In just a few years, Bryson Chun has gone from teaching at Pearl City High School to working as a writer on a new animated series for the Walt Disney Co. A key to Chun’s meteoric rise, he says, is Ohina Labs, a volunteer organization based in the Chinatown offices of a Honolulu media company.
Ohina Labs’ co-founder Gerard Elmore describes the group as the quintessential underdog, running on “duct tape and sardines and crackers.” Ohina is so small that it simply doesn’t have the time to deal with the red tape of being a nonprofit and instead operates as a limited liability corporation, but with volunteers.
Nonetheless, in six years, Ohina Labs has helped approximately 60 aspiring filmmakers like Chun. A fellowship program connects budding auteurs with Hollywood writers who have worked on big movies and television shows like “Black Panther,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Narcos” and “Newsroom.”
Ohina has gone on to pick up six of the fellows’ projects to develop into short films. The shorts in turn have won awards close to home, at the Hawaii International Film Festival, and at festivals such as Amsterdam’s New Renaissance Film Festival. Perhaps more important, the short projects serve as calling cards.
Supporting Homegrown Talent
It adds up to a key resource for people making the leap from film school to the profession, said Christine Acham, chair of the film program at the University of Hawaii Manoa, which is officially called ACM: The School of Cinematic Arts. Although students work on their own films as capstone projects before graduation, Ohina is creating more opportunities by bringing in mentors from Hollywood for Ohina labs to make better short films.
“The short film is really an important part of the portfolio,” she said.
More broadly, Acham said, Ohina’s work is beginning to address a critical issue facing Hawaii’s local film industry.
Hawaii has ample jobs for crew working on movies and television shows, thanks to a tax incentive program that provides tens of millions of dollars annually to productions. But there are relatively few homegrown writers, directors and producers — known as above-the-line positions — working on the projects.
“Making that leap to above-the-line jobs is really difficult,” Acham said.
Lawmakers Are Battling The State Film Commission
The issue is more than trivial. Motion picture and television production plays a substantial role in Hawaii’s economy. Recent movies and television shows shot in the islands include CBS’ “NCIS: Hawaii” and “Magnum PI” (now on NBC), HBO’s “White Lotus,” Disney+’s “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.,” and Warner Bros.’ “Aquaman” and “Lost Kingdom.”
According to a 2020 study by the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s research and economic analysis division, motion picture productions spent $128.1 million on goods and services that qualified for rebates from the state. The qualified expenditures included wages and salaries to local workers of $36.6 million, wages and salaries to out-of-state workers of $45.4 and spending on goods and services in Hawaii of $43.3 million.
In turn the productions claimed $24.7 million in rebates.
“Out of this $128.1 million, total leakage of film production spending is estimated to be $35.8 million, which is the sum of wage and salary payments to non-resident workers and spending on out-of-state goods and services minus out-of-state workers’ spending in Hawai‘i,” DBEDT reported.
The work adds up to about 2,000 jobs in Hawaii across a range of occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, out-of-state professionals get the bulk of above-the-line positions.
According to DBEDT’s 2020 study, 144 of 174 above-the-line jobs that year went to nonresidents while 30 went to residents. 155 of 264 department head jobs went to people from out of state while 109 went to residents.
Lawmakers this past session introduced a bill to change Hawaii’s film incentives to create more local jobs. But the proposal set off a clash between Hawaii Film Commissioner Donne Dawson and Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz.
Things got so ugly that Dela Cruz and two other senators filed a formal grievance against Dawson, accusing her of lying to entertainment industry leaders about the bill. Sen. Kurt Fevella also has attacked the state film office, saying it has failed to make sure productions hire enough local talent.
Ohina’s work inherently addresses these problems — particularly related to above-the-line jobs — by leveraging connections in Hollywood to help aspiring filmmakers. The results are real.
“There’s so much talent out there. But how do we give that talent the tools they need to succeed?”
Dana Ledoux Miller, screenwriter, co-founder Pacifica Entertainment Advancement Komiti
Even a passing conversation can have a life-changing impact on an Ohina fellow, says Chun. A case in point is an encounter the Disney writer recalls having during his fellowship. Chun’s assigned mentor was Eric Pearson, whose credits include “Thor: Ragnarok” and other Marvel Studios movies. So Pearson helped Chun with “Other People,” the short film Chun made for Ohina.
