Academy Award nominations for producers usually conjure up images of endless job opportunities and immediate financial success. But Renee Tajima-Pena, one of the producers of the 1988 feature documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” found her nomination followed by unemployment checks, years without income and even the temporary abandonment of a project close to her heart.
After successful fundraising, including large grants from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, Tajima-Pena set off across the country to film her new feature docu “My America … or Honk If You Love Buddha,” a road movie that chronicles her investigation into the past and current status of Asians in America. But soon after returning, Tajima-Pena found herself over-budget.
“I had to take about nine months off and take another job producing a show for PBS to pay for a little more editing time and apply for some more grants,” she says. “I earned enough money to pay off debts and saved enough to go back to editing. Then I went two years without any income and another six months collecting unemployment. It was really hard.”
However, with the “requisite” credit cards, grants from additional foundations and about $10,000 in private contributions from people who had seen her previous work, Tajima-Pena was able to raise the money to finish her film. “I could have made the film cheaper and faster, but I just wouldn’t have been as happy about it,” she says. “I kept getting to a certain point, then there’d be a screening and I’d decide I just needed to work a little more on it. There was finally a point where I realized there was nothing more I could do, so I finished it.”
One of the first things Tajima-Pena did was submit “My America” to the Sundance Film Festival. She found that experience more stressful than making the film. “The screening room is on the corner of Ocean and Santa Monica Boulevard in Santa Monica, and every time I drove by there I’d think, ‘Are they watching it?,’ ” she says. “It was so nerve-wracking. I was a mess.” Not only was the film accepted, it won the documentary cinematography award.
Putting “My America” in the can was not the end of Tajima-Pena’s work on the project. On the advice of friends who were also filmmakers, she decided on self-distribution and marketing. She aimed her marketing first at Asian-American schools and community groups across the country, including an opening night at the Directors Guild for the Asian-Pacific Film Festival.
“I could go to one of the other festivals and be one of many, or go to Asian-American venues and have big gala premieres,” she explains. “I always go to the community screenings, and half the time I’m related to someone in the audience.” Tajima-Pena also arranged for the film to have its first theatrical run, scheduled for September at the Laemmle Grande in Los Angeles. And she put together and distributed the press kits and screening videos.
The burden should lighten slightly next spring when the film is broadcast nationally on PBS, which gained rights to the project domestically with the roughly $300,000 it contributed before production.
Tajima-Pena hopes the major income will come from foreign television sales. She thinks the Sundance showing, theatrical runs and press reviews will build a cachet for the film that will help sell it abroad.
Tajima-Pena says her films usually lead to other jobs, and although she’s accepted high-paying television jobs in the past, she’s never been happier. “I’m always worried about paying off my debts and raising enough money to shoot my next film.”
“When I started making films in the ’80s, I wanted to be an overnight success by the time I was 30, and then I hit 30, and it wasn’t going to happen,” she says. “I’ve since just grown to appreciate the craft and try to make good films.”