When Marty Chen thinks about the kind of movie he’d like to produce and distribute someday, he envisions an uplifting drama about impoverished indigenous Taiwanese kids who fulfill their dream of becoming athletes and competing in the Olympics. The idea recalls his volunteer work with teenage weightlifters at a sports academy in Taiwan, where he spent much of his childhood. “I want to bring more fuel and inspiration to people who need it,” he explains.
Chen, who has moved across the Pacific multiple times over the past 30-plus years, doesn’t just want to see more Asian stories on the screen, he wants to get them there. Looking at a global entertainment industry in which Asians remain underrepresented, Chen thinks the problem is not just a matter of bias or erasure but one of access. Many Asian content creators, he says, aren’t connected to the production and distribution networks that they need to reach not only Asian viewers but wider audiences seeking great entertainment that transcends geography and culture.
“Access to opportunities often is based upon having friends and an immediate network to provide you with referrals. I feel like there should be a way to democratize it more,” Chen says. “The whole idea is to build something that would enable us to surface this talent more easily.”
As a student in the Stanford MSx Program, Chen aims to acquire more of the expertise he’ll need to create a television and movie “production powerhouse” to provide platforms to a new generation of creators.
As someone who’s gone back and forth between the U.S. and Asia, how has your cross-cultural experience influenced you?
I was born in the U.S., but six months later my family moved back to Taiwan. We came back to the U.S. for a year, and I went to elementary school in Boston. But other than that, I essentially grew up in Taiwan. In my senior year of high school, I came back to California. By college graduation I had attended 10 different schools, and by age 30, I had worked in three different countries. Moving so frequently was thrilling, but it also was isolating.
Media content was a constant in my life, something that gave me an outlet to express and relate. I started first grade knowing only the words “yes” and “no” in English, but ended the year reenacting full scenes from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When I went back to Taiwan, I struggled with the rote memorization and cram culture, so I transferred to a creative arts program where I studied Chinese literature through stage plays and learned the history of aboriginal people in Taiwan through song and dance. In high school, I explored a blend of Eastern and Western films and books. Dead Poets Society challenged me to pursue my interests, while Wuxia [a fantasy genre about ancient martial arts warriors] taught me to honor brotherhood.
You’ve had a wide range of professional experiences as well, from toy marketing at Disney and advertising to working with streaming content creators. What led you to your current aspirations?
The inspiration really came from my work at YouTube, which was business development and partnerships in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I worked with all sorts of media partners, from TV broadcasters and music labels to emerging digital media companies and independent creators. I was particularly influenced by working with the younger digital native creators who are born on YouTube. Back in 2013, they were a bunch of nobodies who were passionate about creating videos and content. Then they turned into household names. I was able to see the rise of this phenomenon, where anyone could create content and make a living.
I wanted to bring that to a larger platform, because I know that storytelling contains protections for people. There are so many different kinds of world-class talent, but there is a mismatch between supply and demand. Access to opportunities often is based upon having friends and an immediate network to provide you with referrals. I feel like there should be a way to democratize it more. The whole idea is to build something that would enable us to surface this talent more easily.
How would your platform for surfacing Asian entertainment talent work?
It wouldn’t be a streaming platform — that’s something for Netflix and Amazon. The holy grail would be to build a production powerhouse like A24, which distributed the 2021 Golden Globe winner Minari. You could drive narratives from different parts of the world with an Asian perspective and have an eye for up-and-coming directors. Ideally, I’d like to get in early in the process, in pipeline development, where you’re talking to the writers about how you create a more global-friendly type of narrative from the get-go. Asian stories obviously would be one of the hooks, but we don’t want to just to do that — it would be creating an island for ourselves. We want to have a wider appeal.
We’ve seen a lot of successes with YouTube short skits being developed to full-scale series on Hulu or Amazon. I think it’s just a matter of time for us to develop more of these stories from more parts of the world. The goal really is to create opportunities for the Asian talent pool, and increase its penetration in the entertainment industry. And not just for directors and actors and actresses. There’s an even bigger gap in opportunity for other types of talent, such as production and post-production.
You’ve proposed an Asian version of Black Entertainment Television. Why do you think that sort of platform would be beneficial?
Why is it that in 2021, the only predominantly Asian American cast on a major American TV network is still in the kung fu genre [on the CW series Kung Fu]? Despite all the talk of Asian American representation from Hollywood, it’s clear that we must do more to move past old tropes. We need an Asian-owned and -operated media network to tell stories of our culture and identity consistently and authentically so America can understand who we are. Imagine a channel that showcases unique international crossovers, like the Vietnamese rapper Sơn Tùng M-TP’s 2019 hit featuring Snoop Dogg, or YouTube sensation Uncle Roger teaching world-renowned chefs to make egg fried rice.
The idea of emulating BET is that it really was the symbol of Black entertainment in the 1980s, yet its content resonated beyond its core demographic. The same is happening with Asian content — animation and K-pop have won audiences around the globe, and I believe that’s just the beginning. In fact, I’d argue that the world we live in today is all hyphenated and intertwined already — we just need the media to catch up, and also push the boundary at the same time.
What led you to Stanford, and how is your experience here helping you to achieve those goals?
What attracted me to Stanford was the classes focusing on entrepreneurship, startups, and business models, which I thought would expose me to new frameworks. And I thought the solution to the problem I was hoping to solve had to come through technology. I also came to Stanford to double-down on my writing, leadership thinking, and communication skills. I wanted better tools to help me to access people who can move the needle. Being Asian, our stakes are so high. If you come in with an accent or misuse a word, there’s a point deduction. Another thing that appealed to me was the MSx program, which enables you to get through in one year.
In your spare time, you host The Marty Party Podcast, where you have conversations with an eclectic assortment of Asian entrepreneurs, such as Meng Chiang, a former attorney turned pro poker player and sommelier. Do you have further ambitions in that medium?
Definitely. My podcast has allowed me to have honest conversations with people from all over the world to talk about unspoken feelings and unfiltered stories, all from my own living room. I found that I was not only uncovering a story for myself, but I was also collecting stories that I can share with everyone. I’m using podcasting to learn stories that are inspiring and share those with other people.
Photos by Tricia Seibold