Last week at the Sundance Film Festival, Facebook engineer Phil Fung and former employees Julia Lam and Franklyn Chien announced a partnership with the Sundance Institute to support Asian American artists here at the Filmmaker’s Lodge on Monday, Jan. 21. The non-profit A3 Foundation will sponsor an emerging artist with an Asian American-themed project to participate in the Sundance Director’s Lab and Screenwriter’s Lab. The Labs accept roughly 25 of 2,000 applicants each year, says Fung.
Founded last year and officially launched at the Sundance announcement, A3—the Asian American Artists Foundation—aims to increase the representation of Asian Americans in front of and behind the camera. Asian Americans represent fewer than 3% of TV characters but 5% of the U.S. population, according to A3. “How can we help Asian Americans be portrayed as more than the nerd, or the engineer, or the doctor, or the dominatrix, or the ninja?” Lam says she and her co-founders starting asking each other a year ago.
Fung spoke with Indiewire about his childhood without watching Asian Americans on TV. “Growing up, all three of us—Julia, Franklyn and I—we all saw that we didn’t have any representation in media,” he says. “In digital media, there’s less barriers to entry, and so the amount of diversity you see is much greater than you see in traditional media. Asian Americans are doing really well: Four out of the top 20 YouTube videos are by Asian Americans, so we want to help support that.” The Foundation’s first grants, $10,000 to $20,000 fellowships awarded last year before the Sundance partnership, went to digital media outlets Wong Fu Productions and YOMYOMF (YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily.com). Along with the grants came mentorship from more seasoned artists, Lam says.
On hand for the launch, Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-0) spoke about the challenges of coming up in the entertainment industry without Asian American role models and applauded A3 for its efforts. Explaining his choice to narrate Chinese American filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong’s “Linsanity” (2013 Sundance Film Festival), Kim says: “The question was asked to me: Have I worked with a lot of Asian American directors? And the answer is no. And it’s not because I haven’t wanted to. It’s because I haven’t been asked. And I find that to be peculiar.”
“It’s tough to be bold, and I think that A3 is being tremendously bold,” says Anne Lai, the Creative Producing Initiatives Director of Sundance’s Feature Film Program.
“The Sundance Institute in particular has been doing a wonderful job showcasing a huge array of talent from many different diversity groups,” Fung says, including Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) with his solo directorial debut “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002 Sundance Film Festival). Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam says that the “collaboration with A3 Foundation further underscores” the Institute’s commitment to diversity.
“I also think Asian American philanthropy is not at where it should be and we . . . want to set an example,” Fung says. He is one of the six top individual donors to the Sundance Institute over the past year, according to Institute publications.
(The author is a former Facebook employee as a Principal in Product Monetization.)