Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
On Tuesday, March 30th, Racebending.com staff responded to M. Night Shyamalan’s comments to fansites and online media about the casting of The Last Airbender by firing off an email to the President of Paramount Film Group, Adam Goodman. The email clarified the public’s concerns over the casting and requested a meeting between Paramount, The Last Airbender production, Racebending.com, and Asian American and other advocacy groups.
Goodman became President of Paramount Pictures weeks after the cast of The Last Airbender was finalized in June 2009. His predecessor, John Lesher, had ignored public concerns from about the casting. To his credit, Goodman promptly responded to Racebending.com with an email on Friday, April 2nd. As the Racebending.com contact was at San Francisco WonderCon that weekend, we were unable to view the email until Monday, April 5th.
Goodman’s email read as follows:
Dear Staff of Racebending.com:
Thank you for your recent letter regarding “The Last Airbender.” We appreciate your interest in the film and thank you for raising your concerns with us.
We understand that in adapting a series like Airbender, we can expect scrutiny, comment and even criticism throughout the process. Our director, M. Night Shyamalan, is also keenly aware of the sensitivities around re-envisioning this much-beloved series. As you may know, Night’s vision of the film includes a large and ethnically diverse cast that represents a variety of heritages and cultures from around the world. Today, more than ever, it’s important that we make films that represent and appeal to a global audience. By casting actors of every race, age, creed and color, Night feels he remains true to the ethos and fantastical nature of the Airbender story. We believe the film successfully reflects all of the diverse elements that have made this series a global phenomenon.
Additionally, for several months, Paramount has been in an ongoing dialogue with Asian American advocacy groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans to address similar issues outlined in your letter. We feel that these talks have been productive and have helped guide the studio in how we go about utilizing outside casting agencies for our film productions. In the beginning of the casting process, there were missteps in how closely we monitored these agencies. As a result of our discussion, we’ve revamped our process and now more closely manage how these agencies handle casting calls.
Our work with the JACL and MANAA is an ongoing collaboration; one which we feel has been productive on both sides. We understand that Asian Americans are underrepresented in film and television. It’s a problem and we want to be part of a solution.
We truly appreciate you raising your concerns with Paramount. We are addressing these issues and would be happy to update you periodically with information that results from our aforementioned collaboration with JACL and MANAA.
Goodman’s letter makes no mention of public concerns, such as the glass ceiling that has resulted from the production’s casting practices, where actors of color play secondary and villain roles while white actors play heroic leads–even if the lead characters originated as characters of color. Nor does it address Racebending.com’s contention that “diversity” does not always signify equality. However, we were pleased to see that Goodman recognizes that actors of color, including Asian Americans, are underrepresented and that Paramount wants to be “part of solution.”
Please note that elements of Goodman’s letter are strikingly similar–identically worded–to the statement Paramount gave to the Associated Press about Airbender a month later.
Through April 5th through April 9th, Racebending.com set about confirming Goodman’s assertion (later echoed by The Last Airbender producer Frank Marshall) that Paramount has an “ongoing dialogue” with Asian American groups such as the JACL and MANAA.
The Good News: Under Adam Goodman’s leadership, Paramount now has a collaborative relationship with Asian American advocacy groups. True, this relationship resulted only the outrage following another Paramount release, The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard, which contained racial epithets and racial humor– but The Goods was produced before Goodman became president and since the protest, Paramount has met with Asian American advocacy groups a few times in collaborative discussion.
This is very promising and bodes well for Paramount’s future cultural competency. We hope Goodman’s dedication to becoming “part of the solution” will directly lead to actors of color getting a fair shot at lead roles. We hope that casting decisions like The Last Airbender will not happen again.
The Bad News: Discussion surrounding The Last Airbender remains very slow moving–particularly where the production of the film is concerned. Nothing has changed since December 2008 when fans first put the production on notice.
In November 2009 Asian American advocacy groups were promised a screening of The Last Airbender to allay their concerns “well in advance of the film’s release.” This screening for the community has yet to occur, although other audiences have already been shown the movie in Phoenix and Chicago.
In March 2010, the production flew fan sites out to New York City for a catered breakfast with M. Night Shyamalan and stay in a luxury hotel room–a sharp contrast to the production ignoring Asian American community and advocacy groups concerns over the casting and requests for a meeting.
A statement released by MANAA on April 16th notes that: “In November 2009, Paramount promised MANAA diversity statistics and a pre-screening of The Last Airbender to assuage our concerns about the film’s diverse depictions. Despite the fact that The Last Airbender has been prescreened to at least two groups, we have been repeatedly rebuffed in our requests to see the version shown to these groups. Although it has been five months since that November meeting, we hope Paramount still plans to live up to its promises.”
Despite Paramount and Goodman’s efforts to reach out to the Asian American community, the production of The Last Airbender‘s recent comments indicate that they truly still don’t get it.
They don’t understand that explaining “We didn’t mean for the casting sides to read Caucasian or any other ethnicity” doesn’t change the fact that they did read that way on official sites and databases. They don’t understand that concerns about a glass ceiling in Hollywood do not go away when actors of color are given a chance to be “diverse” set dressing.
A meeting with the production of The Last Airbender between Asian American community and advocacy groups would help the production understand, acknowledge, and take responsibility for the true impact of their casting decisions– which is why Racebending.com responded to Adam Goodman’s email on April 12th again requesting a collaborative meeting.
