Award-winning Hollywood film producer, Nina Yang Bongiovi, chatted with me about the challenges and hurdles she’s overcome, how she forged her own path in an ultra-competitive industry as an Asian American, and how to make a difference in the world.
Being willing to spend the time to develop the talent is really important. And I also choose people who are underrepresented in our industry … that’s critical.” – Nina Yang Bongiovi
Nina is an American film producer with over 20 years experience. She’s a regular award-winner at Sundance with movies like Fruitvale Station (produced by Nina and her producing partner, Forest Whitaker), Sorry to Bother You, Netflix’s Roxanne Roxanne, Dope, A Kid From Coney Island (a documentary about Stephon Marbury) and many more.
“…Under their banner Significant Productions, Nina and Forest have produced a number of critically-acclaimed films by auteur filmmakers of color.”
Nina is a consummate producer, advocate for uplifting underrepresented voices, and an all-around Hollywood powerhouse. As an Asian American in Hollywood, she’s had unique challenges and hurdles to overcome to reach the level of success she has.
Her career started watching Chinese martial arts films and soap operas with her mom in Taiwan. Through perseverance and an eye for opportunity, Nina has forged her own path in an ultra-competitive industry.
Nina is a board member of Film Independent, The Oscar Grant Foundation, Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) and the Producers Guild of America (PGA), as well as a member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ (AMPAS) Producers Branch.
To learn more about Nina’s work and to follow her story, you can follow her on Instagram at nybongiovi.
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In this episode Michael and Nina talked about:
- Her humble beginnings in Hollywood
- What motivates her to excel as a producer
- Her time in the Hong Kong film industry
- The power of identity and betting on underrepresented storytellers
- How to invest in people for success
- Her working relationship with Forest Whitaker
- And more!
- Nina Yang Bongiovi on IMDb
- Nina Yang Bongiovi on Instagram
- Michael Redd on Instagram
Nina Yang Bongiovi: ... I meet a filmmaker storyteller that doesn't have something yet but I've seen some of their work in short film format or a screenplay or a writing sample. I would work with that person, that individual and say, "let's find something together," because they have talent and being willing to spend the time to develop the talent is really, really important. And I also choose people who are underrepresented in our industry. So that's really critical.
Michael Redd: Hey, everybody, this is Michael Redd, and welcome to the Betting On Yourself podcast, where I interview successful entrepreneurs, athletes and other top performers who rose to the top, took success into their own hands and bet on themselves. Today I'm talking with Nina Yang Bongiovi, an American film producer with over 20 years of experience. She is a consistent award winner at Sundance with movies like Fruitvale Station, Sorry to Bother You, Netflix's Roxanne Roxanne, Dope, A Kid From Coney Island, which is an amazing documentary about Stephon Marbury and many, many more.
Michael Redd: Nina is an amazing producer, a huge advocate for uplifting underrepresented voices and just an all around Hollywood powerhouse. As an Asian-American in Hollywood she had unique challenges and hurdles to overcome to reach the level of success she has. Her career started all the way back when she was watching Chinese martial arts films and soap operas with her mom in Taiwan. Through perseverance, and an eye for opportunity, Nina has forged her own path in an ultra competitive industry. This is her first ever podcast interview. So you'll be hearing her story, like she's never told it before. I know you're going to love this illuminating and inspiring episode with Nina Yang Bongiovi. Here's our conversation.
Michael Redd: Nina, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Thank you for having me. I've never done a podcast, so you'll be the first one I'm going to do it with. I've been asked by people and I'm like, "I don't have the time." But this time I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to do this." So for Michael I'll do it.
Michael Redd: I'm so grateful. And I can't wait to meet you in-person, at some-
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Same.
Michael Redd: ... point in LA. Our dear friend, Mike Su, just does raves about you.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I love my Mike. He's so great.
Michael Redd: He's awesome.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So enthusiastic and optimistic.
Michael Redd: He is, he is. We've become very, very close over the last couple of years. And I work with him in the Yellow Accelerator with Snap. So-
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Oh, nice.
Michael Redd: ... as a mentor. And we've just become good friends. And having the privilege of having you on the podcast is a big deal for me. So thank you again.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Thank you.
Michael Redd: Yeah, yeah, so we can just jump right into it.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Okay.
