That time I bought out a movie theater to show ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

It all began with a cover story from The Hollywood Reporter entitled “The Stakes Are High for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — And That’s the Point. The article chronicles how filmmaker Jon Chu and writer Kevin Kwan had to make a tough decision about how/where to create a film version of Crazy Rich Asians:

Behind one door: Warner Bros., which had outbid other traditional studios with a distribution offer for Crazy Rich Asians a week earlier. Behind the other: Netflix, the great disrupter, which had come in hot the following Monday, dangling complete artistic freedom, a greenlighted trilogy and huge, seven-figure-minimum paydays for each stakeholder, upfront. Now Warners had come back with not so much a counteroffer as an ultimatum, giving the filmmakers just 15 minutes to pick an option.[…]

Kwan and Chu had already tried to rationalize the cash grab: “Maybe we donate a percentage of our extra income to great causes,” Chu recalls the two having discussed the night before. “But where does that money go? Right back to trying to get to this position of getting us [Asians] on the big screen.”

No wonder Kwan, 44, was nervous. “I could sense every lawyer on the call shaking their heads: ‘Ugh, these stupid idealists.’ Here, we have a chance for this gigantic payday instantaneously,” he says. “But Jon and I both felt this sense of purpose. We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button.” Adds Chu: “We were gifted this position to make a decision no one else can make, which is turning down the big payday for rolling the dice [on the box office] — but being invited to the big party, which is people paying money to go see us.”

Asian Americans have been starved for big screen representation for decades. Not since The Joy Luck Club was released 25 years ago have we seen a film by a Hollywood studio set in modern times, starring an all Asian and Asian-American cast. Crazy Rich Asians would be that film for us, and Kwan and Chu both felt it was worth gambling millions of dollars on giving it a splashy, theatrical release in an industry where those types of things still have cultural cachet.

People often tell you to vote with your dollars, but when you’re an Asian American, you only get a few chances per century to financially express to Hollywood the types of stories you want to see. So when I heard about this story, I asked myself: What can I do to help? How can I show Hollywood that diversity on screen and behind the camera can mean big business?

I’d heard that there was a movement (#GoldOpen) to buy out theaters to show the film. I’d never done anything like this before, but after seeing the movie and being deeply moved by it, my wife and I both agreed that this being part of the #GoldOpen movement was a tangible (but not completely insane) way that we could show that we wanted people to Crazy Rich Asians seriously.

So I bought out a small theater in downtown Seattle to show the film this Saturday.

I talked about my rationale for doing so on this week’s episode of the Slashfilmcast, but I didn’t really expect it to make waves. Next thing I knew I was being featured in Seattle Times story on the subject, then doing interviews with local news stations King5 and KIRO (click the links to watch).

I’ll have a lot more to say about the film itself next week, but for now I just wanted to express my gratitude for the kindness and conscientiousness of all these local journalists who had me on to talk about the movement, not to mention all of my friends and acquaintances who have encouraged me on this little adventure.

It matters which stories society thinks are worth telling. It matters to see yourself and your lived experience represented on the big screen. Representation matters. I hope we can tell this to the world this weekend.

Quitting Twitter

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[I’m quitting Twitter but I’m launching a newsletter in its place. Subscribe above! I’ll plan to cross-post my emails to this blog when it makes sense, which it does for the one below]

Why we’re here

Twitter’s problems with harassment go way back, but in the past few weeks, it’s made some decisions that have forced me to reconsider my relationship with the platform. First, this cryptic message from Seth Rogen about Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey:

While outsiders may perceive Twitter’s verification system as impartial, it’s not. Twitter only verifies people who have reached a specific notoriety level or who hold specific jobs (e.g. journalist, actor, etc.). Verified users get features that unverified users don’t. While Twitter claims verification isn’t an endorsement, in the past, it has removed verification as a means of punishing bad actors.

The fact that Dorsey did not seem to care about verifying white supremacists, even when one of the most popular users of his platform was chiding him about it, was a red flag to me.

Then, the Info Wars wars.

If you don’t know, Info Wars is a despicable media organization whose main claim to fame these days is that they propagated a conspiracy theory about how the Sandy Hook massacre was staged. This has brought untold misery upon the already-suffering families of this senseless tragedy.

Last Monday, every major tech platform took steps to remove Info Wars content. Every platform, that is, except Twitter. In a series of tweets, Dorsey defended his decisionmaking:

The next day, Dorsey appeared on Hannity to further explain why Alex Jones hadn’t been banned. Dorsey’s justifications were soon revealed to be complete nonsense and hypocrisy.

