Nico Santos, Constance Wu and Koh Chieng Mun in Crazy Rich Asians. Photo from WB Pictures
By Eric Chang
Shortly after the success of Crazy Rich Asians, DJ Jiang and Brian Yang were fired up. How, they wondered, could they could fuel more stories about Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood?
Giant Leap Accelerator was born not long afterward. Launched in December 2020, it’s a bold move to amplify and discover AAPI stories for film and television.
The industry’s first paid writing program for emerging AAPI screenwriters, the accelerator pairs new writers with industry mentors, such as screenwriters or showrunners. Over the course of the three-month program, writers have support and resources to package their projects, including presentation decks and sizzle reels. It culminates with a pitch day before an audience of studio, streamer and network executives, independent producers and investors. In its first foray, it received hundreds of applicants and is in the process of selecting the first class of 7 writers.
Jiang is a producer and entrepreneur who has spent his career working at the intersection of tech and media. He oversaw two seasons of physical production for Whale Wars on Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet and served as the head of marketing for Azumio, a digital health company. Co-founder Brian Yang is an actor and producer. Yang starred in five seasons of Hawaii Five-Oh and produced the 2013 Sundance film, Linsanity.
AsAmNews recently spoke with Jiang to learn more about the Giant Leap Accelerator and the impact he hopes to make. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
AsAmNews: This program is structured similarly to tech accelerator programs. How does that work?
Jiang: At its core, the Giant Leap Accelerator is an accelerator program that aims to propel up and coming writers for television and film.
It’s a 12-week structured program where we pair a new writer with a seasoned mentor that is provided by WGA (Writers Guild of America), and our management partners. These mentors are showrunners, or have written shows or movies. Then, over the course of 12 weeks, they’ll be working close together and getting the new writer’s script into shape. There will also be master classes, and different sessions scheduled throughout the program to give writers a proper perspective of their career in Hollywood, and what direction they should take. We’ll also help prepare all the pitch materials prior to the final pitch day in front of studio, streamer and network executives, independent producers and investors. The new writer is also given a living stipend.
Hopefully at the end of the pitch day we’ll have interested parties in going forward with the project. The whole goal of the accelerator is to get projects made, and not have these writings stay on pages. In our opinion, I think that’s the only way to really truly push for representation, having these stories and these faces on screen for people to see and experience.
AsAmNews: What are you looking for from applicants?
Jiang: The ideal applicant is an aspiring writer, formally trained or not, but hasn’t really had a way to get their material up in the industry to the decision makers. Somebody who is not a member of the WGA, is unestablished, doesn’t have representation, but has great story ideas and raw talent in actually writing the material. The type of script we’re looking for are narratives that feature Asian American stories or have Asian American character leads.
AsAmNews: Where did this idea come from?
Jiang: I have been entrepreneurial most of my life and I’ve worked in both the tech and media space. I’ve founded and worked in a number of startups in both industries and I’m very familiar with the incubator/accelerator model. I’ve advised a number of startups that have gone through accelerators in the past. When you look at Silicon Valley, almost all of the new successful companies come out of some sort of mentorship, accelerator or incubator. Unfortunately, this type of path hasn’t really been created in Hollywood for the Asian American community. In contrast, the African American community has been very successful on this front and you can see the results in the last 10 years. The mentorship that they have has directly translated into a number of very successful films and franchises, and it’s been fantastic for their representation. This was something I noticed and something that I wanted the Asian American community to have as well.
Then, in 2018, Crazy Rich Asians happened. That was the tipping point because it was a real commercial success case for the industry.
AsAmNews: The status of Crazy Rich Asians as the potentially influential movie that it is, has always been tied to whether or not it was a commercial success, and less about whether it was actually a good movie (which it is). Obviously, the two are related, but at the time, the real question was not “Is Crazy Rich Asians a good movie?” and more “Will Crazy Rich Asians make a lot of money?”
Jiang: Exactly. It was after the commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians that I saw this opening. I reached out to Brian and we decided to start this initiative to address what we saw was the real bottleneck. There is no Asian American representation in entertainment because there are no Asian American stories being told. In fact, the Writers Guild of American West has 20,000 members and only 350 are Asian American or of Asian descent. Less than half of those 350 are actually still working.
AsAmNews: So after Crazy Rich Asians, you reached out Brian. What happened next?
Jiang: I reached out to Brian and brought him on board. Then, as with any startups, you need letters of interest or intent for potential buyers of your products. In our case, this meant studios, networks, independent producers, and production companies. Next came agencies and management companies that could be partners and who could help us package the scripts prior to the pitch.
We reached out within our network, and gained some great early supporters. People like Osric Chau, from DC’s The Arrow; Dinh Thai, one of HBO’s top producers. We also reached out to a lot of tech folks in Silicon Valley and found a number of Asian American investors, including Sonny Vu, the current CEO of Arevo and who founded a number of other tech companies with successful exits, who had a real interest in what we were building.
We also got in touch with the Writers Guild of America. We wanted their blessing and also wanted to open a dialogue with them about why we were looking for writers outside of the Guild.
AsAmNews: Where do you think your passion for media comes from?
Jiang: I think a combination of things in my childhood. My parents pushed me into a lot of traditional Asian American activities. For instance, I played a lot of piano as a child.
I also did a lot of art, like traditional painting in water color; my parents also helped me to explore, and I think that eventually developed into more interests in the arts in general. I even dabbled in some music and what do you put when you put visual arts, and sound together: it’s motion picture, right?
AsAmNews: What about the representation part of this initiative? Where does the drive come from?
Jiang: I think the drive is based on the lack of. Why isn’t our story being told? Why aren’t our faces on screen? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. There’s so many great stories in the Asian American community from parents, my parent’s friends, and from what I have heard from my friends, and their different families. There’s so many great characters that have done so much for this country, and that history has never been told, there’s no stories already out there, and that’s unfair.
Find more about the Giant Leap Accelerator here.
Eric J. Chang is a guest contributor for AsAmNews. He is a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice. Any views expressed are his own.
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