Michael Redd: Your resume is illustrious. It's been incredible what you've been able to achieve, the success that you've garnered. And the core value of that is really interesting to me, and we'll get into that-
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Okay.
Michael Redd: ... in a bit. But the podcast is all about betting on yourself and taking risks on yourself. What has betting on yourself meant to you?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Betting on myself has meant to me that I have to trust my gut. For the, I'd say, for the first 10 years of my career, trying to make it in Hollywood was always trying to appease what other people want or need and not knowing my voice. And also because I think, as a minority in this country and as a minority entering into Hollywood, you are definitely more nervous about it, intimidated about it. So you just start acclimating to the norms of like, "Oh, if this is what Hollywood wants, I need to follow through that way and keep my head down." And being Asian American, there are not that many in the business when I started in the business, that I actually went to Asia first because I couldn't get in, in Hollywood. So that's where I started.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: But betting on myself, I would say only happened the last 10 years. So a lot of people would think, "Hey, you're doing well in film and entertainment." And I'm like, "Well, it only really happened in the last 10 years." And then where the last seven years, I truly felt that I'm owning my voice.
Michael Redd: Was there, and there's so much to pick apart from what you just said. Was there a pivotal moment that you could think of, ten years ago?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: You mean in my career?
Michael Redd: Yeah. As a teenager, as a young adult. Was there a pivotal moment where you were like, "I'm taking the risk on myself."
Nina Yang Bongiovi: It would only be the last, I'd say the last eight years. Where it's the pivotal moment was where, in 2012 I got to see the first cut of Fruitvale Station with Forest Whitaker and Ryan Coogler, sitting in there, just crying our eyes out and said, "This is it. It's like this is it, I have to trust my gut." Because when I met Ryan Coogler, in 2011, he was still in grad school. Forest and I started the company in 2010. We were trying to figure out what the mission of our company is and what we want to produce. But also, here's a man giving me a chance, Forest, giving me a chance to prove myself as a producer. And when we saw the first cut of the film, that was the moment that was the catalyst where I'm like, "Okay, I trusted my gut, I knew there's something really important here. I knew that this young man had a lot of talent," even though the industry didn't think so at the time. So that was the moment.
Michael Redd: Wow, wow, you're originally not from this country. Before we get into Significant Productions and the movie that you produced, Dope, Roxanne Roxanne, Godfather of Harlem, I mean all these incredible features, take us back to the transition from Taiwan to East L.A. And your first exposure actually, to content and entertainment.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So I was born in Taiwan, I'm Taiwanese. My parents are originally from China. My mom brought me and my siblings here. And I was only five at the time. And I was really scared. I always remember that, because you don't really remember stuff when you're that young. But I remember how intimidating it was. Because my first language was not English, it was Mandarin Chinese. So just trying to assimilate was scarring at the time, thinking back. But my first exposure to anything with content would be nothing significant because it wasn't something culturally, we thought could even be a career path. My first exposure is probably Chinese movies, martial arts and also-
Michael Redd: Yeah.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yeah. And as well as my mom's favorite, which are Chinese soap operas. So that didn't help improve my English at the time.
Michael Redd: Yeah.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: But that was really my first exposure. But then as I got older, I remember, when I was a teenager, I would watch my mom just dial into our Chinese soap operas and I started watching a little bit with her. And I'm like, "It's really overdramatic," and the lighting really bad. I would make these comments, but never knew that there was a profession that came with this. My early exposure was just being a fan of martial arts action films. And we never knew that it could lead to a career in Hollywood.
Michael Redd: And your experience to America. How was that, as far as the transition from Taiwan to America?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I just remember that when we were very little, kids were really mean to us. We first landed somewhere in Hollywood. Because we lived in an apartment, I remember the fact that my mother and a Asian-Chinese social worker, went with us from apartment, to apartment to try to find a place. We were temporarily staying at my aunt's house or apartment, but we needed our own place. So we went apartment to apartment. And me not speaking English, I was trying to figure out what was happening, and realized that a lot of people didn't want to rent to us. And so it was my mom and four kids. So we finally landed at a place that welcomed us and it was actually a senior citizens apartment.
Michael Redd: Wow.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yeah. And they were like, "We'll let them in." I guess the old folks there at the time thought that it'd be cool to have some well-behaved Asian kids around. And that's how I'm in Hollywood. Which is crazy.
