Updated: Feb 11, 2019
“ I was in a room full of executives and a boss I had at the time was introducing a new executive. He said, "Well, this is one of many rooms you're going to be in today with a bunch of straight white guys."
I was shocked he said that. I was shocked because I was in the room and it's not like I'm not someone who is hard to miss, right?”
I. Finding Your Voice
Hey listeners, it’s Lucia. Welcome to Episode 5 of Rock The Boat.
We often hear about the importance of finding your voice. It’s even more common these days with the success of major Asian American films at the box office: Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, and the hit Netflix film To All The Boys I Ever Loved. It’s so important for Asians to find our voice collectively but also to define our individual stories.
Today we speak with Justin Ching, producer and founder of a production company named j-school based in Los Angeles. Most recently, he was named a Forbes 30 under 30 in the Media Division for Defining and Driving the World of News and Content.
He’s made several hit series for Amazon, FOX and YouTube including the sports news show @TheBuzzer, the comedy series The Fighter & The Kid, as well as the docu-series Z Dream, the highest-rated program on FOX's SPEED Network .
Justin has a lot to say about the current state of the media and entertainment industry.
We speak with him about:
• His path to becoming a producer ,
• Using his production company to reach across the aisle to other minority groups,
• The financial mechanisms behind filmmaking ,
• And what it truly takes to work in an industry where you need thick skin ,
But more importantly, Justin’s personal story is an empowering one about how to find your own voice.
II. Justin’s Origin Story
Lucia: Justin met up with me and Lynne while he was in NY for a film he was producing and we got to catch up with him. He bears a striking resemblance to today's image of a filmmaker: shoulder-length wavy black hair, an artist's goatee, bright copper eyes. All he’s missing are a pair of glasses and a hat.
Justin: Hello I’m Justin Ching. I’m the founder and producer for my own production company called j-school and our mission is to empower underprivileged communities to tell in their their own voices, their own stories.
I called my company j-school very much as a play on words because my original background is in journalism. And I think that using that as a foundation for real life stories in the way that I think about storytelling will always be my bread and butter.
Lucia: Justin and I attended the University of Pennsylvania the same year and our paths sometimes overlapped. Like me, Justin was the first person from his high school to ever attend Penn. Raised by a single mother and growing up in San Bernardino California, Justin didn’t have dreams of being in media, let alone becoming a producer.
Justin: I grew up in a remarkably unremarkable place. I grew up in San Bernardino, which is famous for a NASCAR race track. So when I got into Penn, it completely opened up my worldview because my career trajectory before that was working at a Bank of America (and by that, I don't mean Wall Street.
I didn't even know that Wall Street existed or any institutions were a thing until college. I just saw the branch in my hometown. So if you were successful, you got to wear a cheap suit everyday, go to a local branch and drive an entry-level BMW. And that's not to condescend that lifestyle, but it was my ceiling at the time.
Lucia: But upon getting into college, Justin’s life changed forever.
Justin: Two things changed my life when I was 18. The first was that I got into college, I got into Penn - and then really tragically, before the end of my senior year, one of my best friends took her own life.
Lucia: Justin wrote to process his emotion around loss, mortality, and his place in the world.
Justin: Writing became my only outlet. I would drive around for hours and try to make myself cry after she died. I’m a known cryer. I cry about a lot of things and it made me feel terrible that I couldn't grieve for this person.
Lucia: Were you diagnosed with anything at that point?
Justin: Look, was I depressed? Absolutely. I was absolutely depressed.
Lucia: Justin kept writing while he was at Penn.
Justin: This was that moment where it all came to a head. I was at this new place that was so empowering, and so optimistic. At the same time, I had just seen one of the most terrible things that can happen and so I kept on writing.
Lucia: At the beginning, Justin tried to live every day as if it were his last.
Justin: Oh, I was a maniac. I mean I would get up at 6:00 a.m. I would work out, I would go to class (or not). I would go into the city, then come back. I'd party until like 1:00 or 2:00 a.m every opportunity I had a chance.
On weekends, I'd try to stay up the whole night. I was trying to meet as many people as possible, I was trying to learn as many things as possible. My brain was so charged up all the time.
It was an important part of understanding my voice and place in the world because I had tried to save my friend. My friend had showed suicidal tendencies early on and I had thought somewhat hubristically, that I could save her.
Lucia: Despite his grief, Justin also found kindred souls. He joined Penn’s premier spoken word group.
