Chris Lee, founder and director of the Academy for Creative Media System, appeared on Beyond The Lines, a local show exploring issues of leadership, achievement and success, to discuss his career, career tips, and the evolution of the ACM at the University of Hawaii and UH West Oʻahu.
Lee, who was President of Production for TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures before moving back to Hawaiʻi, appeared on the July 23 broadcast of the show, a copy of which has been uploaded to YouTube. Lee sat down with Rusty Komori, host of Beyond The Lines, and author of a book by the same name, to answer questions about his achievements and ACM.
Lee discussed his journey from ʻIolani School to Yale University and then to New York, where he worked on Good Morning America. Positions helping filmmaker Wayne Wang eventually led him to Los Angeles where he worked as a freelance script analyst and eventually became the first minority President of Production of a Hollywood film studio. During his Hollywood career, Lee oversaw Academy Award-winning films (Jerry Maguire, Philadelphia, and As Good as it Gets) as well as Executive Produced Superman Returns and Valkyrie.
Lee provided insight into the founding of ACM in 2002 and related information including:
- ACM was born when Lee expanded upon a UH request to help establish a film school at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa into a system-wide initiative. He was instrumental in pushing the concept of enhancing creative media resources on all 10 UH campuses and helping raise public and private funding for the venture. “I felt that if you could get the programs to work together, the whole would be stronger than the parts,” Lee told Komori.
- The ACM program originally set up on the Mānoa campus was modeled after traditional film schools, like USC and the American Film Institute. Lee said the Mānoa campus’ program has developed fantastic filmmakers. Lee noted he is most proud of graduates who’ve stayed in Hawaiʻi and gotten jobs, but he also noted there are graduates working for firms such BlumHouse Productions, which has produced films such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Paranormal Activity.
- Creative Media is changing quickly as technology evolves. “When we started there was no YouTube, no Facebook, there was no Instagram, there was no Snapchat, there was no smartphone,” Lee said. “Everything has changed because of technology in a very, very short period of time and the modes of production and distribution have completely changed. You have to be aware of that and keep moving forward like that.”
- Lee is clearly proud when he talks of a new ACM building that will start construction next year at the UH West Oʻahu campus. At the same time he knows he has to be flexible. “The building we’re making will be as much future-proof as possible,” said Lee, who is on the UH West Oʻahu campus weekly, though his UH System office is at the Manoa Innovation Center. “We don’t know what’s coming down the line. We do work now with a lot of this emerging stuff like VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality).”
- As much as things change, some things remain central. “I don’t know what kind of shapes and forms storytelling will take in the future, but it does come down to just telling stories. That’s always going to be a key thing that we can impart to our students because they do have a lot of great ideas for stories, but then we’ve got to figure out how to tease it out [of them] and figure out how to [help them] tell it.”
- Hawaiʻi needs full-fledged film studio facilities. Lee believes Hawaiʻi’s film production industry would flourish with the added capacity and he hopes that facility will also be built on the UHWO campus to provide even more opportunties for our students and graduates.
Lee also parceled out advice and observations when queried by Komori, noting that people from Hawaiʻi should not feel they can’t be successful on the mainland. He pointed out that Albert Cheng, a Punahou School graduate, is chief operating officer of Amazon Studios as well as it’s co-head of television. Ryan Higa, a former Hilo resident, is a successful YouTube personality, he said. Lee also recommended people be willing to explore different things and take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. He did so himself when he left a good segment producer job with Good Morning America in New York City to get into the movie business in an unpaid job with Wang on the West Coast.
In terms of business advice, Lee spoke of having to find the right people. “That’s the most important lesson I can give anybody,” he said. “No matter how good your vision is, if you can’t find the right people to execute it, it’s not going to work.”
Lee also shed light on pitfalls for successful people. “I think it’s really easy to suffer from hubris. To think you know it all and think you are the smartest person in the room when you rarely are. I prefer to put myself in a room where everyone else is smarter than me, and to continually learn from them.”