Michael Redd: Oh, my. How does that experience motivate you in your work today? Did that have a part and drives you to this day?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I think that all those critical moments in life will either shape you or break you. But I just remember how humble my mom was and how frugal she was. My motivation came from the fact that I wanted to succeed. I wanted to make sure that she doesn't have to be poor or be so frugal and not have stuff that she wanted. But it's not like she wanted anything, because she just came from that very frugal and humble life. But I also remember the certain amount of racism that was against her. Because by then, I picked up English pretty quickly. And I remember going to grocery stores with her and people would be really judgmental, because she didn't speak English. They were rude to her. But I was too young to say anything. By then I was probably seven, eight years old, watching people be rude to her. And that was a different type of motivation, of anger that boiled inside me. So that was a little bit, that was interesting. Maybe that does translate to what I do today.
Michael Redd: Wow. You made a number of bets on your life and your career. I remember reading where your first job was at Warner Brothers?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yes. Yeah.
Michael Redd: And you did not like it.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: My first job, I was still in grad school at USC. And I got my job at Warner Brothers. I was in marketing, and I was an analyst. And all I did was presentations and presentation decks. And I was like, wow, I didn't realize this is a part of entertainment. Where it wasn't as fulfilling or rewarding. I didn't want a corporate job. And I didn't want to make presentations all day. And I really wanted to get into the business of creation, but didn't know how. I really didn't know how. I was so proud, I was like, "I'm at a big studio." But then realizing being at a big studio and being just a number there. And doing... I was paper pushing. And I told myself, "When I graduate from USC, I am going to leave and pursue production," not knowing what it meant. But I was like, "I'm going to get down to figuring out what it takes to get into actual creation."
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So I had to pivot after I graduated from grad school, and try to get a job in production. I had no idea what it meant. And at that point, I didn't even know what a producer does. So I couldn't get in, I applied at different assistant jobs, couldn't get in. Then I reached out to some friends in Asia, in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And I'm like, "Is there anything I could do in the film business?" And most people just said, "It's in Hong Kong. All the productions are primarily in Hong Kong." And I through a friend of mine, Stanley Tong, who is from the Jackie Chan group, and I said, "Can I be an assistant?" And they let me in. They were like, "Sure." It was through a friend connection, who's an actor in Asia. So I just started working as an assistant to a director in the Hong Kong action realm, learning about, from a script or concept idea to actual production, to actually being on set and then figuring out what everybody does on a production. So that was my first real foray into filmmaking.
Michael Redd: Wow. And so in that time process, you were learning how to be a producer. And you had [inaudible 00:13:51] saying that.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I didn't know what a producer was at the time.
Michael Redd: Okay.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I was doing really menial jobs, like heating up soup for people, bringing coffee to people.
Michael Redd: Yeah. Yeah.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I did a lot of translation, because I'm bilingual. I did whatever it took to be there and to [crosstalk 00:14:18]-
Michael Redd: Sure.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: ... what was happening.
Michael Redd: Wow. And this is so good, because people see who you are now, not knowing what you had to go through to become who you are now, which is incredible. And so you make the leap back to America from Hong Kong.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yeah. Well, we were in Hong Kong and then we were in Shanghai for a good, two and a half, three years I was out there. Because I did several projects out there and worked as an assistant. And I remember at the time, telling my mom and my dad what I do and they were very distraught and they said, "You left the Warner Brothers corporate job to be an assistant?"
Michael Redd: Sure.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And not making any decent money. I'm like, "No, it's part of the plan. It's good, I enjoy it." And then I came back to the States in 2013, trying to figure out how to produce. Thinking that I knew, of course I didn't know. I was making these presentations because I took my skill set and made presentations on what I wanted to produce and create. Looked at certain stories that I wanted, and started networking with people who had scripts and really was blindly navigating the process, and pretty much failed at it. But somehow had a lot of optimism and energy to keep at it.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So I always say, the first 10 years of my career was navigating, avoiding landmines failing, trying to figure out if I should do this anymore, should I go into real estate instead? Stuff like that.
