About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel is an Editor At Large for Civil Beat. You can reach him at nnathaniel@civilbeat.org.


The islands could become a significant cultural exporter like South Korea.

For the past decade, Hollywood seems to be in a pattern of giving different cultural groups a perceived “moment of arrival” and cultural acclaim. 

Think about “12 Years a Slave,” “Moonlight” and “Black Panther.” Then Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman” and Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” winning the best picture Oscar. Followed by “Parasite,” “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” and Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland.”

These cultural pioneers gave creators following in their footsteps a language that has helped take them down an amazing number of creative paths.

Now, this season, that extra cultural attention is being paid to Indigenous communities thanks to Lily Gladstone becoming the first Indigenous person to win repeated awards for best actress for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

And as the pattern in Hollywood continues, could the moment of arrival and acclaim be on the horizon for Pacific Islanders?

It’s likely that the seeds of that possible future have been planted. The question is about the ecosystem needed to make those seeds sprout and help them flourish. 

One of the distinct pleasures of flying Hawaiian Airlines across the wider ocean is the chance to view the selection of videos from the Hawaii International Film Festival. 

It’s a wonderful collection of island inventiveness. I’ve seen compelling short films such as Mikey Inouye’s “Like a Mighty Wave” and longer features like Jason Scott Lee’s “The Wind and the Reckoning.”

Chiefess Kapiolani, played by Teuira Shanti Napa, defies the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele in the feature film “The Islands.” Could a moment of arrival and acclaim in Hollywood be on the horizon for Pacific Islanders? (Tim Chey/RiverRain Productions/2018)

A report from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism shows the opportunity for Hawaii to take on a greater role of encouraging and growing the film and television industry.

The problem has been easy to identify: We need to diversify our economy beyond tourism. 

As the Legislature returns to work this week, there are a number of initiatives highlighting the need to encourage economic growth. My colleague Stewart Yerton wrote about one such effort from Patrick Sullivan and Paul Brewbaker called “Hawaii – Losing the Future?” 

Ty Sanga, whose feature film “Hōkūle’a: Finding the Language of the Navigator” was screened at last year’s HIFF, thinks Hawaii could follow in the path of South Korea’s exciting film and television industry. Sanga said bold Korean filmmakers created genre-blending films able to speak to a wider audience. 

“I believe that we have a bunch of those filmmakers here in Hawaii,” said Sanga. “Those artists in Korea benefited from the government and the community helping them out, because film is not a simple thing to do.”

Sanga hopes to see serious growth in the industry here in Hawaii in the next five years. That’s in line with DBEDT’s report citing roughly 5% growth annually, about a thousand jobs, over the last 10 years. 

For Hawaii to be able to realistically keep our future generations here at home, we need to be better about fostering the creative sector. According to the state’s figures, there were almost 60,000 people employed in creative industries in Hawaii. Film and television production was the fastest growing segment. 

It would be nice if there was another way to spur this kind of economic development, but the tax incentive model is the one the film and television industry is hooked on.

However, there was what DBEDT termed significant “wage leakage.” Wage leakage was money that was being paid to out-of-state workers. In the summer of 2022, DBEDT estimated that more than a quarter of the money spent on film production left Hawaii.

We need to better prepare our haumana for jobs in the creative industries so they have opportunities here other than the largely low-paying jobs in the tourism industry. 

Could Hawaii become a significant cultural exporter like South Korea?

Cities and states that have built dynamic film industries outside of California and New York have done so on the back of economic incentives and significant tax breaks to encourage the film and television industry to become better rooted in their communities

The Honolulu City Council is trying to line up property tax breaks to help in the construction of a new studio facility.

At the state level, disputes during last year’s legislative session sidelined efforts to grow the industry by raising the cap for tax incentives. 

It would be nice if there was another way to spur this kind of economic development, but the tax incentive model is the one the film and television industry is hooked on.

Hopefully, this legislative session serious progress will be made to give our keiki a better creative future here in Hawaii.


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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel is an Editor At Large for Civil Beat. You can reach him at nnathaniel@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Market size matters. There's a big enough Korean diaspora to profit by supplying them video & film from the homeland. Don't forget: their productions are set up for translation, too (Korean soaps are a staple in Thailand and the Philippines, for example; ditto for Colombia's soaps in Latin America.)Nice to be aspirational, but there just isn't any comparable demand for an "Aloha Channel" in markets outside Hawai`i. What will happen is our bureaucrats will get steamrollered by Hollywood (again ! seen it 1st hand) ensuring that LA productions get treated like nobility, exempt from laws that apply to us, while paying a pittance for the privilege (not counting under the table). A Baywatch producer told me "we highlight the beauty of Hawaii to millions of viewers worldwide ! It's a great investment !", as our coffers and rules spilled over in their favor. (I said at least half were watching in B&W off a motorcycle battery in a yurt, and won't have occasion to spend a buck here; and questioned his definition of "investment".) Since we're talking independent & art films, current subsidies like UH West work. If our local craft is that good, Hollywood will want to film here anyway.

Kamanulai · 1 month ago

Please, not another handout of our tax money. People won't like this, but how much money was wasted on the Hokule'a? Hokule'a was not unique to Hawaii. The world was settled by people traveling in boats. If Nathaniel's plan was a successful idea it would have been done already. No new technology needs to be developed. It seems to me the Korean film industry is just a foreign "Hallmark Channel" or a "Days of Our Lives." If this would be profitable there are entrepreneurs who would have done it.

Whatarewedoing · 1 month ago

Your idea is good-- now flesh it out some more --Chuck Boller Executive Director Emeritus of HIFF proposed decades ago a Pollywood vision, of a Polynesian consortium of some kind. How about you ask his input on this, and also talk to the folk who run the Film School at the UHM. Also find out about the govt sponsored film schools in Sth Korea, Australia and NZ. In Australia think of NIDA the highly successful 60 year old program (graduates include Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe etc)I will be interested in what you find out

Auntiemame · 1 month ago

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