Excerpt from our letter:
M. Night Shyamalans’ dismissive comments indicated that he does not truly grasp the negative impact these casting decisions have had on actors of color and the communities they represent. Rather than reflecting the “global audience,” to many people, The Last Airbender’s current cast reflects traditional, discriminative Hollywood casting practices. It will be impossible for the production of The Last Airbender to—as you said—”address these issues,” without first acknowledging and understanding them.
This is why we are specifically writing to request a meeting between the production of The Last Airbender and various advocacy groups. A joint meeting with the Asian American community, media advocacy groups, and our organization would be a great asset to the production of The Last Airbender. Our organization has tracked the controversy since August 2008 and can serve as a valuable resource. We can provide a stronger understanding of the public sentiment surrounding the film than any other group. At the meeting, Asian American community and media advocacy organizations can also provide the production with additional insights. This collaboration would help strengthen the production’s cultural competency and help the producers of The Last Airbender address the current situation—and the future of the franchise—in a meaningful and sensitive way.
Mr. Goodman, we hope that you can assist us in arranging a meeting with the producers of The Last Airbender. The Asian American advocacy groups we are in communication with have expressed repeated interest in meeting directly with the production. We appreciate that Paramount wants to be part of the solution, and believe this meeting would be a great place to start.
Click here to read Racebending.com’s response letter to Adam Goodman in .pdf form.
Goodman responded to our letter on April 20th.
Dear Staff of Racebending.com:
Thank you again for your correspondence dated April 12, 2010. We hope that you see our responsiveness as a good faith indication of our commitment to an ongoing collaboration with the Asian American community.
We genuinely appreciate you raising your concerns with us. Collectively, alongside the Japanese American Citizens League and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, you’ve made a positive impact by increasing our awareness and understanding of the issues confronting the Asian American community.
As we stated in our meeting with the JACL and MANAA, we will honor our commitment to screen The Last Airbender in advance of its public release. As of today, the film is currently being edited and is not in its final form; therefore we are unable to schedule a screening at this time. In your letter, you mentioned previous ‘screenings’ for other groups. To clarify, these were strictly test screenings that were held in the very early stages of the film’s editing – typical in the filmmaking process. These screenings were not open to audiences outside of those test groups.
There will be an opportunity to screen multiple sections of the film, which would provide a broad scope of how Airbender will look and feel in its final form. My office would be happy to discuss the possibility of setting up this screening with select members of your group.
While at DreamWorks and Paramount, I’ve always strived to make eclectic and diverse films. However, as an industry, I know we can do better job. Increasing diversity is important to us. We understand that Asian Americans are underrepresented in film and television and we sincerely want to be part of a solution.
Thank you again for raising your concerns.
Goodman’s letter again ignores our repeated requests for a meeting or any kind of follow up directly with the production of The Last Airbender. That being said, Racebending.com followed up with a brief email on April 30th to confirm that we would be interested in the screening.
Dear Mr. Goodman,
We do appreciate your responsiveness to our emails. Your willingness to dialogue with us and other advocacy groups reflects well on Paramount Pictures, it is a stark contrast to the previous Paramount administration and the lack of response the public has received from the production of The Last Airbender.
We would like to stress that concerns surrounding The Last Airbender and industry-wide glass ceilings are certainly not limited to the Asian American community. Many of our supporters are parents who believe that all children are negatively impacted by the lack of lead protagonists of color in family films. 3 out of 4 of our supporters are not of Asian descent—in fact; half of our supporters are white. You’re in a position to make a great difference, and we hope your interest in addressing under-representation will be reflected in upcoming Paramount productions.
Thank you for giving us an update on the status of the pre-screening of The Last Airbender. It would be important for our advocacy group and other Asian American advocacy groups to see the movie well in advance of its release.
We look forward to working with your office regarding a specific date and arrangements for the screening.
The Racebending.com Staff
As of May 22nd, 2010 Racebending.com had not received a response from Paramount, but Paramount told the Los Angeles Times that they plan to “screen a print of the film to Racebending.com boycotters once its last-minute conversion from 2-D to 3-D is complete.” That was complete news to us.
On June 11th, 2010 we went ahead and emailed Goodman again, but we were not holding our breath.
Dear Mr. Goodman,
We wanted to write to touch base with you regarding our previous emails. It has been over a month since we last heard from you, and since then we have not heard anything from your office regarding a screening of this film, or any meeting to discuss its cultural sensitivity and impact on Paramount’s policies for diversity. These concerns were brought to Paramount’s attention–and to your personal attention–many, many months ago. Thousands of members of the public are still waiting for the production of The Last Airbender and Paramount to address our concerns.
The staff of Racebending.com
Mr. Goodman wrote back to us ten days later on June 21st to schedule a screening for Racebending.com and the Asian American community on June 28th, two days before the film’s premiere. This was hardly the early screening promised to Asian American leaders in November 2010. Racebending.com staff members were able to attend this screening and give our feedback to two Paramount representatives present after the screening. Unfortunately, the Paramount representatives refused to disclose their names or positions at Paramount. We were not sure if we were truly heard. We tried to follow up with our concerns with Mr. Goodman, but all emails sent since June 28th have received no response.
Ultimately, we were very disappointed and appalled by the depiction of people of color and women in The Last Airbender. Racebending.com and other Asian American advocacy groups staged a live protest of the film on it’s opening day, July 1st, 2010.
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