I don’t know why this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, but maybe it solidified the notion for me that Dorsey just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the extremely basic notion that banning Jones would be far more effective than relying on journalists to rebut his remarks. He doesn’t get that it’s a reasonable position to want your platform to be free of toxicity, and to take steps to make that happen. He doesn’t get that sometimes you need to make a moral choice.

To me, Twitter’s inability to ban Alex Jones was a litmus test. Aja Romano puts it really well in her article at Vox discussing it:

Jones represents what is perhaps the clearest opportunity to draw a moral line that Twitter will ever have. Forget the Nazis for a second; Alex Jones is a man who has seen his followers harass the parents of dead 6-year-olds and continued to egg them on, using the completely fabricated claim that these parents’ grief is just an act. There is nothing redeemable here; there’s no useful idea, no political concept worth debating — there’s only a lie told purely in order to spread harm, confusion, disorder, and pain. Jones is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Twitter’s choice to defend his place on its site, however, signifies everything about what Twitter is choosing to be.

I couldn’t get these words out of my head after I read them: “There is nothing redeemable here; there’s no useful idea, no political concept worth debating.” If Twitter can’t draw the line at Alex Jones, it has no line.

Why quit?

When writer Lindy West quit Twitter, she wrote a piece for The Guardian explaining why. The whole thing is worth reading, but two points stuck out to me. The first is that by using Twitter, we are essentially helping it to generate value and revenue:

Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.

The second is that we wouldn’t be willing to accept this behavior from any other organization. Why should we do so with Twitter?

I’m pretty sure “ushered in kleptocracy” would be a dealbreaker for any other company that wanted my business. If my gynecologist regularly hosted neo-Nazi rallies in the exam room, I would find someone else to swab my cervix. If I found out my favourite coffee shop was even remotely complicit in the third world war, I would – bare minimum – switch coffee shops; I might give up coffee altogether.

Twitter has added so much to my life. It’s allowed me to have a career. It’s introduced me to tons of amazing people, many of whom have become my collaborators. I used to love the platform and enjoy using it. But until its leaders demonstrate the willingness to make incredibly basic moral choices like banning Alex Jones, you won’t find my work on there.

I realize it’s a privilege to not “need” to use Twitter, so I don’t begrudge anyone whatever decisions they make. Everyone has a different place to draw their own line, and people often do so in different ways with different social platforms. I don’t judge anyone on this matter. Just want to explain my position on it.

And hey, it’s possible Twitter could reverse course tomorrow and I’ll be back on there. But until that happens, you’ll find me on Facebook, on Instagram, on TinyLetter, on YouTube, and here on my blog. Just not on Twitter.

Things to do Before Your Twitter Account is Suspended or Banned


Two days ago,  I was shocked to learn that, after 3-4 years in good standing, my Twitter account was suspended with no warning. Typically a suspension means you’ve violated one of Twitter’s rules, but it’s also possible that Twitter will suspend you if it detects that your account may have been hacked.

In my case, I was apparently accidentally caught in a dragnet for spam accounts. Twitter support got back to me and within 24 hours, my account had been rightfully restored. The whole incident did get me thinking, though. What if things had gone a different way and Twitter had accidentally deleted my account, or ruled incorrectly that my account WAS a spam account? What recourse would I have? Not much. More importantly, without access to my Twitter account, how would my life be worse?

There were so many things I wish I’d done! So many replies I could’ve made! So many direct messages I should have sent! But seriously, when I realized that I had no control over my account’s fate, I did wish I’d done the following things before I got suspended:

Back up the list of people who you are following – If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to “start over” on twitter again, the biggest loss is of course your followers. Over the past few years, I’ve been grateful to garner some pretty amazing people on my follower list, and it’s entirely possible that, even if I were to restart my account, those people might just never get around to following me again.

However, an almost equally big loss would have been the list of people who I follow. Over time, I’ve curated this list to be a group of users who I can depend on for interesting insights, opinions, ideas, and news. Re-creating this from scratch would have been a pain. I’d recommend you either copy-and-paste your list somewhere, or create a backup account from which you can also follow these people. This way, if your account is ever compromised, you can at least receive the same updates you’re always used to.

Back up your tweets – Twitter now allows you the option to download an excel spreadsheet of every single tweet you’ve ever made from your account (it’s right there under “Settings”). For some, reading through this spreadsheet might be a cringe-inducing exercise of self-examination. But regardless of your emotional reaction, it’s nice to have a record of everything you’ve ever said or done. If you live your life in public, this can make for a surprisingly useful reference document when you’re trying to remember major milestones.

