CAAM Fellowship Behind-the-Scenes: Mentor Karin Chien

A long haired Chinese American woman, who has some grey hair, is looking over a document at a table.
CAAM Fellowship Mentor Karin Chien with filmmaker Xu Tong at the Trainspotting Cafe in Beijing.
"In 2010, CAAM took a bold step. We started a 5-year professional mentoring program focused on Asian Americans working in every aspect of the fiction industries – film, TV, interactive, and immersive."

Editor’s note: We are launching a blog series, “CAAM Fellowship Behind-the-Scenes,” featuring voices from our first cohort of the New CAAM Fellowship Program, including our mentors and fellows. We are kicking the series off with a reflection from Mentor Karin Chien, a producer, educator and distributor committed to championing independent voices.

In the summer of 2009, over coffee in Manhattan, a film programmer asked for feedback about his idea to address inequities facing Asian Americans in film and TV.

The approach he was advocating? Convening an academic summit.

Dialogue, interrogation into systemic histories, and critical thinking are important. But in that moment, I wondered, what was being done tactically to support Asian Americans carving out livelihoods in film, TV, and immersive media. At the time, I was subletting and crashing in empty apartments as a workaround to paying rent. I said as much and the programmer asked me, “What would you do?”

It was a terrific question. The answer landed me in the Center for Asian American Media’s office in San Francisco a few months later. In 2010, CAAM took a bold step. We started a 5-year professional mentoring program focused on Asian Americans working in every aspect of the fiction industries – film, TV, interactive, and immersive. My tongue in cheek motto was, “We don’t have nepotism. But we can have mentorship!” It was a nod to the critical importance of networks in building sustainable careers. The breadth of the program was a recognition of Asian American presence at the highest levels across industries.

The mentors we invited had walked the path. Some of their advice to the CAAM Fellows was fun – host quarterly get-togethers to stay in touch with your mentor and help them grow their networks too. Some of their wisdom was modeled – diversify as a director and work in commercials and TV and film and everything you can. Some of the Fellows from the 2010-2015 CAAM Fellowship are now high-in-demand working professionals and leaders in their field. Not every mentor relationship was successful, and I’ll detail more what that relationship takes to thrive.

This year, I’m back in the fold as a mentor in a new CAAM Fellowship. This time, the program is generously funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The focus is nonfiction makers. And it was developed with A-DOC – a new, powerful network of Asian Americans working in nonfiction.

A group of Asian American filmmakers pose for a photo at the dining table
2019 CAAM Mentors and Fellows.

Having spent time creating, running, and mentoring in a program, I’ve learned mentorship is very much earned. It’s a relationship that requires nourishment, attention and intention.

If you pursue a mentor relationship on your own, here are some thoughts on giving it the best chance to flourish:

  • Do provide structure, a container in which connection and relationship can flourish. In the current CAAM Fellowship, it’s one meeting (in person or via phone) per month, addressing three agreed upon objectives during a 12-month period. In our 2010-2015 Fellowship, it was 3-4 meetings over a 6-month period focused on one project.
  • Do compensate for the mentor’s time. I believe in paying people for their time. I cannot tell you how many times well-funded institutions ask me to mentor or advise for free. Compensation can be an honorarium. It can be a gift. It can be a professional exchange of some sort. But it needs to be intentional. When a mentor spends time with you, it’s coming at the expense of spouses, family, kids, their own projects, and collaborators. My rule of thumb is to think about what you’d like to be paid or what you’d like to receive, in exchange for your time. At the very least, practice gratitude.
  • Do meet in person and arrange social get-togethers. In the age of Zoom and Google Hangouts, nothing beats the connection and empathy-building of meeting in-person. Spending time in person creates a path to a connection that can last beyond the structured mentorship period.
  • Do invest in your professional growth. As part of this new CAAM Fellowship, Fellows receive a stipend to attend an industry event, such as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) or the Flaherty Seminar, of their choosing for professional development. These are spaces where you build your network and gather knowledge. Along my own producing path, when I needed to stretch, attending the Rotterdam Producers Lab and the Cannes Producers Network, with the support of IFP/NY, filled in key knowledge gaps while growing my global network.

As importantly, here are some things we learned not to do when creating a mentorship relationship:

  • Don’t look for a mentor primarily to gain access to their network and their contacts. This will feel invasive and extractive to the other person. During the 2010-2015 CAAM Fellowship, if this was a stated goal of the applicant’s, more than likely it found its way into the rejection pile. Mentors may be willing to introduce you to their network, but it should be organic to the project and ideally come from the mentor’s impetus.
  • Don’t drop the ball. Don’t offer to do something for your mentor and not follow through because you are too busy, then ask your mentor to watch a 2-hour rough cut and provide detailed feedback. Yes, this has happened.
  • Don’t expect your mentor to single-handedly vault your career to the next level. In the selection process, we looked for applicants who were going to make it with or without our support. This may sound counterintuitive, but this is a tough business and a crazy way to earn a living. “Being successful” or “making it” must come from an inner reservoir of will, resolve, and endurance. I often say successful producers are just the ones still standing.

My best advice? Cultivate a willingness to listen and have within you a willingness to act.

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KARIN CHIEN is a producer, educator and distributor committed to championing independent voices. Karin is the recipient of the inaugural Cinereach Producers Award, the Independent Spirit Producer’s Award and the producer of ten independent feature-length films, including STONES IN THE SUN (2012), JACK AND DIANE (2012), CIRCUMSTANCE (2011), THE EXPLODING GIRL (2009), BEYOND OUR DIFFERENCES (2008), THE MOTEL (2005) and ROBOT STORIES (2002). Her films have won over 100 festival awards, premiered at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, been nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards and received distribution in over 20 countries. Karin is the founder/president of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent cinema from mainland China. Karin is the co-creator of the Cinema on the Edge screening series, celebrating the best of contemporary Chinese cinema.  Karin is the co-founder of i love 2, a boutique production company specializing in socially conscious, short-format content. Karin is the creator of the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Fellowship, a mentoring program for Asian American media professionals. Karin has consulted for the Sundance Institute, The New York Times, Film Independent, Independent Television Service (ITVS), and Cinereach.

To find out more about the CAAM Fellowship Program, please visit our CAAM Fellowship page.