The American Film You Might Never See
Originally published at fictiondiversity.com on March 2, 2015.
When Sony Pictures Entertainment announced plans to produce a movie adaptation of Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt last April, my initial concern was that the adaptation would misrepresent the characters as they appeared in the book. But in December 2014, emails leaked from the Sony Pictures hack suggested that that the Flash Boys movie adaptation might be delayed or even scrapped. In those emails, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin expressed his reluctance to adapt the screenplay despite the fact that he had already been paid an “insane fee” to do so.
Flash Boys is not about young exhibitionist males. It’s actually Michael Lewis’ latest book about the rise of high frequency trading (HFT) algorithms in the US equity market and the intrigue surrounding one man’s campaign to expose and neutralize the predatory algorithms used against investors. The book spent four weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller list in 2014.
In the time since those emails leaked, the reasons for Sorkin’s reluctance have gone largely unchallenged (with few exceptions). So here we ask: are Sorkin’s reasons valid, or is there something else going on? And why is Flash Boys a story that needs to be told on the silver screen anyway?
The reasons that Sorkin gave for his reluctance were threefold:
- No precedent. “There’s no precedent for stories about high frequency trading creating a stampede to the box office.”
- Flash Boys has no plot. “I need time to come up with a plot as one doesn’t exist in the book.”
- Flash Boys’ protagonist is Asian. “The protagonist is Asian-American (Actually Asian-Canadian) and there aren’t any Asian movie stars.”
Let’s test the validity of Sorkin’s concerns…
1. NO PRECEDENT
Sorkin is right. There is no precedent “for stories about high frequency trading creating a stampede to the box office.” But then again, there was no precedent for stories about sabermetrics and statistically-based sports recruiting in Major League Baseball. And that didn’t stop him from adapting Moneyball from a “geek-stats book” into “a movie with a lot of heart.”
2. NO PLOT
Anyone who believes that Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt has no plot has clearly not read the book. Those who have read it know that the main plot exists around Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) banker Brad Katsuyama, with a handful of ancillary characters in concurrent story lines. The premise is “really quite simple.” It’s Jerry Maguire meets Erin Brockovich with an Irish Cuba Gooding Jr. for comic relief.
Here’s the main plot as I imagine it:
Twenty-four year old Brad Katsuyama has a decent gig working for the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto. He is eventually transferred to New York, where as a mild-mannered Canadian, he’s a fish out of water. A few years in, Brad begins to investigate the anomalies he's found in his trade executions. His investigation leads him from the trading desk down into the recesses of the technology side, where as an Asian male, he is able to fly under the radar. The more Brad digs, the more he’s convinced that faceless, sophisticated computer algorithms have been preying on investors at all the major stock exchanges. But there’s still a missing link…
Technologist Ronan Ryan, another fish out of water, is a cheeky, yet capable Irishman in the midst of the HFT labyrinth that he has unwittingly been instrumental in building. With his detailed maps of the fiber optic systems that he’s installed for other investment banks, Ronan is the missing puzzle piece in Brad’s investigation. Brad hires Ronan on the spot, and he quickly becomes his trusted sidekick. Brad, Ronan and others develop a product called Thor that protects their clients from predatory computer algorithms. Thor becomes so successful that they cannot continue operating within the confines of RBC…
In a daring leap of faith reminiscent of Jerry Maguire, Brad, Ronan, Rob Park, John Schwall and others leave the security of their jobs at RBC. Amidst uncertainty and skepticism among their industry peers, they build a team to start the Investor’s Exchange (IEX). They bill themselves as the one and only stock exchange built with integrity and fairness, protecting their investor clients from the “dark pools” within which they’ve been preyed upon by HFT algorithms. But will the investment banks send their orders through IEX? Will IEX succeed? One of the closing scenes has Brad, Ronan, Rob, John et al. standing at the computer display in anticipation…
Here’s a quick summary of the subplots as they exist in Michael Lewis’ book:
- Ronan Ryan and his childhood in Ireland, his move to Connecticut at 16, his Wall Street ambitions, and his role in installing the HFT fiber optic systems throughout northern New Jersey.
- Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian programmer living in suburban New Jersey who was wrongfully imprisoned for corporate espionage/theft of Goldman Sachs’ intellectual property.
- Dan Spivey’s quixotic quest to build the straightest, shortest fiber optic line from Chicago to northern New Jersey.
- The guys who survived 9/11: Don Bollerman and Zoran Perkov and how their experiences influenced the trajectory of their careers.
Like him or not, Aaron Sorkin is, at the very least, talented enough to assemble these stories in a compelling way. On shows like the West Wing and The Newsroom, he’s demonstrated his skill at weaving several plots together and building them up to a crescendo before tying them up in a compact denouement. If he can do it in one television episode, there’s no reason why he couldn’t do it in a 100 minute film. And with CGI infographics and other effects, the book’s cerebral intrigue and HFT machinations can easily be dramatized (e.g. Blackhat, A Beautiful Mind, BBC’s Sherlock, House of Cards).
3. FLASH BOYS’ PROTAGONIST IS ASIAN-AMERICAN/CANADIAN, BUT THERE ARE NO ASIAN MOVIE STARS.
It’s true that when financing big studio films, the bankability of actors is a critical deciding factor. It is also true that even the most prominent Asian American actors in the business are nowhere near as bankable as Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts. But Hollywood decision makers also give serious consideration to the bankability of directors, screenwriters and the original source material. And when a movie is based upon original source material with a cult following (e.g.The Hunger Games, The Notebook, The Fault in Our Stars), producers don’t always need to rely on starpower.
