AAPI Netflix Execs Weigh in on Hollywood’s Representation Problems: ‘An Enormous Amount of Work to Do’

Netflix Lisa Nishimura Rochelle King Spencer

When Netflix launched its streaming platform in Japan nearly six years ago and began curating collections of television series and films, there were some moods that just didn’t translate to English. Rochelle King, Netflix’s VP of creative production, recalls one woman on her team who suggested they use the Japanese term honobono, which roughly means “relaxed” or “heartwarming,” as a tag for some of its content that best captured a “mellow kind of feeling.” Similarly, the same staffer, after conversations with a colleague, suggested the platform incorporate the Tagalog terms kilig and hugot — “feel-good romance” and “painful nostalgia,” respectively — to label projects for its Filipino audience.

Incorporating those culturally resonant terms has had “great benefits” so far, said King, who is Japanese American and grew up in Hawaii. For her, it speaks to the need to both hire and amplify a diverse array of voices within a company.

“It’s one thing to hire a bunch of folks… but you also have to make sure that they feel empowered and have the space to make that impact on our members,” she said. “That would have never happened if we instead had someone who was trying to just assimilate and only use American words.”

The significance of inclusion in a studio or streaming company’s corporate ranks has come into sharp focus this past year, amid Black Lives Matter protests and a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, as Hollywood has been forced to take a look in the mirror and reckon with its own longstanding issues with representation. And as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes to a close next week, three Asian American Netflix execs spoke with Variety about their experiences from within an entertainment industry that, in many ways, is still catching up on the work it has to do.

“From my perspective, I think that we’re in a place now where there’s finally real recognition that the lack of representation is a problem,” said Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s head of documentary features and independent film. While the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s latest study on Asian American on-screen representation, for example, was discouraging, she says “it does service to validate those from some of the marginalized communities — that their feelings are justified, and it gives individuals a starting point.”

The report she is referring to, published last week, examined 1,300 popular films from 2007 to 2019 and found that only 44 of those films, or 3.4%, had an Asian or Pacific Islander lead. Only six of those featured an API woman as a lead, and a third of those 44 titles were Dwayne Johnson movies. The USC study noted that Netflix’s films featured the highest number of Asian American and Pacific Islander leads, movies with proportional representation, and API directors, producers and casters across the nine studios it evaluated. But while different companies shined in different areas, there was “no clear ‘top performer’” among them, according to study authors Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, Dr. Stacy L. Smith and Inclusion Initiative.

“On the corporate side, I feel, like everybody else, we have an enormous amount of work to do,” said Nishimura, who earlier this month penned a candid reflection on the challenges of growing up Asian American, as Netflix launched its AAPI hub. “But I believe that as a company, we understand that this business, writ large, has arrived at this place of inequity of representation, because of really longstanding systems and beliefs that feed those systems. So I think that that means that we need to collectively evaluate how best to address this at every point, nose to tail.”

That means building talent pipelines and implementing training programs and writing workshops, she said, in addition to beefing up casting efforts.

Netflix’s VP of finance, investor relations and corporate development, Spencer Wang, believes that the streamer, which touts diversity and inclusion as a core value, bears a “responsibility to take a position on some of those issues,” and seeing it do so has been a positive. (Netflix, notably, was one of the first Hollywood entities to speak up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement from its corporate platform a year ago, tweeting that “to be silent is to be complicit.”)

But even for him personally, taking a louder stance on sensitive issues has been a “work in progress.” He’s not much for speaking out on social media, but the disturbing recent wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans spurred him to post a few observations. He noted, interestingly, that none of his white friends had reached out to see how he was faring; only his friends who were Black checked in on him.

“What it made me reflect on was No. 1: we as Asians also need to be better allies to other underrepresented groups and communities and people of color. If want their support, we’ve got to do the same,” said Wang. “Secondly, I really struggled with if I even wanted to post something like that, because I’m a pretty laidback guy, and it’s not my style to be particularly political. But I was upset, and I just realized, if we don’t talk about it as a community, who is going to talk about it for us?”

He does “worry a little bit” about Asian Americans not being widely considered for senior leadership roles in the entertainment industry given the cultural tendency to be more soft-spoken and aim for harmony and consensus in decision-making.

“It’s a different style than traditional corporate America,” he said. He believes his own company has done well in recognizing employee effectiveness over style, and is trying to use his own platform as a leader at Netflix to engage and mentor the AAPI execs there.

In 2021, Hollywood may be playing a bit of catch-up on the inclusion front, but Nishimura says that storytelling is the “connective tissue” that helps to build empathy and connection in celebrating every culture’s lived experience.

“It’s my feeling that whether it’s a drama or an escapist comedy, what they really want is to be able to connect with their characters in a meaningful and authentic way,” she said. “And thinking about the fact that we’re producing for a global audience, diversity in experience or depth and complexity of character — it’s not just a great story, it’s also really smart business.”