Michael Redd: Yeah. And so you've been able to navigate, not only that, but the expectations of people around you, which can be so powerful. How powerful was identity in all of this? Knowing who you are, compared to being ensnared by the expectations of people?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Identity is with... I mean, now looking back, it's really important. And I should have leaned into it way more. But I say the first eight years of my career, I was too afraid. I was too afraid, I was more worried about assimilating into White America and White Hollywood, than trying to pursue projects that really resonated with me, because I wanted to assimilate. And I always remember, when I was little, coming into this country, all we wanted to do was assimilate. We wanted to be White. Because when kids were making fun of us, and laughing at us, because we didn't speak English or because we are non-white, it was hurtful. So that really carried through. Even when I got into Hollywood, I'm like, if I could be one of them, I would be so much better. And not leaning into my culture, my identity, yeah, I just... Even though I started my career in Hong Kong and in Shanghai in martial arts productions, it was really... I didn't see it as identity or culture. I saw it as great experience. And my people let me in. Yeah.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And then coming back, it was like, Okay, I got to keep my head down. Let me try to figure this out. How do I get into Hollywood? Who do I need to be allies with? Who can mentor me? And I had some really good mentors. But they were White Americans. And so I'm thinking, "That's the way to go." Not until 2008 to 2009 I was like, "No, I want to talk about race, culture, unconscious bias, prejudice." Things that really affected my career, but not really, I haven't acknowledged it until then.
Michael Redd: And we'll get into that in a little bit, because you've been able to create some content that no one wanted to touch and you've done it in such an incredible way. As your career has evolved, and the success you've garnered over the years, I think you're renowned more for betting on people than projects. Talk about how important that has been to you. That gift of finding talent and actually valuing the person over a project.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Valuing a person over a project is number one, it's key. I get the question a lot going, how do you bet on a film? How do you choose the film? And I'm like, "No, I choose the filmmaker, the creator, the artist behind it." And they're like, "Oh." Even if I meet a filmmaker storyteller, that doesn't have something yet but I've seen some of their work in short film format or a screenplay or a writing sample. I would work with that person, that individual and say, "Let's find something together," because they have talent. And being willing to spend the time to develop the talent is really, really important. And I also choose people who are underrepresented in our industry. So that's really critical. But betting in business as... You're in business, Michael. It's human capital. It's human capital. And I would take the same concept when it comes to storytellers.
Michael Redd: Yeah. I mean, you just nailed it. One of the mantras for my business, 22 Ventures, we invest in people to grow companies. And that's a hallmark for us and you are renowned for that. And how important is the dynamic of having great vibes and good vibes around you on a project, from your directors and filmmakers and writers? How important is that to have around you, the great vibes?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: It is so important. I think it's a part of survival in this business. It's part of being able to be sustainable in this business. I want to work with people that I can spend a couple of years with, in developing a project, in producing a project to go through the post production process, to go through sales and distribution and marketing. That's a long process. So you got to choose partners that you love to be around, that inspire you, who come up with amazing creative solutions in storytelling. Some of the most amazing technical folks in the business, they inspire me.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And so to me, that sustainability. And it also gives me the drive to stay in the business, to be in the business for the long haul. If you're working with people that are negative, or don't see what you see, or they see film and projects as purely transactional, that's not sustainable to me. Or even working with investors, certain investors will be like, "I wrote a huge fund for you. Here, go make movies. I'll back you." But then if their principles and beliefs and mission doesn't align with mine, it's not good. It becomes a transactional situation. And if you look at the films that Forest and I have produced, we all took a shot and a chance at it. Because the films that we chose, and the filmmakers we chose, are ones that traditional industry have turned away until we prove them wrong.
Michael Redd: So is it fair to say that you love people beyond their gift?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I love certain people.
Michael Redd: Yeah
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yeah, yeah. Because it's about as I grew in my industry and my career and business, I want to be around people who are, who are compassionate, who have empathy, who are looking to build together. And that is the most important. Because entertainment business is rough. And traditionally, and through the decades, it's been such a cutthroat business. And for it to have evolved to where it is today, I see... I mean, I'm just delighted, I'm excited, because the opportunities are opening up, especially for people of color, for Black, Indigenous POC. It's like, it's finally opening up, we still have ways to go, but it's finally opening up. Where only 10 years ago, I was just like, "Man, this is rough. This is rough. I don't know how we're going to break through."
