but often economically viable. Chien showed the audience the first installment of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a web series based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. According to Chien, such series are successful because they create their own audience by appealing to a specific niche, and then are able to leverage this audience into revenue. Despite being a free online series, there are Lizzie Bennet Diaries DVDs; although it was based on a book, a publisher just bought exclusive book rights. With an easy means of distribution, small, loyal audiences are now a priceless commodity.

Chien has used this same theory in her own production company. When visiting China, she saw many independent filmmakers producing videos with their personal cameras, but, as long as the Communist party was acting as their gatekeepers, their work would never be distributed. With dGenerate films, Chien has been able to help connect these artists to cultural institutions, museums, and universities abroad. These films are of deep interest to a niche group of scholars looking for an uncensored view of mainland China.

Chien considers these expanding means of expression promising for the future, and she ended the speech by encouraging the audience to use the tools at their disposal to share their point of view.

“Your point of view is worthwhile because you exist,” she said.

Featured image courtesy of http://screeningchina.blogspot.com.

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