But at one point during the fellowship, Chun approached Dana Ledoux Miller, another mentor, known for television series like “Narcos.” When Chun expressed his interest in writing for television, Ledoux Miller asked if he had written a pilot.
“I was like, ‘No,’” Chun says. “It was like an ‘aha’ moment. Maybe to be a TV writer you should write some TV scripts.”
So he did just that. The result: his pilot script “Poi Dogs” was picked by the prestigious Black List for its inaugural Indigenous List. Since then, Chun has gone on to bigger things, including working as a staff writer for the show “Doogie Kamealoha.” But he attributes much to his conversation with Ledoux Miller.
“All of these things snowballed from Dana saying I should write a TV pilot,” he said. “That is the moment that changed everything.”
Ledoux Miller says she’s happy to hear it. Now a writer for Disney’s upcoming live-action film “Moana,” Ledoux Miller, who is Samoan, co-founded Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti to help fellow Pacific Islanders like Chun develop as filmmakers.
“There’s so much talent out there,” she said. “But how do we give that talent the tools they need to succeed?”
Ohina’s model is simple. The organization selects 10 fellows each year based on applications that must include a short film screenplay or web series pilot up to 15 pages long.
Fellows go through an intensive program. One day involves an introduction plus going over extensive notes on their scripts from mentors. On the second and final day, the fellows incorporate the notes into their scripts and develop a pitch, which they present to the mentors and Ohina executives. In addition to Pearson and Ledoux Miller, mentors have included Joe Robert Cole, a co-writer of “Black Panther.”
Judges ultimately select one winner for the Ohina Greenlight Award. Ohina will fund and produce the winning script. It’s all done on a shoestring. Financial support comes from the nonprofit Pacific Islanders In Communications. In addition to the lab projects, Ohina has collaborated with PIC on nearly a dozen other projects.
The result is a string of films that punch above their weight. Filmmaker Alika Maikau’s Ohina film “Mauka to Makai” won the Best Made in Hawaii Short Film award at the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival. Maikau later made history as the first recipient of a $500,000 grant from Google and film company Array. Maikau said he’s using the grant to adapt his short film “Moloka’i Bound,” which won best live-action short at the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in 2019, into a feature.
Erin Lau, another former Ohina fellow, says her Ohina film, “The Moon and the Night,” which she started as a Master of Fine Arts student at Chapman University, truly launched her career. The film later was a semifinalist in the 2018 student BAFTA awards, which directly led to her landing representation with an agent, lawyer and manager from United Talent Agency. She eventually spent three years making digital shorts exploring social and political issues for Brooklyn-based Jubilee Films.
A key Ohina collaborator is Nella Media Group, where Elmore is vice president of film. On a recent morning, Elmore was in a meeting room at NMG’s Chinatown offices while two of the company’s filmmakers, Romeo Lapitan and Blake Abes, were testing a camera rig to be used to shoot a scene for a short film called “Kukini,” a Greenlight award winner written by the singer Paula Fuga.
Fuga had seen a showcase of Ohina films and was inspired. Her film is essentially a chase movie set in 1790, about a Hawaiian messenger warning of Kamehameha I’s invasion of Maui. Fuga’s prominence as an artist has enabled her to attract numerous collaborators, including the curator of a collection of museum-quality feathered capes to use as costumes, Elmore said.
Elmore’s role making content for NMG clients like Hawaiian Airlines gives him access to gear and talent like Abes and Lapitan. Later that morning Elmore and NMG’s brand production manager, Kaitlyn Ledzian, scout a location at Wall-To-Wall Studios Inc.’s Honolulu offices. The design form happens to have the fuselage and cockpit of a vintage Douglas DC-3 airplane in their office, and Elmore and Ledzian were checking out the plane to use in a film about 1940s flight attendants.
It’s all part of Elmore’s day: editing an Ohina short, scouting a location, conferring with his young camera operators – one thing flowing into another. In the end it’s all about making movies, and doing so in Hawaii.
Lau, who now lives in Los Angeles, said there’s a temptation for young writers, producers and directors to move to Hollywood without bothering to develop their chops first in Hawaii. But, she said, there’s value for everyone in taking time to develop skills and connections at home.
“I think we’ve gotten farther in our careers because we’ve helped and inspired each other,” Lau said. “I think the key to having a healthy film ecosystem in Hawaii is to do that.”