From eggs to film: A Japanese-American studio head

First Asian-American studio chief brings hard work, humor to Warner Bros.

Associated Press
From eggs to film: A Japanese-American studio head
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In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, photo, Kevin Tsujihara, poses for photos in a screening room at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. On Friday, Feb. 28, 2013, Tsujihara, 48, who grew up making deliveries as the son of egg distributors, will become the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment. The third-generation Japanese-American will be the first Asian-American to head a Hollywood studio.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

BURBANK, Calif. (AP) -- There isn't much "Hollywood" about Kevin Tsujihara.

He spends most of his time in back-room meetings, away from the red carpets and spotlights for which the city is known. There are few photos of him online, and a few weeks ago, someone created the first page for him on Wikipedia.

But, on Friday, the 48-year-old father of two, who grew up making deliveries as the son of egg distributors, will become the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment. The third-generation Japanese-American will be the first Asian-American to head a Hollywood studio.

And Warner Bros. isn't just any studio. It is one of the world's largest entertainment companies and the fount from which recent Oscar winner "Argo" sprang. Sprawled over 35 sound stages and other buildings, the studio got its start in 1923. It's the home of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, whose modern hits include the multibillion-dollar franchises "Harry Potter" and "The Dark Knight."

Tsujihara's rise at Warner Bros., and his appointment as CEO, is a testament to his hard work, humility and willingness to take risks. It's also a sign of the progress Japanese-Americans have made in the last 70 years.

During World War II, Tsujihara's parents, like thousands of Japanese families living in the U.S., were branded by the federal government as traitors and forced to live in internment camps. They had their property confiscated and had to rebuild from scratch when the war was over. The Tsujihara family's struggle lends deeper meaning to Kevin's accomplishments.

"The one thing I kind of regret and am sad about is that I couldn't share this with my dad," Tsujihara said during an emotional moment in his office on the studio lot. "He would be shocked. I think my dad would think it's not even in the realm of possibility. Not because he didn't think I was great. But I don't think he thought these opportunities would exist for us."

Last month's appointment of Tsujihara came as a surprise. Although he was in the running to replace Barry Meyer as chief executive, he wasn't exactly the front-runner.

Most observers believed the job would go to one of two colleagues with whom Tsujihara shared the office of the president — Warner Bros. Pictures president Jeff Robinov or Warner Bros. Television Group president Bruce Rosenblum. Robinov had overseen production of the hugely successful "Dark Knight" series. Rosenblum helped turn the studio into Hollywood's largest producer of TV shows. Meanwhile, Tsujihara had been in charge of driving consumption of movies on disc and in digital formats during a difficult transition period for the film industry.

Hollywood trade publications suggest that Tsujihara was the top choice in the end because he maintained a humble demeanor and didn't campaign for the job. It also didn't hurt that he gets along well with Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of parent Time Warner Inc.

With the parent company increasingly betting its future on the value of its content, rather than the way it's delivered, a digital strategist would seem logical anywhere but in Hollywood, where relationships with directors and actors are given primacy.

Tsujihara said his relative status as an outsider helped him challenge the status quo at a time when the industry began suffering from the collapse of DVD sales. His kind of out-of-the-box thinking is apparent in some of Warner Bros.' recent experiments. The company began selling "Argo" by way of digital download while Oscar buzz was at its hottest, weeks before the movie's release on DVD. Warner Bros. also took the lead in holding back rentals at $1.20-per-night kiosks like Redbox until a month after DVDs went on sale, in order to nudge people toward purchasing downloads, discs, or movie tickets.

"I think part of what was really helpful was I never came from this industry, I never had aspirations to work in this industry. And so I questioned everything," Tsujihara said. "I had a perspective that I wasn't afraid to speak my mind because I didn't think this was where I'd end up."

Tsujihara grew up making deliveries for his parents' egg distribution business in Petaluma, Calif., a community of 58,000 north of San Francisco that once was known as "The Egg Capital of the World."

One summer his father made him take a job on a farm where he had to clean up chicken excrement and sort eggs on a conveyor belt.

The youngest of five siblings — all with American-sounding first names like Phyllis and Sidney — Tsujihara grew up speaking English at home, even though his parents could speak Japanese.

His father Shizuo was on the phone working around the clock, sometimes playing host to egg farmers and buyers at a home office equipped with an egg shed.

"You get a lot of your work ethic more from watching people versus them telling you how to work," he said.

Apart from the work, Tsujihara had a relatively carefree childhood. His junior high school history teacher, Stephen Lamb, remembers him being a smart student who could concern himself with things other than school. The young Tsujihara wrote in Lamb's yearbook, "Number one, the Giants are going to win the pennant, number two, pro wrestling is real, and number three, roller derby is real."

"He told me he was going to come and collect his $20 when the Giants won," said Lamb, a lifetime Cardinals fan. "He was a neat kid to have around. Everybody liked him."

In high school, his father urged him to take up golf, even though the luxury came later in life for him.

"My parents wanted me to feel as American and to fit in with everyone else as much as possible," he said.

It was only later in life that Tsujihara realized the sacrifices his parents had made. His father, who died in 2003, served as a translator helping the U.S. military during the war, while his family lived in an internment camp. His uncle Kazuo enlisted in the famous 442nd regiment of Japanese American soldiers who fought for the U.S. in Europe. Although the family had been farming peaches, grapes and olives in the Fresno, Calif., area before the war, they resettled in Petaluma after leaving the internment camps.

After Tsujihara graduated from the University of Southern California with an accounting degree in 1986, he got a job as a manager at Ernst & Young's entertainment division working on audits, mergers and acquisitions. One of his major clients was Warner Bros.

After a few years, he was admitted into the MBA program at Stanford. It was then that he decided to learn more about his Japanese roots. He studied Japanese for a year, and took a summer internship at the Long Term Credit Bank of Japan in Tokyo. Looking Japanese but lacking fluency in the language led to some awkward moments for Tsujihara, convincing him he'd be better off making a living in America.

After receiving his MBA in 1992, some former USC classmates asked Tsujihara to write a business plan for a tax preparation business. He wrote it up and the friends talked him into running the company.

He based the business, QuickTax, in the city of Commerce, a grey, industrial suburb of Los Angeles. He opened retail outlets next door to storefronts of a popular check-cashing business, Quik Check. He spent his nights in the spare bedroom of one of his business partners until he could afford a tiny apartment in nearby Long Beach with a fold-out Murphy bed.

After a few years of struggles, Tsujihara sold the company at a loss to the check-cashers. The experience was "really embarrassing," he said. He felt ashamed to lose the money of friends and family.

"Sometimes failing is the best thing in life," he said. "I think it's very humbling and it's a good thing."

Around that time, his wife-to-be Sandy, a Japanese-American friend of the family who grew up in a neighboring town, told him she wouldn't move down from San Francisco to be with him unless they got married, and he wouldn't get married unless he had a job. So he tapped contacts at Warner Bros. he had made while working at E&Y, looking for work.

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."

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