Write more often on a personal blog/website at a domain name you own – Internet god Dave Winer has been issuing this rallying cry for years, and it can basically be summed up as follows: it is important to be the master of your own domain. In a recent post, Winer writes:

[M]aybe if more people stick to the open web, and resist the pull of the silos, it will force the silos to be a little nicer to the people who create their success. Think about that when Twitter does its IPO next month. How much of your creativity did you pour into their success, and how much do you get to participate in the windfall? Not very much? Then maybe you should learn from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely love Twitter and consider it an essential part of any online portfolio. On a personal note, the service has dramatically improved my life, my career, and the way I consume information. But if the newly-public Twitter makes decisions you don’t agree with or if your account is terminated by accident, all you’ll have left is the stuff online that you own. If that’s not a site/blog at a domain name with your name attached to it, then you may want to rethink where you are investing the bulk of your time.

The Magic Number? $75,000

Research shows that in the U.S., money correlates with happiness until you get to an income of about $75,000. After that, happiness returns diminish rapidly. The key is what you do after you hit $75,000:

Interestingly, and usefully, it turns out that what we do with our money plays a far more important role than how much money we make. Imagine three people each win $1 million in the lottery. Suppose one person attempts to buy every single thing he has ever wanted; one puts it all in the bank and uses the money only sparingly, for special occasions; and one gives it all to charity. At the end of the year, they all would report an additional $1 million of income. Many of us would follow the first person’s strategy, but the latter two winners are likely to get the bigger happiness bang for their buck.

The Ravages of AIDS

A powerful Reddit thread featuring the reflections of older people, many of them gay men, who were alive at the time and experienced the AIDS epidemic first-hand. Here’s the top-voted comment:

I was just coming out at the time that AIDS came into public awareness ( I was 25 at the time). I had moved to Denver to kind of find myself and figure things out…to get away from my hometown. Not knowing anyone in Denver, I of course started making friends. Unfortunately, what happened was that a few months after I’d make a friend, they’d pass away from complications of AIDS. I attended just over 20 funerals the first year I was there. It was a scary time. Not only the fear of AIDS, but I started getting to where I was afraid to try to make any friends knowing that the chance of them dying from AIDS was extremely high.

There was also the fear of not knowing the specifics of how the disease was transmitted. It was strongly believed at the time it was sexual, but there was no information on other methods of transmitting it…casual contact? kissing? sharing eating utensils? No one knew, and everyone in the gay community was afraid. Over time, AIDS wiped out an entire generation of gay men. This has had an effect on the more recent generations since people that would normally have been mentors, big brother figures, teachers, etc. were gone, so the younger generation lost out on the wisdom and experience of the previous one. The worst thing was when my first gay friend (and my best friend), came to me two years after I moved back home, that he had AIDS. He told me how scared he was, and that he didn’t want to die. He was one of the first group that was put on AZT as the one and only treatment at the time. He died 8 months later.

EDIT: Ok…so this is my very first posting on reddit. I’m OVERWHELMED by the responses. I had no idea it would take off like this! This has also brought me to tears many times…I have pushed all of this deep in the back of my mind for over two decades. Thank you everyone for your posts. It has really been healing for me to finally face the tragedy of the past, and at the same time, brought back a lot of very fond memories of the friends I’ve lost.

The First 30 Days

What is one year like in the life of David Chen? We’re all about to find out.

Earlier this year, a woman named Madeline released an interesting video on Vimeo. She had shot one second of video for every day of her life during the year 2011. I found the result to be unexpectedly inspiring and moving.

Several months later, /Filmcast listener and all-around awesome dude Cesar Kuriyama took to the stage at TED to unveil his own “one second every day project“, which he’d been filming every day for the 30th year of his life.

Kuriyama is passionate about the project and believes everyone should engage in it. I think the final result is fascinating, a seemingly endless series of context-less images. Context-less, that is, to everyone but the filmmaker. It’s a compelling snapshot of one’s life, a video that is evocative for the creator and intriguing and enigmatic for the viewer.

So, I’m pleased to announce that I am also undertaking this project. My birthday this year was May 20th, right around the same time I uprooted my life from Boston and moved to Seattle. Starting on that day, I have filmed one second of video every single day. Around this time next year, I’ll plan to publish the result, a chronicle of my first year here.

