Asian American cinema, broadly defined, refers to all films (and videos) produced by filmmakers of Asian descent in the United States. More narrowly defined, Asian American cinema refers to independently produced films that evince an Asian American sensibility (perspective) and/or Asian American subject matter. Materially speaking, only a small fraction of Asian American films achieve commercial distribution: the vast majority are exhibited at film festivals, broadcast on public television, and increasingly are sold directly to home viewers (often via the Internet). While feature-length narrative films achieve more visibility, documentaries dominate festival and television programming.
The term "Asian American" first received currency through its adoption on college campuses in the late 1960s. In years past, Americans of Asian ancestry tended to identify (and form organizations) with nations of origin (China, Korea, and so on). The civil rights era produced new racial formations, among them a growing panethnic sense of Asian American identity, at least among English-speaking Asians born in the United States. These shifting sensibilities are reflected in government policy, which has come increasingly to recognize panethnic terms such as "Asian" and "Pacific Islander," displacing an emphasis on national origin.
In an important sense, then, Asian American cinema could not exist before the "Asian American" conception of racial identity gained acceptance. Furthermore, while some filmmakers might identify themselves as Asian Americans (and their films might thereby evince an Asian American sensibility), without the existence of networks of filmmakers, institutions devoted to the production and distribution of films, and an audience or marketplace for the films, the label of Asian American cinema remains purely academic. Therefore, while the term "Asian American" might be applied retrospectively to describe people or films made before the 1960s, such semantic relabeling obscures the historical specificity of films produced by cultural institutions established in the 1970s and 1980s, although a prehistory of Asian American cinema can be traced back to the 1910s.