by Edwin Quinabo
Susan (mother, played by Lydia Gaston): “We’re sending gifts to our family in the Philippines.”
Tita Theresa (aunty, played by pioneering Filipina actress from Hawaii Tia Carrere): “I’m sending this brand new hair dryer.”
Susan: “If it makes your hair look like that, I wouldn’t send it.”
Tita Theresa: “How dare you?”
Susan: “How dare you!”
Tito Arthur (uncle, played by Rodney To): “We should put them both in the box and ship it.”
This is just one among several relatable scenes to millions of Filipinos – family gathers to fill Balikbayan boxes (destined for relatives in the Philippines) with gifts from canned goods to specialty items – in the Pinoy-cultural bonanza film, Easter Sunday, starring comedian-actor Jo Koy (character Joe Valencia).
Inspired by Koy’s real life experiences, the feel good comedy (1hr 36 mins) is about a struggling Los Angeles-based comic’s return home (Daly City, northern CA, pop. 35% Filipino) to visit his family on Easter Sunday. Typical of Filipino family reunions and featured in the film, the gathering is loaded with laughter, singing (karaoke), dancing, chismis (gossip), rivalry and food. For that added touch of Hollywood drama (atypical of Filipino families), Valencia must save his family from gun wielding thugs collecting on his cousin’s debt.
Pioneering Filipino-American actor Lou Diamond Phillips (playing himself) is weaved into this subplot where Joe scrambles to come up with money to pay off the thugs. And a would-be commodity to save the day involves the selling of a memorabilia formerly belonging to another Filipino icon, boxing legend Manny Pacquaio.
The film is speed-train quick with one comedic scene after another. And culminates in…(no spoilers here, you have to watch the movie for details) a memorable day of family bonding.
Koy, whose real name is Joseph Glenn Herbert, told the New York Times, “So when I was thinking of a movie, I was like, how can I…talk about my culture, shine light on my ethnicity, but still tell a family story and show all the crazy characters that every family has? And I was like, Easter Sunday. That’s the day every single person in my family comes and gathers, a fight breaks out, crying happens. I wanted to be able to tell that story in one day, and that’s the one day that stands out big in my family.”
Produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal Pictures, Easter Sunday is the first Filipino-themed, almost all Filipino-cast film that is produced and released by a major Hollywood studio.
The history-making movie was released in the U.S. and Canada on August 5 at 3,175 theaters and grossed $5,447,130 on its debut weekend, coming in at number eight, according to Box Office. In its second weekend (Aug 13-14), it finished 11th, hitting total ticket sales of close to $10 million for the two weeks. These figures do not include streaming or international showing.
Easter Sunday is slated to open in the Philippines and other international markets the last weekend of August which is expected to soar ticket sales. The film cost $17 million to make. Film industry experts project Easter Sunday will profit enough to cover costs and could make several millions in profit.
Rhea Cordero-Holms, Orange County, California (formerly of Moanalua, HI) watched Easter Sunday on opening day. She said she read Jo Koy’s book Mixed Plate and seen his Netflix Original Comedy Special Live at the Los Angeles Forum (2022). Besides this latest special, Koy has three other Netflix specials and two Comedy Central Stand-Up specials. Koy said Easter Sunday was made possible because Spielberg discovered him by watching one of his Netflix stand-ups and contacted him to make a movie.
“I’ve heard his live shows are really funny. I never got a chance to see him live yet so I was excited to watch his movie. My husband and I made it a date night and we enjoyed it. My two daughters who are half-Filipino, like Jo Koy, plan to watch the movie on their own. They will be able to relate to some of the cultural aspects found in the movie,” Cordero-Holms said.
“I hope the movie is a money-maker so that Hollywood will have the confidence to do future Filipino-themed movies. It’s important for our community to support this movie and watch it at the theater, preferably. I hope Universal will keep showing it at theaters for at least three more weeks.”
Hawaii helped to explode Koy’s career, 2017 was a turning point
Rhea’s sister Nancy Alabanza, Kapolei, also watched Easter Sunday. She became a fan after Koy’s Hawaii stand-up show. “I was one of the tens of thousands in Hawaii who watched Jo Koy in his first visit to Hawaii. I supported him back then and wanted to do the same with this movie as a matter of Filipino pride,” she said.
In November 2017, Jo Koy sold out 11 shows at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, breaking the record for the most tickets sold by a single artist.
