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Lessons from Yanking �The Year of the Yao�

By Grace Niwa, May 06, 2005

Last month, I sent a request to BDA Sports Management (Team Yao) to have Yao Ming sign some jerseys and basketballs. They were for different APA groups to help raise funds. I received my shipment of signed goodies back in no time. These gestures are appreciated, especially considering Yao’s insane schedule. We all know that he is immensely popular everywhere, especially in the Asian community. Unfortunately, most corporations that work with Yao still view the APA market as an afterthought.

This was especially true with Fine Line’s disastrous efforts to promote The Year of the Yao, an entertaining film about Yao’s rookie season in the NBA. Unless you were invited to one of the pre-screenings, you probably missed it all together. Fine Line debuted the film in Yao’s American hometown of Houston and sold just $27,823 in tickets. There are 103,694 Asians in Houston. What happened?

“They opened the film in too many theaters,” said co-producer Chris Chen. “They opened in 12 theaters. Usually, Hollywood blockbuster films open in that many theaters.” Another source says that Fine Line only focused on online marketing. Their big thing was to land an exclusive interview with Yao for, which is mainly an Internet dating site.

Fine Line was also not sure about dealing with Asian and Chinese language media to promote the film without Yao. They consulted TCDM & Associates, an agency that focuses on mainstream films and films that have an Asian American audience such as Better Luck Tomorrow. TCDM also represents groups like L.A.’s Visual Communications and high profile clients such as Jet Li. Partners David Magdael and Winston Emano are Asian American. “Our feedback was that the media would attend for co-director Adam Del Deo, co-producer Chris Chen and Yao’s interpreter, Colin Pine,” said Emano. “Chris and Colin both speak Mandarin and would be able to handle ethnic press. They were a hit. The attendance of the Asian and Chinese media was significant.” Even so, practically every media person who attended asked if Yao was coming anyway.

The opening was such a flop that Fine Line pulled the film and canceled its release. A recent Wall Street Journal article by John Lippman discussed the many challenges in getting Yao’s film off the ground. Yao and his coaches don’t want to be distracted with the NBA playoffs coming up, and he did no film promotions. This is highly unusual since most stars spend a lot of time promoting their film. McDonald’s, Reebok and Gatorade, who have marketing deals with Yao, did not participate due to numerous conflicts. To top it off, there were rumblings of distribution problems in China with criticisms of Yao being portrayed in the film as a U.S. capitalist machine. Now Fine Line is said to be considering a summer re-release targeting Yao’s Chinese American fan base. They’re just realizing that now?

Fine Line did free screenings in a piecemeal fashion for the Asian community in N.Y., L.A. and Chicago in April. But with no plan in place, community groups would suddenly find out that another organization in the same city also had a screening, causing unnecessary frustration.

Since the Asian American community is relationship-based, the film industry has to figure out how to reach out to our market. When Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow came out, it was exciting and mind-boggling to see all the e-mails from the community rallying together. We purchased tickets to the opening night screenings and some of us bought out entire theaters.

Here are my top 10 suggestions for Fine Line features:

Hire a reputable Asian American PR agency from the get-go that can reach the Asian press and community leaders in each city.

Reach out to the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) with over 50 chapters to sell group sales tickets.

Use Asian American webzines such as,, and who have thousands of people in their databases (which they did).

Contact all the Asian American International Film Festivals in N.Y., L.A., S.F., San Diego, Chicago and Honolulu for their support and have them e-mail press releases to their thousands of members.

Reach out to the Asian churches. There are 2,000 Korean, 650 Chinese and 200 Japanese Christian congregations in the United States.

Reach out to Asian Hoops, Dreamleague, Fastbreak NYC, North American Chinese Basketball Association as well as Japanese basketball leagues that have a 70-year-old history. These leagues are active and thriving on both coasts.

Reach out to Chinese-language schools that are popping up everywhere.

Purchase radio commercials on Chinese radio stations. The costs are much lower than mainstream radio.

Purchase ads in the Chinese newspapers.

Purchase ad space on AZN Television (formally known as International Channel) and ImaginAsian TV.

The Asian consumer is one of the most attractive markets to tap into because it is far cheaper than the mainstream market. Jet Li has a new film coming out in May called Unleashed. On May 8, he’ll be making an appearance at the 26th Asian Pacific American Heritage Festival in Union Square, New York City to get the community’s support for his new film. This is a tremendous market and Jet Li and TCDM & Associates get it.


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