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And then having someone like Forrest Whitaker to say, "Hey, come and build this company. Let's start a company together. Let's be an artist driven company, producing and championing storytellers of color, stories that need to be told, that people are too afraid to take on." So I'm like, "Okay, let's do this." And then it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy until we launched Fruitvale Station. And everybody's like, "Well, it's a great film. It's impactful. Watch this incredible filmmaker's career." But then cut to Dope, right after people were like, "No, we don't want it." And I was like, "Wait a minute. We just made this successful movie." So that's the reality of it. That is truly the reality of it.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So when you're talking about people, do I love? I love certain people who believe in making a change in our business and shifting the paradigm of Hollywood. Having a hand in really, truly genuinely changing the look of Hollywood when it comes to representation. So those are the people that I want to be in business with, that I want to be partners with. Yeah. So hopefully, that makes sense.
Michael Redd: Totally. I was going to ask you, what are some of the red flags that you avoid with directors?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I think that it's not about red flags. I think it's about getting to know somebody and understanding where they're coming from. I think that if a storyteller director or anybody in the creative field's purpose is to become famous. I would say, that would be a red flag.
Michael Redd: Okay.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: It's like, "I want to do this so I can be famous." It's like, "Oh, that's probably not good." I want to do this because I want to create art different. I want to create dialogue in this country or around the world through film or television. Great. But if somebody says, "I want to do this because I want to be famous and rich," and it's like, probably not the right partners to have.
Michael Redd: Makes sense. Totally makes sense. I wanted to ask you this, because you said it in a roundabout way. But what makes a good producer? In your opinion.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: What makes a good producer? I think what makes a good producer is someone who understands the process, first and foremost. I think there's a lot of misconception of what a producer does in Hollywood, in film and in TV, because it's a word that's thrown around loosely. There's a lot of people who say they're producers. And then there's a lot of people who say, what does a producer do? So it took me a while to fully understand what a producer does. Like I said, the first 10 years of my career, I wasn't sure what I was doing. But I was trying to hone my skill. By the time Fruitvale Station was produced, I'm like, "Oh, this is what a producer does."
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So what a producer, a true producer does is you find a story, or an IP, or a script, or a filmmaker, or a really strong concept. And chase a nugget of an idea, and you develop that into a screenplay with your collaborators, which could be a writer or writer director. And then you take that screenplay and figure out how to make it. So you think about financing. So you have to understand the business, the business of filmmaking. You have to understand what it takes. How much money will it take for me to make this? And then you budget it out, you got to talk to your financing opportunities and partners and pretty much hit everybody up and say, "Would you finance this?" There's also a different route, you go to all the studios and say, "Can I set this up at the studio?" So that's what I would categorize all under financing.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Also, you got to have really great relationships with agents and managers, because they rep talent. And you want to be able to attach great talent. And sometimes you attach a great talent, and also when you're ready to go, they're not available, you got to pivot again. And you also, maybe your director is not available, maybe you have a financier that falls out last minute. All these chaotic things can happen. And then once you put together all the elements of concept, IP, financing, talent, dates, you go and you make this movie, but during the time of physical production, you have to know how to make sure that you don't go over budget, you're making your days and that you're problem solving on set the whole time because there's a lot of issues that happen on set that you have to be able to be quick on your feet in just problem solving.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: There after, you finish the film, now you have at least 12 weeks of post production. So you work with editors, your director, your sound people, everybody in post. Post production is in itself, a different animal to take on. And during this time, as producers, we give notes on the different cuts. That's like the director's cut, the producers cut, another cut. So you go through this process, that's when I usually get Forest involved actively. I'm like, "Forest, I need your eyes on the cuts." Because he's an artist, and he's also a director and he's also an actor. He sees things very differently than I do. He comes in with his notes. So we're constantly polishing the story and the film, then we bring it to the sales agency, what do you guys think? And then we apply for all the film festivals. This is an independent film model. And then we hopefully, land at an amazing festival, we can launch the film and then we go to market to sell it.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So I just told you the long story of what a producer does. But I think it'd be good for your listeners that they realize this is a long process. And this whole process From development to distribution could be about two to three years. But many times, when the writers or filmmakers they write their script, they maybe wrote it 10 years ago. That's how long their journey was. And also producer for television is very different. Because television, there is no independent model for it. It's really about working with a writer showrunner, figuring out, if there's an IP, great, if not, it's original concept, you develop it out, as a pilot. What does the series look like? What does the episodes look like? What does season two look like? Season three? And then you go out to studios and networks to pitch one after another. And hopefully someone says yes. That's the model we've used for Godfather of Harlem. So that's a different type of producing.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And then when a project does get the green light and goes into series, a non writing producer, that's what I am, I am involved, not in the writing process, I'm more involved in the creative notes process, maybe helping with some logistical aspects. Also, casting. Stuff like that. So producing is a really broad word for our business. But I can say that it's been misused and misrepresented. But real producers, we do this for a living. This is our livelihood.
