YouTube's Wong Fu Productions Debuts First Feature Film: "There’s Been a Culture Shift"

The first time they tried to mount a full-length movie, the trio of filmmakers known as Wong Fu Productions had been making online videos for five years ever since meeting as freshmen at UC San Diego in 2003. Their clips had built up a viral following, particularly among Asian Pacific Americans, but when they shopped their feature-length script around town they were met with a unanimous response: a movie with Asian American leads was “just not good business,” says Wong Fu’s Philip Wang.

So Wang and his Wong Fu cohorts Wesley Chan and Ted Fu shelved their theatrical aspirations and dedicated themselves to developing their digital presence through cinematic short films, whose execution often belied the shoestring or nonexistent budgets they were shot on. The self-taught filmmakers gained practical experience as they grew their YouTube channel to 2.4 million subscribers and 366 million views. Last spring they were ready to revisit their feature dreams, raising $358,308 on Indiegogo (to go with a $100,000 grant from APA media nonprofit Visual Communications) to write, direct and produce Everything Before Us – their first official feature film, and one that has bypassed the traditional routes of moviemaking.

“In the timespan [since the first attempt in 2008], crowdfunding became a thing, and streaming content has become so normal as well,” Wang tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s been a culture shift. That enabled us to say that now is the time.”

Everything Before Us, which opened the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on April 23, is a romantic drama that takes place in a parallel world of sorts, where relationship activity is monitored by a bureaucratic organization and “emotional integrity” scores affect financial and social prospects the way that credit scores do. The film also seems to take place in an alternate dimension where the ratio of Asian to non-Asian characters is flipped from what is commonly seen onscreen: It stars Aaron Yoo (The Tomorrow People, Disturbia), Brittany Ishibashi (Political Animals), Brandon Soo Hoo (From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, Tropic Thunder) and relative newcomer Victoria Park, with supporting turns from Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat, The Interview) and Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt).

The guys behind Wong Fu recognize the marketability hit that results from casually populating their stories – which seldom address race – with Asian faces, but insist that is both a non-conscious and a conscious choice.

“It does kind of suck that just because we put Asian Americans in it, it automatically becomes this odd thing,” says Wang, who co-directed Everything Before Us with Chan. “But it’s totally normal to us.”

Adds Chan: “We have a responsibility to our audience, who want us to perpetuate or strengthen Asian American [representation] in media.” He recalls that Justin Lin’s 2002 debut, the Asian-American crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow, was one such “groundbreaking” moment for the community. “We were in college when that came out, and there was almost a movement behind it where people felt it represented us like anyone else. Making this movie, we wanted to ignite that again. If we can portray Asian Americans in an honest light, then we’ll do that.”

Better Luck Tomorrow became MTV Films’ first-ever film acquisition, earning $3.8 million on a $250,000 production budget, but in the dozen years since, Asian and Asian American-centric fare has struggled to gain widespread distribution in the marketplace. So Wong Fu is again sidestepping conventional channels, inking a distribution deal with Vimeo to release Everything Before Us worldwide on June 3. The deal was brokered by Wong Fu’s management at East West Artists and Untitled, which also is in conversations with potential distribution partners in China.

The video platform approached the filmmakers late last year after their Indiegogo campaign nearly doubled their $200,000 goal. “Crowdfunding platforms are a great sourcing ground for identifying projects and creators with a level of audience actively willing and passionate enough about content to pay for it,” Vimeo vice president of content acquisition and business development Sam Toles tells THR.

Wong Fu considered courting theatrical distributors on the festival circuit, but other indie filmmakers pointed out to them that they didn’t necessarily need help finding an audience for their movie. “Our fans are already online, they’re in front of their screens, so why not bring the movie to them there?” Chan says.

Although YouTube continues to host Wong Fu’s hundreds of short films, comedy sketches, music videos and vlogs, partnering with Vimeo allows them to distinguish their feature-length film from their usual body of work, an objective that plays into Vimeo’s strategy for its self-distribution platform Vimeo On Demand.

“This is the perfect fit for creators who have built up an audience with short-form content on ad-supported platforms and want their most premium piece of content treated respectfully on a transactional VOD platform,” says Vimeo director of content acquisition and business development Derek Dressler.

Wong Fu may have blazed their own trail for their first feature, but going forward they’re looking to partner with more established entities. They’re in post production on a pilot presentation for Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s multiplatform studio New Form Digital and also are in talks with multiple companies for a second feature, for which they’re planning to seek traditional financing.

“I’m not saying we’ll never do another crowdfunding project again, because I think the fans actually enjoy it, but for the next one we want the audience to feel like we’re making progress on their behalf,” Wang says.

And they have a flexible outlook on how to navigate between traditional and new media channels. “Even if we wanted it to play out a certain way, we’re at the whim of how the culture’s shifting based on technology,” says Wang. “We would like to believe that we can be a bridge and play on both sides, but the way things are going it feels like what we are doing is becoming more traditional. That’s the new model.”

From left: Wong Fu Productions' Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, Ted Fu. Photo by Melly Lee