Justin: I had found a great community of writers who had also had this kind of suffering. I joined a group called The Excelano Project. At the time, they were the number one spoken word group in the country, the national slam poetry champion - they had all these accolades. It was a really new and powerful experience for me as a young writer to be able to test material in front of a live audience of 500 people.
Lucia: It was between Justin’s junior and senior year when Justin moved on from his friend’s death. He had found his voice - a voice that used wit, levity, and humor to lighten up difficult situations.
Justin: I would say my voice is an optimistic one. I always look at the bright side of things. My scripts are typically very punchy you know, and even when talking about heavy things like I need to pepper in a little bit of light moments.
The way that I dealt with a lot of the setbacks in my life and my career was learning how to laugh at myself.
Lucia: Justin had originally set out to become a professor. He had enrolled in Penn’s Urban studies program through a scholarship and became a Ph.D fellow.
Justin: I wanted to be a professional storyteller but growing up I was very much removed from this Hollywood world, so I thought the only way to do that was to be a teacher because you got in front of a classroom and you spoke to an audience everyday.
Then, I got a foot in the door in the entertainment world out in Los Angeles and switched paths to focus much more on on mainstream media.
Lucia: What prompted that transition?
Justin: That transition was prompted by the fact that over time at Penn, I had learned that there was such a thing as working for a place like Disney or Fox. But I had no idea how to get past those barriers to entry. I said to myself, "Before I graduate, I should try this out. I should try to get an internship in this world."
I did not get an internship in Hollywood. Of all places, I actually got an internship at a regional theater in Thousand Oaks, which is literally a five hour round trip drive from where I grew up in Southern California. I got a job as a production assistant on a production of Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
I don't know if you ever seen Cats, but it is obscure.
Lucia: Okay, to set things straight, Cats is not obscure. As of 2018, Cats is the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history, and it was the longest-running Broadway show in history from 1997 until 2006. It was then surpassed by The Phantom of the Opera.
Justin: That next school year, I heard an executive from Disney come and speak. Afterwards there was a long line of people approaching him to give them the elevator pitch on why they should get a job there.
I walked up to him and I said, "It's great to meet you. Last summer, I worked on a regional production of Cats and I drove five hours round-trip everyday to bust my ass and prove myself. I'm a kid from nowhere. I will work just as hard, if not harder, for you. If I worked this hard on a regional production of Cats, imagine what I could do if you gave me a chance to work on Grey's Anatomy. "
And he bought it.
As I was talking to him, as soon as I said that I commuted from San Bernardino to Thousand Oaks everyday, his eyes perked up. He was like, "Wait what? Say that one more time to me."
That executive was a man named Tim McNeal and he gave me a shot. That summer I got an internship working for ABC Primetime (which is owned by Disney), and I never looked back.
Lucia: Note: Tim McNeal’s job was to find talented people with diverse backgrounds. His influence was probably what set Justin on his path to creating j-school.
III. State of the Industry
Lucia: Justin lives and breathes diversity. Because he grew up with very few Asian Americans, some of his best friends are African Americans and Latinos. The mission statement of his production company, j-school, is for underrepresented communities to tell their own stories in their own voices. As a producer, Justin is keen on bringing to life stories that have a strong point of view with a first person narrative.
Justin: I have no interest of directing a project that is for an underrepresented group that I don’t know. I have every interest in financing, finding, and empowering leaders from those communities to do that for their own stories because it doesn’t happen very often. We see a lot of actors on screen for a lot of these stories, but we don’t see the directors or writers behind the scenes who are more often than not , still homogenized white men.
Lucia: In order to see more Asian representation in the media, Justin believes we need to create an ecosystem, reach across the aisle, and collaborate with other minority groups. Right now, fewer than 1% of Hollywood films star an Asian actor/actress. Justin believes there are both qualitative and quantitative reasons behind this number.
Justin: You have to create a network of people within this ecosystem at all parts of the business. So every part of the value chain is represented by someone who you get along with.
By our own numbers, we can't just fire on existence. Why isn't there an Asian BET? Why aren't there more Asian American movies?
Yes, there are qualitative factors, i.e. discrimination that happens that prevent these stories from being told. But also quantitatively, there are not enough Asian Americans at least in this country to justify the economics for these things. So we're not going to succeed on our own osland. We have to reach across the aisle.
Second of all, even if we did have our own numbers, we are far behind other communities in terms of the culture. We need to learn from Black and Latino filmmakers. They have a hundred year head start on us, so if that's the case - why don't we learn from them and benefit from their mentorship?