In doing this project, I’ve made a few observations about how best to approach it. First of all, I think this project works best when the second that you record is somehow representative of the day that you had, or at least, how you want to remember that day. In practice, this can get a bit tricky; often times the most interesting that happens to me is an interaction I have with someone else. While I can frequently “anticipate” when a good “second” will arrive, it’s often inopportune to whip out a camera and start recording. Secondly, it’s useful to record multiple seconds for each day, giving you the option to choose from a number of them. As a result, it’s also important to have a robust cataloging system for all of your “potential seconds.” Finally, I don’t have experience with this yet, but it sounds like it’s useful to create a master file for the final video, then stitch the videos together intermittently and continuously add them to that file, as opposed to doing them all at the end. Alternatively, one could also create videos for each month, then bind them all together in the end. I may end up going this path because it will allow me to release regular video content, but it also robs the final video of some of its uniqueness. We’ll see. 

As a proof-of-concept, I’ve stitched together my first 30 seconds, representing my first month here. You can find this video below:

When I began working on the project, I asked Cesar Kuriyama, “What if you do this every day for a year and the resulting video ends up being incredibly boring?”

Kuriyama responded, “That’s good! Because then you’ll look back on how boring your life was and you’ll resolve to change things.”

Not a bad point, that. I don’t know what the end result will motivate me to do. I can only hope it will show a life lived full, with love, laughter, and friends, a humble aspiration for the beginning of my new life.

[I am indebted to Cesar Kuriyama for his counsel and for helping me to establish a workflow for pulling these clips together. Be sure to check out his other work.]

What’s Wrong with ‘Kony 2012’

The “Kony 2012” viral video created by the Invisible Children organization has taken the internet by storm, accumulating over 55 million views since it was released just a few days ago:

While on its face, the video appears to be an innocuous call-to-action (or a call-to-awareness, at least) about the crimes of the Central African LRA-leader Joseph Kony, online observers have raised several issues with this campaign, including its patronizing imperialistic tone and the fact that Invisible Children have not proven themselves incredibly responsible with their finances.

In their analysis of the video at The Atlantic, Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub describe why campaigns like these frequently fail to achieve any substantive good. In fact, these campaigns have typically exacerbated the problem because they fail to communicate the vast complexities inherent in these situations:

The problem is that these campaigns mobilize generalized concern — a demand to do something. That isn’t enough to counterbalance the costs of interventions, because Americans’ heartlessness or apathy was never the biggest problem. Taking tough action against groups, like the LRA, that are willing to commit mass atrocities will inevitably turn messy. Soldiers will be killed, sometimes horribly. (Think Somalia.) Military advice and training to the local forces attempting to suppress atrocities can have terrible unforeseen consequences. Consider the hundreds of victims of the LRA’s 2008 “Christmas Massacre,” their murderous response to a failed, U.S.-supported attack by Ugandan and Congolese government forces. International Criminal Court investigations often prompt their targets to step up attacks on civilians and aid workers, in an attempt to gain leverage with the court. (Both Kony and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have tried that method.)

Their piece is a must-read and I agree with almost everything in it. The one point I take issue with can be summed up in the following excerpt from their piece:

Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue — most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes — and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions.

In other words, Cronin-Furman and Taub imagine citizens with a limited “reservoir” of attention, and conclude that an ineffectual campaign such as Kony 2012 drains precious resources from that reservoir.

While I understand that on a basic level, people only have 24 hours per day and must allocate that limited time in prudent fashion, I disagree that campaigns like Kony 2012 are necessarily harmful because of this. In an ideal world, Cronin-Furman and Taub would be correct, and people would be so busy with activism that it would be a crime for them to waste their time entertaining the viral videos of Invisible Children. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in one with LOLCAT pictures, and Youtube videos of skateboarders injuring themselves, and iPad announcements and so forth. ‘Kony 2012’ pierces that world and perhaps plants the seeds of activism inside of people (even as it’s also planting some seeds of misinformation).

There are a whole boatload of issues with the ‘Kony 2012’ video. The campaign and the efforts of Invisible Children will probably not directly effect the good they are hoping to. But maybe they will cause a politically concerned citizen to educate him/herself on the topic, to explore it more deeply, and to commit to helping in ways that are actually meaningful. And that’s more than many of us can ever say about our own efforts in social justice.

The New Normal

From The New York Times comes this report of pregnancy outside of wedlock:

Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.

More and more, marriage is becoming a means through which we see social, political, and economic power dynamics play out.