From eggs to film: A Japanese-American studio head

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He started in 1994, overseeing the studio’s interest in theme park operator Six Flags. Gradually he tacked on more responsibilities, coming to direct the company’s efforts distributing movies on discs and over digital formats and helping to guide strategy. In 2005, Tsujihara became president of the studio’s newly created home entertainment unit overseeing movies and video games.

Over the years, he’s gained a reputation for being a savvy-yet-personable businessman. He’s helped brainstorm key company strategies. He pushed the studio to be the first to sell movie discs compatible with UltraViolet, a system of recording disc purchases in online lockers so they can be played over the Internet. The fledgling system has had its hiccups, but Tsujihara believes it’s a way to transition consumers from disc purchases to digital ones _ and return the industry to growth in the next few years.

Even amid all the deal-making, Tsujihara has never lost sight of his roots. In 2006, filmmaker Kerry Yo Nakagawa sent him a rough cut of “American Pastime,” a low-budget movie about Japanese American internees who played baseball inside the camps. Tsujihara took it home for Christmas and showed it to his mother, Miyeko (“Mickey”), who is 85. She was deeply moved. He brought Warner Bros. in as a distributor and helped the movie get seen in more theaters and on TV networks such as ESPN Classic. The studio even set up a night for the Dodgers pro baseball team to promote the film.

“He moved mountains for this movie,” Nakagawa said. “If we didn’t have a friend like Kevin, it probably wouldn’t have found a distributor.”

For Nakagawa, Tsujihara’s promotion ranks way up there with other big Japanese-American firsts _ like the first congressman, Sen. Daniel Inouye, or the first to board a shuttle into space, Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka.

“It gives me tremendous, tremendous pride,” Nakagawa said.

Even so, people who study the portrayal of Asians in movies and TV shows say they don’t expect Tsujihara’s appointment will result in a big change on screen.

In recent years, a handful of TV shows have already embraced Asians in big roles, such as Mindy Kaling of Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” and Steven Yeun of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” But many decisions about casting and storylines will be made long before they reach Tsujihara’s desk.

Mike Le, a spokesman for Racebending.com, a website that advocates for diversity, said diversity “isn’t something that just happens because you have an Asian CEO.”

As for Hollywood’s executive ranks, according to studies they are less racially diverse than the rest of corporate America. A 2010 survey of Fortune 500 companies by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey found that 1 in 20 executives in the media and entertainment business were minorities, compared to 1 in 10 overall.

A separate study in 2012 by the nonprofit group, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics Inc., found that just 2 percent of the executive officers at Fortune 500 companies were of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, a group that makes up 5.2 percent of the U.S. population.

Steve Tao, a TV producer at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, said Tsujihara’s appointment proves there’s been progress in the industry. A group he chairs called the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment encourages Asian-Americans to take up acting, writing and producing and helps provide training, contacts and opportunities. He said the appointment shows there are more Asian-Americans in executive ranks, ready to take on leadership roles.

“It just happened that Kevin was the most qualified,” Tao said. “It’s the way diversity is supposed to work.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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