Michael Redd: No, you've been so educational and I'm learning so much from you right now. And I hope [inaudible 00:31:43] as well. You've mentioned Forest Whitaker, who is one of the world's greatest actors, directors. I'm a huge fan of Forest Whitaker. Talk about how that relationship and collaboration came about.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: We met in 2009. In 2008, I went through this critical moment where I was like, "I got to just give up on this business. I'm not making it, I am broke. I don't know what to do." I spent eight years of my life trying to figure this out and I failed miserably at it. But I never gave up fully. And because I was spending a lot of time between Asia, especially China and LA, that I always saw a lot of couples, White couples adopt Chinese babies at the time when I was traveling back and forth. And I was like, "How come I have never seen people of color adopt Chinese babies?" And then I was like, wouldn't it be great to have a interracial couple, an African-American man with a Chinese-American wife going to China to adopt a baby and face all kinds of racism. And I was like, wouldn't that be interesting? Because the people probably hate her because they'll be like, "You betrayed us. You married a Black man." And then for him, going there with her just faces the all kinds of scrutiny and challenges. Wouldn't that be a great story to tell? And I thought I was so clever.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So I had a writer friend, write the script and then I was like, "You know who would be great to be play, it would Forest Whitaker." That's how naive I was, Michael. I was just like-
Michael Redd: Wow.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And then I sent the script to his agent, and this is like a year and a half after he won the Oscar for Idi Amin, for Last King of Scotland. So I-
Michael Redd: Sure.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: ... was really confident, I don't know why. But what's so miraculous and such a gift is he actually read it and called me. And I was so intimidated by him, I was like, "Hi." He's like, "Hi." And pretty much explained to me that he loved the story. But he said that we need to strengthen the script. And he's like, "I have a friend that can help." I go, "I have no money." That's what I said, "I have no money to hire a writer." And he's like, "No, I have a friend that can help." I'm like, "Of course, you do. You're Forest Whitaker." And I didn't know at the time that stories about culture and race and all the stuff that we're doing today resonated with him. And that was the instance that really inspired why we're still producing partners today.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So he helped me with the script, he actually went to Shanghai with me a few months after we met about it. He's like, "When are you going back again?" I said, "I'm going to go see my dad and some family and some childhood friends." And he came out with me with our writer, and it was so insane because I was so intimidated that he was coming out. I really was there just to see my dad. But he was like, "Yeah, let's go do a research trip." So he came out. The huge blessing was that all my friends from Hong Kong film are now in Shanghai, in 2009 going, "We got you." I was an assistant at that time, when I met them. But they were like, "We're all here, we're all working in film, we got you. We will rent a van, we will take Forest everywhere and show him our culture, what we do in production." And they did that for me.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And the guy who ran Shanghai Studio was once, when I met him, he was a driver for my director. And then nine years later, he's running Shanghai Studio and he's like, "Come and I'll show you what I do here." And it was just so mind blowing. And I was so happy that I had these wonderful friends from nine years ago in Hong Kong and Shanghai that welcomed us with open arms, took Forest around. And then every evening, Forest had dinner with my dad and my childhood friends. And my brothers were there and they embarrassed me and humiliated me. And I'm like, "You guys, I don't know Forest that well, you guys are going to make him not want to work with me." So we're still working together. So that's how that friendship started.