When adapting material with an existing fan base, studios can afford to take calculated risks with unknown talent. This strategy is used on a regular basis because less prominent actors command lower salaries, helping to keep costs under budget. Before the 2004 release of The Notebook, for example, no one could have identified Ryan Gosling or any of his prior work. But Gosling’s obscurity didn’t get in the way of the $115,603,229 that The Notebook earned at the box office.
With regard to Flash Boys, it would be hard to dispute the market appeal of another Michael Lewis adaptation, especially after the successes of The Blind Side and Moneyball. With Lewis’ cult following and the excitement that Sorkin’s name generates in trade publications, Sony Pictures can afford to risk casting some relatively unknown actors who also happen to be Asian American/Canadian. With Aaron Sorkin and Scott Rudin on board, the prospect of a hit movie becomes more tangible (though some may now see Rudin as a liability).
The recent box office success of The Fault in Our Stars is proof that less prominent lead actors such as Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort can still be quite profitable. Unless robust studies prove otherwise, there’s no reason why this proof couldn’t also apply to Asian American or Canadian actors. There are many qualified American and Canadian actors of Asian descent who are more recognizable than Woodley and Elgort. All they need is a breakout role.
COULDN’T SONY JUST MAKE BRAD KATSUYAMA WHITE?
They could totally do that and succeed. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Asian actors were swapped out for white actors (whitewashed). But Sorkin should be praised for not even considering that option because Hollywood whitewashing undervalues the talent of Asian actors and keeps their careers from advancing beyond a “bamboo ceiling.”
In just the past week, much has been written and tweeted regarding the need for diversity in film and television, but the quality of diverse roles is just as important. Diverse roles are meaningless if Asians are relegated to roles as villains, accessories, props, or goofy foreigners because they perpetuate Americans’ perception of Asian Americans as foreigners in their own land. And such pervasive perpetual foreigner stereotypes have resulted in adverse social and psychological effects so broad, they are the topic of a whole other discussion.
Because film and television are among America’s most influential exports, Americans’ perceptions also become global perceptions. So, as influencers of global culture, American content creators have a moral obligation to be more inclusive of all Americans in their creative endeavors.
In short, Sony could make Brad Katsuyama white, but it would not represent our reality.
THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER PROJECTS OUT THERE, WHY FLASH BOYS?
Even though diverse casts deliver higher ratings and earn more at the box office, producers claim to need bulletproof reasons to cast Asians in any given role. This is whether or not these roles are based on real people, or on content originally from Asia. Flash Boys is important because it is the first story since Bringing Down the House to have such bulletproof reasons to cast Asians in central heroic roles that are not ethnicity-specific.
Brad Katsuyama (center) and the IEX team
Flash Boys is a true story with (North) American heroes who just happen to be of Asian descent. Unlike Juan Rico in Starship Troopers, or Keiji Kiriya in All You Need Is Kill, Brad Katsuyama is a real guy (not to mention Rob Park, Allen Zhang, Francis Chung, Billy Zhao, and Larry Yu). And unlike The Last Airbender or Sailor Moon, the Flash Boys story is about real people in the real world.
It’s ironic that in his December op-ed in The New York Times, Sorkin wrote that “[Hollywood] is a town of powerful people — leaders and risk-takers who create things that have the power to start and change conversations.” What Sorkin fails to see is that the reason why “there aren’t any Asian movie stars” is because creative leaders such as himself are unwilling to take the same risks with Asian talent that they’ve been willing to take with actors such as Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman, and Chris Hemsworth.
Stories like Flash Boys don’t come by very often. If creative leaders pass on it for the wrong reasons, it would be a missed opportunity to elevate the careers of more than just one Asian actor. It would be a missed opportunity to elevate the image of Asian Americans (especially Asian males) from the cultural ghetto to which they’ve been relegated as perpetual foreigners for the past 150 years.
HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS…
American freedom is a wonderful thing, and Aaron Sorkin shouldn’t be forced into a job that he doesn’t want to do. But Sorkin is far from the only creative leader in Hollywood. Since his antiquated perspective on the industry makes him less relevant in this century, there are many young enlightened leaders who are ready to take his place.
Instead of whining about Hollywood’s systemic under-representation, diverse creative leaders have the vision to take risks and become part of the solution. Filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez find it “easier and more efficient to build a whole new system from the ground up.” Instead of waiting for opportunities to be handed out, Rodriguez says that “It’s more empowering if we do it ourselves,” and “taking it upon ourselves to create the opportunities.” Let’s hope that Sony Pictures has like-minded creative leaders waiting in the wings so that the Flash Boys story can be told in an inclusive, responsible way.
BUT WHAT IF I’M NOT A CREATIVE LEADER? WHAT CAN I DO?
Just because you’re not a creative leader or a content creator doesn’t mean that you don’t have a role to play. If you believe that the Flash Boys story is an important American story, there’s a lot you can do.
If you’ve read Flash Boys, who would you cast?
Update! Part 2: Em Liu in her new role as self-proclaimed casting director!
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Originally published at fictiondiversity.com on March 2, 2015.