Koy said “That response, I can’t even explain it. That was a phenomenon. That’s something that I’m always going to remember in my career.” Koy returned to Hawaii a second time in 2018 and played in a larger venue, the Blaisdell Arena, for four shows.
The 2017 record-breaking shows signaled a turning point for Koy’s career. It was well-publicized nationally. That same year his Live from Seattle (first Netflix special) was released. Koy grew up in Tacoma so Washington was the perfect place to launch his first special.
After high school, Koy moved to Las Vegas for college where he also started his stand-up career in 1994 playing at comedy clubs and landed a regular spot on the show Catch a Rising Star at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
Eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles (where he currently resides) to jumpstart his career in entertainment. He received an early career boost in 2005 when Koy performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Since 2017, besides making stand-up specials, Koy appeared in three movies: Virginia, Wake, and Anastasia: Once Upon a Time. Easter Sunday is his first lead as an actor. He’s also packed with passionate Koy fans storied venues like Madison Square Garden in New York and Chase Center sports arena in San Francisco.
He’s appeared on over 100 episodes of Chelsea Lately as a season regular guest, the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, @Midnight with Chris Hardwick, VH1, The Joy Behar Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Last Call with Carson Daly.
Significance of Filipinos on the big screen
Violeta Lantin, Kapolei, retired pharmacist, saw the Easter Sunday trailer and plans to watch the movie. “From the trailer it looks like the movie depicts a lot of the Filipino quirks and habits that we have that nobody would ever know about unless they are familiar with a Filipino household,” she said.
On Filipinos being showcased to the rest of the country and world in this movie, Lantin says “It’s crazy-significant! By seeing this, people will have a frame of reference, a modicum of understanding, and familiarity about who we are. It’s like introducing a new color to the rainbow. Colors have to move in the same direction when light refracts. Cultural tolerance and understanding is not so hard when one finds that colors can blend and create useful and beautiful things, as people do.”
Renelaine Pfister says she will watch Easter Sunday. She attended Koy’s stand up show in Oahu and watched his specials on Netflix. “Easter Sunday is a big leap for the Filipino community which positions a Filipino-American talent such as Jo Koy alongside international stars such as Tia Carrere, Lou Diamond Phillips and Jimmy O. Yang. It is a positive thing to see more minorities appear in Hollywood films.”
Imelda Joaquin, a Filipino community leader in Hawaii along with her husband Dr. Nicanor Joaquin, said they watched Easter Sunday the opening weekend. “It was so thrilling to see FilAm culture honored in a movie that was produced and distributed specifically for U.S. audiences. I have many young FilAm family members and I am so proud that they are able to see their heritage reflected on screen. Even though FilAms are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the U.S., there’s still a stunning lack of familiarity with Filipino culture in this country among non-Filipinos. Easter Sunday is a meaningful way to share what is important to FilAm communities — including family, faith and of course feeding our loved ones, and to show that those values are no different than the values held by other communities.”
Jim Bea Sampaga, Manila, Philippines, former Hawaii resident, plans to watch the movie when it premieres in the Philippines later this month. “I’ve seen the trailer! It’s amazing. Jo Koy is definitely funny. I loved watching his stand-up shows. I love how it’s an all-Filipino cast and I can hear the Filipino accent! I don’t know…there’s something about hearing the aunties and uncles speak in that distinct Filipino accent that makes me feel seen and validated. That’s exactly how I and my relatives sounded when we first arrived in America.”
Speaking in a Filipino accent is something Koy regularly does in his stand-up shows when imitating his Filipino family. Some say his Filipino accent imitations make him more relatable to his Filipino audiences, and it takes what at times – an accent – that’s perceived by some as laughable in a derogatory way into something that’s laughable in good nature.
On the film’s backing from a major Hollywood studio, Sampaga believes the movie is a start of a bigger representation of Filipinos in Hollywood. She also says Easter Sunday wouldn’t be possible without the Filipino American films and Hollywood actors that preceded it.
“Shout out to Dante Basco (Hook and Avatar: The Last Airbender) and his family’s big ties and influence on Hollywood! In 2021, they released an indie film titled “The Fabulous Filipino Brothers” and it’s now streaming on Netflix PH. I watched it recently and it’s one of the reasons too that I’m excited to see Easter Sunday. There’s just something about Filipino family shenanigans that make us so unique,” Sampaga said.
