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August 20, 2016

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Producer shares what it takes to make great media

Q: Is this the first time you’ve been invited to be a judge for the International Emmy Awards? What are your criteria for the productions?

A: I am indeed honored to be a judge for the International Emmy Awards for the first time, and particularly excited that the judging is being done in Shanghai. I am a long-time voting member of the Motion Picture Academy (the Oscars) and I think my criteria are the same: Is the script engaging and compelling? Are the actors well cast? Is the program crisply directed and are the shots well composed?

Q: In your opinion, what makes a successful TV production?

A: All of the criteria mentioned above: great writing, acting and emotional engagement. The interesting thing today is that television writing is often superior to what we find in film. Movies have become so much about special effects and spectacle — they’re all tent poles and franchises — while television actually explores characters and emotions. But we also see spectacular television like “Game of Thrones” that offers great stories and is at the same time gorgeous to watch. If anything, there is too much good TV to keep up — current favorites are “Fargo,” “Stranger Things,” “Veep,” “House of Cards,” “Mr Robot,” “The Americans” and “Transparent.”

Q: In this era of new media, what are the new challenges and opportunities for TV productions?

A: There is so much competition for “eye time,” and so many different screens to watch things on. I believe last year there was something like 4,400 hours of scripted television in the US. How to keep up? Are we at “peak TV?” And yet, streaming services like Netflix continue to deliver these amazing shows which you just have to watch to be part of the pop culture conversation. Same for HBO and Showtime. And you can’t discount the networks for mass comfort programming. Meanwhile, when they’re not watching YouTube stars, kids are chasing Pokemon. No wonder the motion picture box office is flat everywhere except for China.

Q: A lot of TV programs in China are feeling increased pressure from viewership ratings. How do TV producers and directors in the United States find inspiration and “survive” the competition?

A: It always starts with the script. A great concept. Even a great adaptation. Who would have thought the movie “Fargo” could be re-invented and sustained the way it has been in the series? Or the inspiration that “Stranger Things” takes from our nostalgia for 1980s films? Certain themes and emotions are universal — South Korean dramas are specific yet speak to the widest possible audience because we recognize ourselves in them — or at least more entertaining (and better looking) versions of our own lives.

Q: A lot of online series and reality shows are gaining increasing popularity in China these days. Will they reshape the landscape of the TV industry?

A: They already have, just as they have in the West. Both are less expensive to produce and can be quite emotionally engaging. But do not underestimate the next generation of Chinese show runners who will eventually create originally scripted programming to capture the mass audience.

Q: China is expected to replace the United States in a few years as the world’s largest film market. As a scholar and veteran film and TV producer, what’s your suggestion to the burgeoning film industry of China?

A: There is no question that China is the most important market in the world. It grew 49 percent last year, and this year had its first US billion-dollar month (February) and the biggest box office week in world history (US$548 million over Chinese New Year). But while it may overtake North America in pure box office terms, it remains a domestic market because Chinese films do not have the kind of global appeal as Hollywood has enjoyed for over a hundred years. I like Ang Lee’s recent observation at the Shanghai International Film Festival: “slow down.”

I’m paraphrasing here, but he said China needs to develop its talent, its crafts people, its writers and directors. I know this will happen, but as with Hollywood which started over a century ago, this will take time.

Q: What are your educational goals and objectives for your students?

A: I started the Academy for Creative Media System at my home state at the University of Hawaii ( for two reasons — to diversify our local service/tourism economy with living-wage jobs in the global creative economy, and to provide the opportunity for our students to tell their stories to the widest possible audience.

This is made possible by technological advances and falling economic barriers. For 11 years, students from one of our programs have been making short films with students from Shanghai University, both here in Shanghai and in Honolulu. I hope that in the future we have many more collaborations — both for students and professionals. It would be great to have a co-production agreement between Hawaii and China.


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