Updated with Monday AM B.O. figures and analysis This weekend director Jon M. Chu and Warner Bros. took what might have appeared to be a niche genre proposition on paper and turned it into a cultural moment.
Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, earned $26.5M at the domestic weekend box office, and $35.3M over five days (in revised Monday figures), a gross that bests another August female-skewing hit, DreamWorks’ The Help which opened to $26M over three, $35M over five and legged out to $169.7M.
In a prepackaged pitch to Warner Bros., with Chu’s vision intact, Color Force producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson always saw a universal appeal in Kwan’s book in its story of an earnest, hardworking girl, Rachel (Constance Wu) who has the most sincere intentions of impressing her potential fiance Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) wealthy family, specifically his strict matriarch, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who is nearly impossible to win over. Wendi Deng Murdoch came close to snapping up the book prior to her divorce with Rupert Murdoch, however, the deal didn’t happen. Jacobson and Simpson won the rights and with UTA’s guidance took the property to John Penotti’s Ivanhoe who financed development as well as 25% of the $30M production cost, in addition to co-producing. Teaming with Ivanhoe allowed Color Force to secure the director, cast and script they wanted before shopping the project around town. Chu, more than any other director who pitched the producers, easily knocked them off their socks with his visual media presentation. Not only was the project a near-and-dear one to Chu coming from immigrant parents, but “everything that’s seen on the screen, is how he pitched the movie from the food to the music, to the actors he was going to use,” says Simpson, “this was going to have an old-classic Hollywood, yet contemporary fresh romantic comedy look.”
Chu took to Peter Chiarelli’s script which initially zeroed in on the triangle of Rachel, Nick and Eleanor. Adele Lim then did a pass on the script, enabling the Asian cultural aspects to sing out in the story, i.e. the scene where the Young family makes dumplings, and that fierce final Mahjong showdown between Rachel and her future mother-in-law. Lim related to Rachel’s situation given her own experiences as a newlywed with in-laws, and thus fleshed out a character who finds her inner strength to stand-up to an intimidating mother-in-law.
Speaking of showdowns, there was a fierce war down to the wire between Netflix and Warner Bros. to make the movie. Both were passionate with Netflix emphasizing its everywhere streaming distribution approach to 130M subscribers around the globe. For Chu and Kwan, it was always about bringing a greater spotlight and voice to Asians on the big screen. On social media, Chu saw his contemporaries Alan Yang, Daniel Dae Kim and Wu sounding off on the lack of Asian leads in film.
“I realized, what am I doing about it?,” said Chu at CAA’s Amplify conference back in June, “I didn’t just have a voice, but a message, I have this power to change…when was the last time you saw an Asian male romantic lead? The lead is the one who struggles and overcomes obstacles. The last time an Asian dude kissed a woman was in Harold & Kumar.“
While Crazy Rich Asians on paper might have appeared as a risky proposition for a major studio, Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara greenlit the feature as he know the power of the audience. It’s been a while since romantic comedies have worked at the box office, and streaming has arguably reclaimed the comedies as its own, as the genre has suffered at the B.O. But if you want to rebuild comedies on the big screen, you have to make something that audiences can’t watch at home, and Crazy Rich Asians breaks the mold in its inclusive storytelling, aspirational themes and its glamorous, irresistible escape. The only way to watch is in the theater with an audience. While Crazy Rich Asians came together during Greg Silverman’s tenure as President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production, we hear that the studio’s current President of Production Courtenay Valenti remained the project’s unsung champion throughout down to Chu’s casting choices.
What also gave Warner Bros. the win here in taking the project away from other major studios?
“The fact that it was an instant yes (from Warners), meant to us that they were emotionally invested and wanted to make a movie you can’t model out,” says Simpson, “This is a movie you can’t run P&L on and run comps, and it was really a gut decision on their part when we presented the package. They didn’t involve their research team, everyone was on board from the beginning and they didn’t spend time doing budget numbers which is rare for a studio nowadays to make a movie purely on gut.”