Lucia: So collaboration is one piece of the puzzle but another equally if not more important factor is financing. Justin encourages all who are interested in seeing more Asian Americans in media, entertainment, and content creation, to put their money where their mouth is. Crazy Rich Asians was about to be released when we recorded this podcast, so it was a timely example for us to talk about.
Justin: For Crazy Rich Asians, watch the movie. Get your friends to see the movie, watch it more than once. For shows like Fresh Off the Boat, it’s watch the show, contribute to their ad dollars.
There’s not a great community of investors who are focused on Asian American media. A big reason why these projects are being made is that you have investors who are willing to bankroll these projects. Most investors who are Asian American are in the VC space, which is a much different investment model than content. They’ll invest in a platform model like Buzzfeed but they’re not going to invest in production companies.
The toughest part is finding good like-minded Asian American investors for content. Without that, we're going to be really hard pressed to continue to create more projects that we want to create.
We're going to always be at the mercy of these big corporate entities like studios and networks to determine those products for us because they're the ones who are going to have money.
Lucia: Today, Crazy Rich Asians is the highest grossing romantic comedy since Hitch in 2005. It raked in $174 Million in the box office domestically and broke the Hollywood myth that stories about people of color don’t sell.
IV. Words of Advice
Lucia: Like Justin mentioned, if we’re going to truly create more diverse and inclusive stories, the model has to change. Not all stories will yield high margins. We need more than just action-packed blockbusters. Which is why to Justin’s point, the most important aspect is finding a place for people at all parts of the ecosystem - writers, producers, directors, publicists etc.
He has some advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in film and production.
Justin: The first point is creating a network. The second point is finding a good ,entor. The third point is sharpening your skills, like you have to really be good.
You can't just show up and say there's a lack of diversity. We need to fix that. Hire me, cast me.
Lucia: Justin mentions that to work in film and any other industry, you must also be bold, have thick skin, and not be afraid to make a splash.
Justin: Probably one of the worst pieces of advice I've ever received was to shut up and keep my head down. I'm just not that kind of person. I've always made bold choices. That's what's gotten me noticed.
Someone telling you to shut up and keep your head down feels like a version of model minority stereotyping, frankly. You have to be bold and you have to be willing to knock down that door. But once you get in that room, you have to also have the skills to back it up.
It's a challenge for all marginalized people in any industry. If you get exposed for not being able to handle it, they'll never give you a second chance.
Lucia: Justin also doesn’t want to sugarcoat the unglamorous aspects of working in film. Sure, he works with stars like Sung Kang from the Fast and Furious series and rubs shoulders with Steven Spielberg’s production company, but he’s also had to make plenty of sacrifices.
Justin: To put some numbers on to these things, I can sell a film script tomorrow and it would net me maybe $80,000.
Lucia: For Justin, the luster of the industry has never worn off even during the hard times. He simply couldn't imagine himself doing anything else. His advice to anyone who wants to make it in the film industry is to go all in.
Take the leap. If you’re really passionate about this, you’re going to have to lay it on the line. It’s hard to hack your way in. There are no shortcuts and if you find them, they’re few and far between.
You might be in a six figure job right now and if you don’t think you can outhustle some yokle who’s hopping off the bus from Montana, then maybe this industry isn’t for you. But I think it is. You just have to commit.
Lucia: And once you find it within your heart to commit, hit up Justin. Seriously.
Justin: Reach out to me…I truly mean it. I’m @justinrching on all platforms. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The way Jay-Z put it, "I do this for my culture... show them how to move in a room full of vultures."
Lucia: For those of you who aren’t familiar with Justin’s reference, the lyrics Justin quoted were from Jay-Z’s hit single “IZZO (HOVA)” from his classic, “The Blueprint Album”.
In the song, Jay-Z says “I do this for my culture... show them how to move in a room full of vultures”, indicating that he’s paving a path and creating a blueprint for young rappers to follow while calling out the music industry for its exploitative ways.
In many ways, that’s what Justin’s doing: paving a path for minorities who want to work in media - be it producers, cinematographers, or for those who simply want to tell their stories in their own voices. Similarly, it’s what we hope to do with Rock The Boat: pave a path for those who are curious.
Thank you Justin for sharing with us your unwavering courage, your bold, fearless advances in film, your passion for telling the stories of underrepresented minorities, and your commitment to building an ecosystem for future Asian American creators.