Michael Redd: That's amazing.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: We come back to the States, I worked on the script some more with him. And then concurrently, I applied for the Chinese filming permit for the film, thinking that's how I'm going to at least get that process started. But then I got notes back from I guess, China Film or the censorship board and they pretty much said, "You can't make a movie about adoption, and you can't make a movie about racism and prejudice. And you got to change all these elements of the script." And it really broke my heart. Because we couldn't be truthful about the human experience.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And I remember just feeling like a total failure. And I told Forest, I go, "We got rejected, we can't make the film over there. And I'm so sorry." That was the moment I thought, "You know what? I should just give up on this business. This is ridiculous." And then within a few months after, Forest called me and said, "I got a deal at ABC-Disney for television, why don't you come and join me? And let's start a company." Crazy, right?
Michael Redd: Wow.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So in 2010 we started significant production. And then in 2011, I met Ryan Coogler. And that's how the company was set off.
Michael Redd: Wow. You mentioned the emotions of almost wanting to give up. And this has been a really challenging year for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. Obviously, with COVID. You're dealing with social unrest, you're dealing with unemployment.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yep.
Michael Redd: How do you encourage people to not give up on their dreams in this time?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: It's such a tough year for so many people. And of course, our industry has been impacted heavily and greatly. All I can do is be there for emerging filmmakers, emerging producers, and try to be a mentor, try to answer questions about the process. I think that at the same time, I have to be really conscious of what I'm putting out there too, because it's such a sensitive time, where I feel I'm blessed that I get to continue to work, to develop projects in film and TV. But what I can do is as I continue to develop projects, I can empower writers and filmmakers to work with me. When those opportunities come through, I can empower those to join me. And that's the little bit I can do to contribute to the sustainability of our business. But it's hard because it is a tough time for so many people and to encourage people to stay on their track is tough if they can't pay their rent. And a lot of young people are struggling. There's layoffs across the board when it comes to our business.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yeah, it's a tough time. I work with a lot of different nonprofits like Coalition of Asian Pacific and Entertainment, CAPE. It's about encouraging the Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders to pursue this business. I work with Film Independent, I sit on the board there to encourage emerging filmmakers. I have my own nonprofit called Metta Collective with Mimi Valdes, and it's really, we created a shadow program for producers of color because, we also come across that, they're not producers of color, so created that. Sit on the Oscar Grant Foundation, I think through the different foundations, we're trying to create light at the end of the tunnel for people, like don't give up. It's okay to go back and live with your parents. It's okay to take this time and write. So that's all we can do. It's a really tough time.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: But to see productions go back in, here and there, like Godfather of Harlem is back in production, it's a blessing.
Michael Redd: Yeah. I love that show.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yeah. Thank you.
Michael Redd: I love that show. It's so cool.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: It's a blessing. So we're able to go back to production, we get to employ people in production. Great. We try to contribute as much as we can, I try to do it as much as I can. Also, at the same time, I had to protect my sanity and my bandwidth, so I can keep creating.
Michael Redd: Sure.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And that way, I don't feel exhausted.
Michael Redd: Well, with Metta Collective, I mean, there's such leverage and power that comes from that. When there's an aggregation of people that are like-minded, like-hearted. There's no limits to what that group can do. Which is a powerful, powerful play. I think one of the legacies that you're building too, Nina is you're building a legacy of a bridge builder, between races and between, particularly the Asian-American and African-Americans, around the world, well, within this country. And how important is that to you, in this time and day?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I am so glad you brought that up, because it's really my personal mandate. And also Forest is about that, too. I think there's a lot of divide between the Black community and the Asian community for a long time. And I'm trying to bridge that gap by creating and saying that we can support each other. With solidarity, we can have more strength. And in storytelling. And it's a process, it's quite a process, because Asian-Americans would be upset with me, early on when I'm producing Fruitvale or Dope or Roxanne Roxanne. They would be like, "You just make Black films." I go, "No, man, I make good films. So stop it." And then I go, "Furthermore, guess who my financing partners are for these films that people won't touch?" And everybody's like, "What are you talking about?" I go, "They're my Asian-American friends." And everybody's like, "What?"
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So it's constantly having that conversation, but also have that conversation with my African-American peers in the business. It's like there's some animosity between our two communities. How do we bridge that? How can we work together, not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera? How do we partner up and do that? And it's important, I think 2018 was a pivotal year for that, when Black Panther came out. And then you got Crazy Rich Asians that came out and both broke amazing records. And I'm like, "Wow, look, two very powerful communities that are breaking records and shattering expectations." So that was a really good time to reignite that conversation, but also looking for stories that represent that. I worked on and produced a doc feature about Stephon Marbury. And it's called A Kid From Coney Island. I don't know if you got to see it, Michael.
