BURBANK, Calif. — There isn’t much “Hollywood” about Kevin Tsujihara.
He spends most of his time in backroom meetings, away from the red carpets and spotlights for which the city is known. There are few photos of him online, and a few weeks ago, someone created the first page for him on Wikipedia.
But, on Friday, the 48-year-old father of two, who grew up making deliveries as the son of egg distributors, became the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment. The third-generation Japanese American is the first Asian American to head a Hollywood studio.
And Warner Bros. isn’t just any studio. It is one of the world’s largest entertainment companies and the fount from which recent Oscar winner “Argo” sprang. Sprawled over 35 sound stages and other buildings, the studio got its start in 1923. It was the home of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and whose modern hits include the multibillion-dollar franchises “Harry Potter” and “The Dark Knight.”
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Tsujihara’s rise at Warner Bros., and his appointment as CEO, is a testament to his hard work, humility and willingness to take risks. It’s also a sign of the progress Japanese Americans have made in the last 70 years.
During World War II, Tsujihara’s parents, like thousands of Japanese families living in the U.S., were forced to live in internment camps. They had their property confiscated and had to rebuild from scratch when the war was over.
“The one thing I am sad about is that I couldn’t share this with my dad,” Tsujihara said during an emotional moment in his office on the studio lot. “He would be shocked…. I don’t think he thought these opportunities would exist for us.”
Hollywood trade publications suggest Tsujihara was the top choice because he maintained a humble demeanor and didn’t campaign for the job. It also didn’t hurt that he gets along well with Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of parent Time Warner.
Tsujihara’s kind of out-of-the-box thinking is apparent in some of Warner Bros.’ recent experiments. The company began selling “Argo” by way of digital download while Oscar buzz was at its hottest, weeks before the movie’s release on DVD.
Warner Bros. also took the lead in holding back rentals at $1.20-per-night kiosks like Redbox until a month after DVDs went on sale, to nudge people toward purchasing downloads, discs, or movie tickets.
“I think part of what was really helpful was I never came from this industry, I never had aspirations to work in this industry. And so I questioned everything,” Tsujihara said.
Tsujihara, the youngest of five siblings, grew up making deliveries for his parents’ egg distribution business in Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco.
“You get a lot of your work ethic more from watching people versus them telling you how to work,” his father, Shizuo, said.
One summer his father made him take a farm job cleaning up chicken excrement and sorting eggs on a conveyor belt.
It was only later in life that Tsujihara realized the sacrifices his parents had made. His father, who died in 2003, served as a translator for the U.S. military during the war while his family lived in an internment camp. His uncle, Kazuo, enlisted in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team for the U.S. Army in World War II.
After Tsujihara graduated from the University of Southern California with an accounting degree in 1986, he got a job as a manager at Ernst & Young’s entertainment division. One of his major clients was Warner Bros.
After a few years, he was admitted into the MBA program at Stanford. Later, he formed a tax preparation business with former USC classmates. After a few years of struggle, he sold the company.
“Sometimes failing is the best thing in life,” he said.
He started at Warner Bros. in 1994, overseeing the studio’s interest in theme-park operator Six Flags. In 2005, Tsujihara became president of the studio’s newly created home-entertainment unit.
Steve Tao, a TV producer and chair of a group called the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, said Tsujihara’s appointment proves there’s been progress.
“It just happened that Kevin was the most qualified,” Tao said. “It’s the way diversity is supposed to work.”