QUENTIN LEE: THE LIBERATION OF “ETHAN MAO”

Your films bring a depth and scope of maturity and sensitivity to issues relating to the Asian-American and gay communities, which are two demographic segments that Hollywood conspicuously overlooks. Why do you think Hollywood is not making films that focus on these two segments of the population? ^ I suppose that both Asian-Asian American and gay and lesbian films are developing markets that are perceived to be too niché or narrowly commercial for Hollywood. The gay and lesbian market is significantly growing, while the Asian-American market is still at its nascence. Hollywood is interested in making films that make a lot of money, not a little money. So it’s really just a matter of economics.

Your company Margin Films theatrically distributed several intriguing and critically acclaimed features, including your own “Shopping for Fangs” and the films “Bugis Street,” “Flow” and “The Four Faces of Eve.” Yet you decided to opt out of the theatrical distribution business. What were the circumstances that lead you to withdraw as a distributor? ^ Distribution is just a very tough business, and on top of that, I was doing most of the work on very little capital resources. It’s just tough to make films and distribute films at the same time, so I decided to opt out and focus on filmmaking and production instead. When you have limited resources and time, you have to make some choices, and I decided that making films is more important to me than distributing films.

From your experiences both as an independent filmmaker and as a former distributor, how do you view the state of today’s independent film business? Can genuinely independent filmmakers and boutique distributors find commercial success on the theatrical and DVD circuits? Or is the proverbial deck stacked against them? ^ Independent filmmaking is always very exciting. As a filmmaker, you have a lot more freedom in making independent films. Then the question comes which is, after you’ve made the film how do you go market the film? I believe in low budget filmmaking, because the challenge is how do you make a movie for a small budget and then try to make a lot of money with it. I’m still learning the market, but there has always been successful stories about how a small film makes it big. I have a lot of hope and faith.

Your truly wonderful 2001 feature “Drift” had a very small theatrical release. Why weren’t exhibitors falling over themselves to book this film? ^ Every independent film without stars and a huge advertising budget is an uphill battle to book. I guess I just got a little exhausted in having to constantly hound exhibitors about it. If you’re doing it by yourself, it’s just a very emotionally taxing job. Booking your own film a lot of times makes you take things very personally and can be very tough. In the case of “Drift,” I just did the a couple of theatrical markets to get the reviews and quotes and then let Wellspring take care of the rest on its video release.

What was the genesis of Ethan Mao? And were there any autobiographical elements in either the story line or the title character? ^ I was waiting for financing for “Campus Ghost Story” when the idea came about. A friend suggested that I should make something really edgy like a gay Asian version of “Falling Down.” I also remembered how my little sister left home because of an argument with my stepmom…and I thought what would it be like if I were a teenager and got kicked out of the house because I was gay. In fact, a lot of my younger gay friends had this experience…and it’s still very much a reality for young gay teenagers, not to mention gay Asian teens.

So “Ethan Mao” came about. I want to make something fun and edgy about a gay Asian teenager who gets kicked out of the house because he’s gay…and then goes back to confront his family. Sort of a revenge thriller fantasy against your own family.

Both “Drift” and “Ethan Mao” played in a wide number of gay and lesbian film festivals. Have you found this niche festival circuit to be a professional viable route for securing industry connections and distributor and/or exhibitor notice? ^ Yes, niche festivals are vital to niche films. I started off showing my shorts in Asian American and gay and lesbian film festivals, so they are my roots and they are where I started my career. The way we’ve been doing “Ethan Mao” is to piggyback on a festival and then open it in the city. For example, “Ethan Mao” has just played the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and we’re opening it in San Francisco a couple of weeks later. For a niche film, you also get more targeted audience and marketing muscle from a niche festival. So they are very important.

What are your next projects? ^ I’m still working on “Campus Ghost Story,” which is the project that never dies. Then I’m writing a few scripts. I’d like to make a horror film next, which is the genre that I grew up falling in love with.




Posted on April 8, 2005 in Interviews by
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