“Slowly but surely, Filipinos are making a mark in Hollywood. I’m pretty young but I’m proud that I’ve been seeing a lot of Filipino actors in Hollywood which is also a big thanks to the trend of switching to streaming platforms. Making Hollywood entertainment accessible made it possible to open more doors for our fellow Filipinos. Netflix producing an animated adaptation of the Filipino comic book Trese was amazing! Seeing Nico Santos, Manny Jacinto, Olivia Rodrigo, Saweetie, H.E.R., and so many more dominate the TV/film and music industry is such an amazing feeling because I know that I am finally seeing people who look and have the same background as me be represented on screen,” Sampaga said.
Besides iconic actors Lou Diamond Philips and Tia Carrere who appear in Easter Sunday, some other well-known Filipino-American actors are Mark Dacascos (John Wick), Rob Schneider (Deuce Bigalow), Vanessa (formerly Vanessa Joy Minnillo) Lachey (Disaster Movie), Nicole Scherzinger (Moana soundtrack), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Bruno Mars (Soundtrack Rio 2), Michael Copon (One Tree Hill), Darren Criss (Glee), Phoebe Cates (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Sharon Leal (Dreamgirls), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Shay Mitchell (Pretty Little Liars), Nia Peeples (Fame). There are international Filipino celebrities like Enrique Iglesias (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) and Lea Salonga (Mulan).
Some say what separates Koy from other well-known Filipino actors is that he leans into his heritage with his work far more than others. And that’s probably a reason he was able to pitch to Hollywood execs and get a project like this one done, which focused on Filipino culture with a Hollywood slant versus what we most see of Filipino actors, them playing mainstream roles.
But the film, as Koy himself says, is universal that all families can relate to.
“Jo Koy is #1 on my list because his talent not only makes me feel good, but his gift also speaks to my world view,” said Lantin.
Vilma Fuentes, Hawaii, mentions Jacob Batalon who played Spider Man’s best friend in Spiderman: No Way Home, as her favorite Filipino-American actor. “I personally met him in a Filipino community event. He’s so kind.”
Pfister said she was thrilled when Batalon’s (his character’s) Lola (grandmother) spoke Tagalog in the movie.
Fuentes watched Easter Sunday with her coworkers. What struck her most was the show’s featuring of Filipino traditional family values, she said.
Hollywood can be a rough business to break through
Koy has been doing standup for 30 years. In an interview with Collider he talked about being rejected and how nobody didn’t want to make his first stand-up special. “It was just like, how many “nos” am I going to get? I didn’t understand it. I’m breaking records. I was selling out improvs three weeks in a row, like six months in advance. But for some reason, they didn’t want to make my special. And then guys that were opening for me were getting specials. It didn’t make any sense. There was a point where I wanted to quit, but I had to do it.”
Koy and his manager financed his first special Live from Seattle. “My manager and I decided to shoot it, and we used our money. And even up until the day we had all the cameras inside the venue, we get another phone call saying, ‘We don’t want it. And that was Netflix that said, ‘We don’t want it.’ And I still proceeded to shoot it.”
Netflix eventually was on board with Live from Seattle and three more Koy specials. But he says it wasn’t until his third special — In His Elements, released in 2020 — that he made money. But all his specials served the purpose of marketing himself as a brand which eventually led to him being known enough to start raking in money from live shows in cities across the U.S and the Philippines.
Hollywood tougher to break through as a minority
Koy’s early struggles in Hollywood are not uncommon. Other minorities seeking to make it big in the U.S. entertainment industry frequently experience the same obstacles.
Even though people of color make up 43% of the U.S. population, according to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report 2022, people of color are still vastly underrepresented in key, powerful roles of director and film writer. Both male and female people of color represent 30% of directors and 32% of film writers.
The study also found that women and people of color have a harder time raising financing for a film, and when they do, raise less funding for their films – they’re more likely to helm a film with a budget of less than $20 million than white men are. Women and people of color were more likely to direct films that fell into the lowest budget category of less than $20 million. For films directed by people of color, 72.3% had budgets less than $20 million, compared to 60% for white directors.
Easter Sunday’s budget of $17 million would be considered on the lower end in the movie industry. Starring Brad Pitt, Bullet Train (which was released on the same day as Easter Sunday) came in at number one that weekend, but it had a budget of $90 million to produce.
Money influences quality of a movie, as well as marketing and distribution. The likelihood is that bigger budgeted movies will achieve greater commercial success and smaller budgeted movies will achieve less success. In this vein, commercial success is built-in to a degree, and the uphill climb is steeper for minority-led movies to flourish simply because studios invest less on minorities and their films.
