The Paper Tigers: How I Spent Six Years Making a Kung Fu Movie

Producer Al’n Duong talks about the time he turned down $4 million to make his dream film.

Part One: The Money Problem

It takes a village, some faith, plenty of tears, a trip to the ER, and a bit of luck to make a feature film.

It all started back in 2013 when my friend and film director, Bao Tran, got me in a bar and pitched me a kung fu movie about three friends who have to avenge their master’s death. The catch is that they’re now middle-aged, out of shape, and with jobs and children to ignore.

At that point of my life, I had just been hired as a video producer at an amazing gaming company in Seattle. My wife was pregnant and due to give birth later that summer.

Behind the scenes of The Paper Tigers film, featuring actors Joziah Lagonoy and Alain Uy posing one-legged on cans of paint
Behind the scenes of The Paper Tigers, featuring actors Joziah Lagonoy and Alain Uy
Photo credit: Alwin Szeto

I had zero experience producing a feature film, but I was eager to achieve one of my life goals: to make a kung fu film.

We raised $100,000 from family and friends to put together a 10-minute proof of concept that would help us raise funds for the rest of the movie.

The 10-minute film featured our main characters as children who have a taste for “dojo busting,” or challenge matches.

The young leads are played by Kieran Tamondong (Warrior), Bryan Kinder, and Malakai James — while the teen versions feature Yoshi Sudarso (Buffalo Boys, Power Rangers), Peter Sudarso (Power Rangers), and Gui DaSilva-Greene (Captain America: Civil War, Pacific Rim: Uprising). Their kung fu master is played by veteran actor Roger Yuan (Shanghai Noon, Disney’s upcoming live-action Mulan, John Wick 3).

Based on the strength of our footage from our proof of concept, we were one of 10 projects worldwide to be accepted to pitch our film at the Cannes Film Festival under the Frontières Platform, an incubator for independent filmmakers.

Bao and I flew to France and only had 30 seconds to pitch our film to hundreds of buyers. It was an extraordinary opportunity to learn how films are packaged in the global market. 

We certainly received our fair share of feedback: 

“Why don’t you cast Jackie Chan?”

“There are plenty of kung fu movies being made in China.”

“Is there an Asian American audience?”

As creatives, we understood how to filter feedback, but one common question really stuck out to us:

“Can a leading cast with Asian Americans / people of colour be successful in the market?”

Keep in mind, we pitched our movie before Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther came out. We had no movies to compare ourselves to.

There was no data to prove that an Asian American film could be a box office hit like Crazy Rich Asians. There was no proof that a cast of POC could make a cultural impact like Black Panther. We couldn’t wait for data to change the industry — we chose to go out there ourselves.

After Cannes, one studio threw an offer on the table. They liked our concept. They liked the script. They offered four million dollars to make our film, but with one caveat:

The lead actor had to be Caucasian.

I’m not going to lie. Four million was a lot of money, especially when we only needed a portion of it to shoot the movie. This money would have relieved us from our financial concerns, but at what cost?

We walked away.

Behind the scenes of The Paper Tigers, featuring actors Alain Uy, Phillip Dang, and Brian Le
Photo credit: Alwin Szeto

To sacrifice our own story for money would continue a vicious cycle of bigger studios dictating what absurd stories get told. The popular narrative is to blame old white people for being gatekeepers, but our experience has shown that it’s a way of thinking adopted by an archaic industry.

Out of frustration, we decided to go public with our proof of concept and started a Kickstarter campaign. We not only wanted to raise money for our film, but we also wanted to prove once and for all that there was an audience for our movie.

Against all the advice we were given, we decided to make our fundraising goal to be $110,000. We needed a statement win.

On day one, we were off to a hot start, earning $15,000 in pledges. The reception on social media was fantastic. For the next three weeks, though, our pledge rate plateaued. We were stuck at 50% of our goal with only days left to go.

Around the same time, popular Asian American blogger, Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man, wrote a blog post about our Kickstarter campaign and also tweeted about our film.

It was at this moment that we got the attention of supporters such as Ronny Chieng (The Daily Show, Crazy Rich Asians) and Jeff and Hudson Yang (Fresh Off the Boat). Their support alone was a giant megaphone for us to find that audience we were desperately looking for.

Over the course of one day, we gained over $60,000 in pledges and ultimately smashed our goal with over $124,000.

We found our audience.

And our kung fu film was getting made.

This post is part of a series about the making of The Paper Tigers movie. Check out Part Two here.

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