Michael Redd: My fellow NBA guy. Yeah.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yes. When I first met Stephon, I'm like... I first met him in 2014. And it was right after Fruitvale Station. And I wrote him an email and found his email, wrote him an email and I'm like, "He would be the perfect bridge." I'm like, "Here he is, in China doing his thing, and here I am in Hollywood doing mine." And wrote him an email and said, "I'd love to do a story about you." And he was so funny. He wrote me back and said, "Get on FaceTime so I can look you in the face to making sure you're not full of it, full of shit." That's what he said.
Michael Redd: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And I was like, "Oh, God, how do you get on FaceTime with Stephon Marbury?" But we got along really well on FaceTime, laughed about everything and he was cool. He was like, "I checked you out. You're legit." I was like, "Okay." And then he goes, "Well, when you get a chance to come to Beijing, and we can meet up and talk." I go, "Sure." So my brother, at the time was in Shanghai he met me in Beijing, Stephon's sister, Marcia, met us in Beijing. So it was like two siblings, his side and my side, hung out for like a whole week together and just really loved the synergy, loved the conversation, cried about the stories that Stephon and his family have gone through. And set out to make this documentary about his journey. But the big purpose was that bridge that you're talking about, it's like bridging cultures.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And one thing is basketball, is that international language to bridge cultures. And that was like my, I would say intention. And I really love the film. I loved how it turned out. But talking about producing, Michael, docs are hard.
Michael Redd: Oh, my goodness. Well, I mean, Angela Davis, that project, Stephon Marbury, I mean, you guys are doing it, man. Where do you see the industry in the next five years? When it comes to the storytelling aspect of things for different races and ethnicities? How do you see that progressing in Hollywood?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I think opportunities will open up more, where Hollywood is definitely more aware of being inclusive. But right now, we just got to make sure that it's not all performative. It has to be real.
Michael Redd: Yep.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: So stories from the Native American Indigenous communities are given opportunities to be told.
Michael Redd: Yep.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yeah, that's one thing I'm constantly fighting for, is budget equity. For the longest time, when we develop a story, a Black narrative, or Asian narrative or any POC narrative, it's always like, "Well, a little less or a lot less. Because it's a very small market." Which is all bullcrap. So it's, budget equity, to me, is important. I hope in the next five years that we do get healthier budgets to make our films and our television series and anything in the creative endeavor. That's number one.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: And then two, is to allow emerging storytellers of color to really come into play. To allow them in the writers' room and television, to work with the Writers Guild of America, to allow them to be part of the process. They don't have to be proven writers and produced and all that before they get into the Guild. It's making those paths, opening up this path for people to be part of the process. That way we get more authentic perspectives when it comes to different cultures.
Michael Redd: So we talked about the future, let me ask you a question about the past. If you could go back to your 16 year old self, what advice would you have for yourself?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Wow, I had a lot of angst when I was 16. I would tell myself that don't be stressed about the little stuff. Don't sweat the little stuff. There's a bigger picture out there for someone like you to make a difference through storytelling. And that is actually a possibility. And it could actually be a career.
Michael Redd: Wow. Beautifully said. Nina, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast. I learned so much. And it's an honor to have you on. Thank you so much for being on-
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Thank you, Michael. I would love the opportunity to get to know what you do in the future, in the near future. Because I was reading about your bio and what you've been doing, and I would love to know more.
Michael Redd: Absolutely. I would love to share with you. Maybe we can connect after the podcast.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Yes, for sure.
Michael Redd: Yes. Yes. Well, listen, you've listened to Betting On Yourself and just realize that you are the secret to your success. Thank you.
Nina Yang Bongiovi: Thank you. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Michael.
Michael Redd: Thank you, Nina. What an incredible story Nina has. I love her positive attitude and focus on making a difference in the world. I can't wait to see what she does next with her talent and experience. To learn more about Nina's work, and to follow her story, you can follow her on Instagram at N-Y-B-O-N-G-I-O-V-I. Thanks for listening. And until next time, I'm Michael Redd. And remember, you are the secret to your success.
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