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Why aren’t there more Asian stars in Hollywood?

Ancient Chinese monsters are the least of Matt Damon's worries. In The Great Wall (in theaters Friday), the bankable A-lister plays a 15th-century European mercenary tasked with helping Chinese warriors protect their land against supernatural creatures. But the $150 million film has been saddled with controversy in the months leading up its release, with critics calling it a "blatant white savior narrative." Factor in harsh reviews (45% positive on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes) and the action-adventure movie is projected to make just upward of $20 million this weekend, despite huge success in markets such as China, where it has amassed more than $170 million. Given Chinese audiences' increasing appetite for movies like Wall that are set and co-produced in their country, it "feels like a missed opportunity" that Hollywood isn't developing bankable Asian-American stars for this market, says Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, which releases an annual study of diversity in the entertainment industry. Part of the problem is that studios have historically been preoccupied with Europe, where U.S. films have been distributed since the early 1900s, but represents "a relatively small part of the world's population," Hunt says. "This whole idea that Hollywood has perpetuated for years that people of color don't travel overseas as leads is pretty much an artifact. … The rest of the world wants to see diversity because the rest of the world is diverse." Wall is far from the first movie in recent memory to face criticism for whitewashing. Marvel's Doctor Strange and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell (in theaters March 31) garnered Internet backlash for casting white actresses Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson respectively as characters who were Asian in their source material. And though Asian actors Jing Tian (Kong: Skull Island), Priyanka Chopra (Baywatch) and Donnie Yen (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) are featured prominently in new and upcoming event movies, they're still billed below mostly white stars. "Hollywood is slow to change," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "They are fueled by the bottom line and that's the box office. If Asian actors can start carrying films by just their names above the title, you can certainly bet that Hollywood will cast them." Julia Kim, a casting director for Asian-fronted films such as last year's Spa Night and 2011's Oba: The Last Samurai, says she's "nicely encouraged" by the progress being made in front of and behind the camera, as studios increasingly go for color-blind casting, rather than looking for actors to fill roles written for a specific race. "Being open to ethnicity has become more of a common theme among lead roles and it's sort of the best person for the job," Kim says. Although there are fewer Asian actors in lead roles than Latinos and African Americans, "it's kind of a cultural thing," she says. "An acting career was never an option that parents encouraged (or) young adults felt like they could make a living as." But with Asian-American writers such as Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) and Aziz Ansari (Master of None) creating their own TV vehicles in which they star, and studios such as Universal and Disney launching diversity initiatives behind the scenes, there are more ways for Asian talent to be seen. "Now, more opportunity is there," Kim says. "It's encouraged Asians to pursue a career in acting."