When it came to marketing Crazy Rich Asians, Warner Bros. global marketing boss Blair Rich and her team began with an outreach to Asian audiences, offering them ownership of the movie before the studio even began to promote to a broader audience. This weekend an amazing 38% of Asian Americans turned out to watch Crazy Rich Asians per ComScore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak versus 39% Caucasians. The percentage of Asian Americans attending outstrips the demo’s highs during previous years, i.e. 2017’s The Foreigner (18.4%), 2016’s Warcraft (11.9%), and 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (14%).
During the latter part of their campaign, Warners zeroed in on all women, date night couples, Hispanic and African American audiences as well as LGBTQ moviegoers. The sell here was that Crazy Rich Asians was more than a niche film, but something larger. Warners screened Crazy Rich Asians as early as six months ago (unheard of for any film even in the lead-up to awards season) to Asian audiences so that they could get behind it and champion it as their superhero movie. In addition to Warners tapping social media influencers and tastemakers, they also partnered with over 40 organizations such as the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, Kollaboration, Asia Society and East/West Players to create a groundswell of support. Chu and cast members such as Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Awkwafina showed up at various galas during the April/May Asian Pacific Heritage corridor including the Asia Society of Southern California, East West Players Visionary Awards dinner, CAAM Fest and more.
Recently, digital media entrepreneur Bing Chen seized on Chu’s comment that “Crazy Rich Asians is more than just a movie, it’s a movement” and bought out 100+ theaters to give the pic a #GoldOpen with a number of affluent Asian industry leaders and celebrities following suit. In addition on Aug. Warners had 354 nearly sold-out sneak peeks generating around a half million at the box office. In the wake of all this, a chorus rose on social media outside the Asian community supporting the film including Ava DuVernay, Chris Pratt, Reese Witherspoon, and Lena Waithe to name a few.
When Warners first began screening to general audiences, they had their work cut out for them with the recruit rate being a ratio of 21-1 (For every 21 people asked to go to the recruitment screening, 1 responded; Superhero pics typically have a ratio in the single digits). Once the audience was in, they were hooked, and ultimately the movie itself was the best marketing tool with the August sneak peek generating 28K posts on social media and 550M social impressions.
The Entertainment Weekly early cover for Crazy Rich Asians with Wu and Golding back in November was the first sign for the studio that word of mouth was on fire as the image trended on Twitter with Asians and over-indexed against the comedy film benchmark by over 1,200%, and with Asian Americans by 345% and Hispanics by 23%. Wu and Golding then dropped the first trailer on Ellen back in April. Asian audiences at 44% buzzed about the trailer but a broader crowd loved it as well with 37% Caucasian, 13% African American and 5% Hispanic. Crazy Rich Asians would trailer on such female-demo pics as Ocean’s 8, Overboard, Life of the Party, The Spy Who Dumped Me and Mamma Mia 2.
On social, Warner aligned the film with cultural zeitgeist moments and made them “crazy rich”, i.e. they took over the Instagram handle of 245 followers, deployed custom GIFs around key events like the Royal Wedding, National Girlfriend’s Day, Friendship/Sister day, and placed media on popular media platforms like HQ Trivia, while also sponsoring popular music YouTube videos like Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” and Drake’s “In My Feelings” with the latter’s total reach being 24M and the GIFs yielding 80M. Custom TV sponsorships included the Dynasty finale, Extra Royal Wedding coverage, Real Housewives of Orange County, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Bachelorette season finale. Brand partners included The Singapore Tourism Board, The Knot.com, Live Love Polish nail polish, Screenvision’s pre-show program at 9K screens, online retailer Bag Borrow or Steal as well as Korean skin care and beauty products line Peach and Lily.
And as far as a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians?
Color Force and Ivanhoe have the rights to Kwan’s next two novels in the trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems.
“Making a sequel won’t be a cynical play,” says Simpson who says that Kwan “always had a roadmap.”
“Let the audience ask for the sequel,” says Jacobson, We’d love to make one, but not unless the audience asks for it, and hopefully they will this weekend.”