Program nurtues native filmmakers

Lee leaves Legendary for Hawaii

With a Chinese father and a Scotch-Irish mother, first-generation-Hawaiian-turned-Hollywood film executive Chris Lee knows a thing or two about reaching across the cultural divide.

Now, after stints as president of production at TriStar and Columbia Pictures, as well as more recently president of Legendary Pictures, Lee has returned to Hawaii to help cultivate a native crop of filmmakers, digital animators and computer game designers.

In 2002, Lee spearheaded the founding of the Academy of Creative Media at the U. of Hawaii. The goal, says Lee, “is to get away from being Hollywood-centric” and follow the New Zealand model of supporting projects like “Whale Rider” that explore the richness of local culture: a culture whose native language was “almost completely extinguished” all the way up to the 1970s by the missionary legacy.

“Hawaiians weren’t allowed to speak Hawaiian,” Lee notes. Today, with increasing numbers of students enrolled in all-Hawaiian immersion schools, Lee says the Academy of Creative Media is a strong backer of native-language films and computer games to boot.

Some 300 short films have been produced by students so far, and for the third year, the Hawaii Intl. Film Festival will host an ACM night. (This year six shorts made the cut.) ACM is the fastest-growing program at the U. of H., with 254 students taking classes.

Still, Lee recognizes that in a global economy, no man is an island: He points to New Zealand fostering the likes of Peter Jackson — someone willing to work with Hollywood but on his own terms — as a worthy example to follow.

On the digital animation/gaming front, Lee wants ACM to create a labor pool of homegrown talent, so that when a LucasArts-type concern opens a new studio — as that company did in 2004 in Singapore — Hawaii is a viable option. He hopes locals will have greater opportunities beyond tourism’s “making beds and pouring iced tea.”