On Location: Producing “Red Doors”

Selling our Souls

While our film was making its festival run, we were also busy meeting with distributors to try and sell our film. Flush with awards from Tribeca, CineVegas and Outfest, we were optimistic about our chances and reached out to all the usual indie distribution prospects: Miramax, Warner Independent, Fox Searchlight, Goldwyn, Focus. I’ll admit, visions of bidding wars did pass through my head on more than one occasion.

Then reality set in. We got a few nibbles, but mostly silence. We managed to get a few meetings, but what we heard turned our stomachs. Unanimously, the distributors were very complimentary about our film. They all “loved it,” but they didn’t want to buy it. When we asked them why, they very bluntly told us that “Asian-American films don’t sell.”

Apparently, unlike African-American and Hispanic-American films that have crossed over, Asian-American films remain an ethnic niche. According to the distributors we talked to, the problem lies in the fact that Asian-American audiences are too assimilated. They don’t go out of their way to support Asian-American content; they watch Pirates of the Caribbean just like everybody else. Without the base support of its native audience, Asian-American films usually don’t have the legs to last in theaters long enough for mainstream crowds to “discover” them.

It’s not really racism because at the end of the day, the only color that Hollywood sees is green. If Saving Face or Better Luck Tomorrow had made $50 million like Diary of a Mad Black Woman did, then there would be distributor interest.

Interestingly enough, the lesbian angle for Red Doors was a selling point.

For better or for worse, distributors can point to Kissing Jessica Stein (a modest success that grossed $7 million) and feel comfortable about investing in a film with lesbian themes. Feature film distributors are a myopic, risk-averse bunch. They have databases with every film ever released, and whenever they are considering whether or not to acquire a film, they run projections based on comparable films in their database. The result is a lot of the same-old, same-old, with the rare gay cowboy movie thrown in as a flash of brilliance.

Outfest ended up being great for us in a number of ways. In addition to the great screening and winning awards, we got our first distributor offers afterward. Most of those offers included a guaranteed theatrical run — something that was very important to us.

Many independent films fail to make it into theaters is because it is so expensive to distribute theatrically. Print and advertising costs often dwarf a film’s original budget. When you look at box office numbers, only half of that goes to the distributor because the exhibitor keeps half.

Most films are not profitable until DVD or foreign sales, meaning that theatrical release is a loss-leader and a very expensive way to market DVDs.

We chose to release with a small, new company called Polychrome Pictures that has a video output deal with Warner Home Video. We were Polychrome’s second theatrical release.

Screw the MPAA

We were ecstatically pushing ahead with our theatrical release preparations when we ran into our first roadblock: the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA is the organization behind the “voluntary” rating system, but it is well-known that films that choose to be “Not Rated” have a hard time getting into theaters.

So, dutifully we filled out the paperwork, submitted the documentation and paid our fee to get our MPAA rating, fully expecting a PG-13 verdict.

We were shocked and angry when the MPAA gave Red Doors an R rating. When we asked why, they vaguely referred to a scene where the teenage daughter holds up a sex toy while she unloads a duffle bag full of sex toys in the room of the boy she is playing a prank on. Yes, the sex toy is anatomically correct and quite large in size, but it wasn’t being used in a sexual manner at all, and the scene was onscreen time for about three seconds. Other than that, there is no profanity, no nudity, no drug use and no violence in our film.

Let me take a step back and explain why we were so intent on getting a PG-13. There is still a pretty big box office discrepancy favoring films rated PG-13 over R.

Our film is a dark comedy about a Chinese-American family. We knew that in order to maximize our ticket sales, we needed parents to feel comfortable about bringing their kids to see the film. We were also counting on a strong teenage contingent. Older Asian Americans are notoriously prissy, and we didn’t want to scare them off.

Finally, we wanted our film to get good shelf placement at Wal-Mart and Target when we come out on DVD. All of these things are correlated to the MPAA rating.

With a belly full of righteous indignation, Georgia and I flew out to Los Angeles on our own dime to defend our film in a one-shot appeals process. During the appeal, the MPAA convenes a panel consisting of theater owners and studio executives, who first watch the film and then sit through debate-style presentations from the filmmakers and a rep from the MPAA. There needs to be a quorum of 12 members present for the vote to count, and you need a two-thirds majority to overturn the MPAA’s original ruling.

After the screening was over, the MPAA representative made a quick presentation explaining the questionable sex toy scene. We were given five minutes for rebuttal, where we dissected the MPAA guidebook word for word to show that we did not deserve an R rating.

The MPAA rep had two minutes to respond, and she broke one of the rules of the debate process: She told the jurors that the MPAA had never condoned sex toys in a PG-13 film before and that it was an automatic R rating on that basis.

While we were preparing for the appeal, the MPAA had told us very firmly that we were not allowed to use other films or other MPAA rulings as precedent in our arguments because each film was supposed to be judged in its own context.

We took the woman’s transgression as a green light to spew out our research: A number of PG-13 films featured phalluses and sex toys including Parenthood, The Company and all of the Austin Powers movies (all studio films, by the way). We closed our argument by pointing out that no Asian-American film in recent memory has been released with less than an R rating and while we weren’t claiming discrimination, we did believe that our community deserved a film they could take their kids to.

In the end, we won a majority vote (eight to six), but not enough to overturn the ruling.

As we were leaving the theater, one juror stopped to talk with us. He said that typically he just votes on the side of the MPAA because he assumes that they know how to do their jobs, but this time he voted for us. He said that he assumed the lesbian content was what gave us the R rating, so he was surprised when they brought up the sex toy, which he didn’t even remember.

It was a terrible trip. Georgia and I were out $500 each for the plane tickets, and we were still stuck with the dreaded R rating. I managed to joke to Mia as we were leaving that if I knew they were going to give us an R rating, we should have put more tits and ass in the film.