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Meet the woman running the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Janet Yang is an award-winning Hollywood producer and one of only four women to ever be named president of the Academy.
Meet the woman running the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Posted at 10:45 AM, Mar 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-08 13:49:24-05

It's an extremely busy time of year for Janet Yang, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She has the great responsibility of leading the organization ahead of Sunday's 96th Academy Awards. 

“I feel a great sense of pride and responsibility being one of the very few women and the first Asian American woman,” Yang told Scripps News national correspondent Axel Turcios. 

Yang is an award-winning Hollywood producer and one of only four women to ever be named president of the Academy. It's an accomplishment that doesn't go unnoticed, especially on International Women's Day. 

“I think it's a sign of the changing times. I really feel that I can very much be myself in this role, that I don't have to conform to a different culture at the Academy,” she said. 

Yang was born in Queens, New York, and raised by a family of Chinese immigrants. 

She rose to prominence through her work with Steven Spielberg on the 1987 film "Empire of the Sun." Yang's vast film production credits include the Golden Globe-winning movie "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and the Oscar-nominated animated feature "Over the Moon."

Yang became president of the Academy in 2022, bringing more diversity to the organization. 

“We have a board of more women than men and a lot of people of color, and it's also become very evident in the pictures that get nominated each year,” said Yang. “I feel really so gratified that the Asian American community has a lot more visibility now and representation both in front of and behind the camera.” 

A testament of that visibility was Michelle Yeoh's historic 2023 Oscar win.

Yeoh won in the best actress category for her role in "Everything Everywhere All at Once," making her the first Asian woman to win in the category in its nearly 100-year history. 

SEE MORE: Where to watch the 2024 Oscar-nominated films online

Progress in Hollywood hasn’t come easy. Yang helped pave the way with her 1993 iconic breakthrough movie "The Joy Luck Club."

Yang had no idea the film would be a massive hit. 

"Nobody had any idea. It was a struggle to make,” she said. 

The film defied a lot of Hollywood rules: There was no precedent for an all-Asian cast in a movie and no studio was willing to buy the idea. 

“They would maybe make suggestions like, 'Oh, can you put some more White people in there?' Like, no. We cannot. That would destroy the integrity of the book,” said Yang. 

It took a leap of faith to get the movie made. Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney gave the movie a green light. 

However, there were still roadblocks. 

“The marketing department seemed to be very hesitant to show Asian faces on the poster, and that was another battle that we had to fight, and finally it was released with the faces,” said Yang. 

The film has been credited for laying the foundations for another smash hit 25 years later, "Crazy Rich Asians."

“I was very aware of the stereotypes that most people had about Asians, and I felt like I needed to change that. When I found the opportunity, I saw a tool for helping change people's perceptions,” said Yang. “I was like, let people see these movies and see people who are very multidimensional who are Asian, and that became my sort of mission, and it continues to be my mission.” 

Yang says she’s aware that the fight for the advancement of diversity isn't over. 

“Right now, the top leadership positions in the industry are still not primarily held by women or women of color. So, there is work to be done, but there's also so much to be proud of, the progress that we've already made," she said. 

It's a mission that is personal for Yang.

"I know, No.1, what it feels like to not belong, and I know what it feels like to belong," she said. "We need to do what men have done for so long, which is boost each other and create opportunities from one another and uplift one another, and I see that happening everywhere and it makes me so happy,” said Yang. 

Yang is also co-founder of Gold House, a nonprofit that advocates for and celebrates the contributions of the most notable and impactful Asian Pacific figures. In addition, she’s a member of the Committee of 100, an organization of the most prominent Chinese Americans. She's also a mentor and advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander women and nonbinary filmmakers. 

As for Yang’s future, she says her quest for elevating women, especially women of color, in Hollywood continues. Her message to young women pursuing their dreams in film is to "keep the faith and follow your heart."

"There's no set timeline, but there is definitely progress and they can be part of that change," she said. "They can follow their dreams and be part of that change. I've seen it in my own life, in droves.” 

Watch the extended version of Scripps News national correspondent Axel Turcios’ interview with Janet Yang


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