And while people of color are increasingly more represented as lead actor and total number of cast, they tend to appear in lower budgeted movies and do not get the widespread exposure.
Minorities buy the most tickets, and films with minorities do better
Critics of Hollywood find underrepresentation even more disturbing because minority audiences account for the bulk of ticket purchases. Also, films with casts that were at least 21% minority enjoyed the highest online viewing ratings among all racial groups in the all-important 18–49 age category, according to the same UCLA report.
Further, among the top 10 streaming films ranked by Asian and Black households, seven had casts that were more than 30% minority. Among the top 10 films ranked by Latino and white households, six had casts that were more than 30% minority.
Alabanza believes Hollywood is still set in their old ways. “The data could show that minorities are great customers and that movies with a high percentage of minorities actually do better than those with less minorities, but Hollywood is used to a culture that had been set since Hollywood started. And that’s difficult to break. Clearly the U.S. is a different country in terms of its population today. And it’s time that Hollywood break old habits and tell stories, make movies that reflect today’s America.
“If this is lagging still, I wouldn’t know how to explain it except that it must be systemic racism. For example, as a business owner in any other industry, you are well aware of who your customers are and you cater to them. Why is the Hollywood elite ignoring basic business principles? And why isn’t minorities up at arms over this discrimination? Could it be that we are all so used to, even brainwashed, into accepting Hollywood’s business as usual at face value,” said Alabanza.
Lantin comments “With social media blurring racial lines, now more than ever, I believe Hollywood has the power to steer away from racism and promote tolerance. Racism will always be here though. You cannot eradicate it totally. But I think Hollywood has more than enough weight to tip the scales.
More representation needed, start with an Asian bloc, Asians sticking together
Asians (besides Filipinos) played important roles in Easter Sunday. Helping to jumpstart Easter Sunday was Jimmy O. Yang (Crazy Rich Asians) who played Marvin, a merchandising hustler. Yang is from Hong Kong and also a stand-up comedian. He served as executive producer for Easter Sunday. His production company Crab Club helped to get the ball rolling for Jo Koy’s movie.
Yang said Hollywood claims that capable Asian actors are hard to find are just lazy excuses, he said as he gave praises to the cast of Easter Sunday at a presser promoting the movie.
Other Asians in Easter Sunday included Director Jay Chandrasekhar, screenwriter Ken Cheng, and actor Asif Ali.
In the same UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, it found films directed by minorities had the highest level of cast diversity. And 78.3% of films directed by people of color featured minority leads. Easter Sunday is an example of this statistic to a tee.
“To have more representation in media, we have to make sure that creators are people who are like us: Asian Americans! We need film/TV executives who believe in Asian American representation. We need filmmakers, writers and teams of Asian Americans to convey our stories. The reason why we have The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, Easter Sunday and Shang-Chi is that they had Asian Americans on their teams, especially in the writers’ room. We will have better representation in media if the media producers are Asian Americans like us,” Sampaga said.
Joaquin agrees with the need for Asians in Hollywood to work together. “As FilAms, it’s important for us to not just stand up for our community, but to also stand in solidarity with other Asian Americans.”
Cordero-Holms said if Asians can stick together they’ll have more clout to make more movies like Easter Sunday. Crazy Rich Asian premiered in 2018 and to date the film grossed over $238 million on a budget of $30 million (twice the budget of Easter Sunday), making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the 2010s.
“Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians were successful templates for Asian movies backed by Hollywood. I hope Easter Sunday will be another successful template. Filipinos came out in mass to support Crazy Rich Asians. Let’s hope that our Chinese community and other Asians will do the same for us with Easter Sunday.
“With Asians still being a minority in Hollywood, we need to muster our influence and resources and stick together to get the representation we want. As consumers of movies, we Asians must also show up in force and support each other. That means buying movie tickets and paying for movies on streaming platforms,” Cordero-Holms said.
Encouraging people to watch Easter Sunday, Koy told Movieguide, “This is art imitating life. It’s loosely based, but it’s highly relatable for all the Filipinos. Filipinos can relate to this big time, heavy. But not only that, people that aren’t Filipino can relate to this because if you look at it from the outside, it’s just a family being a family. And it’s a mom being a mom, and a son being a son. That’s it.”
by Edwin Quinabo