How Crazy Rich Asians made it to cinemas: lucky timing amid #OscarsSoWhite backlash, a great pitch, and its Singapore setting
Producers and director were onto Kevin Kwan’s hit novel early, and from the start saw it as a film with universal appeal. They turned down Netflix, and with Hollywood under pressure to use more non-white actors, Warner Bros. was sold on it
Crazy Rich Asians has all the trappings of a classic Hollywood rom-com. Beautiful people in love. Stunning locations. Disapproving relatives.
But as the first English-language contemporary Hollywood movie with a nearly all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club was released 25 years ago, this film is carrying more weight than the typical lighthearted big-screen fantasy.
If the movie does well at the box office, it could open doors for Asian and Asian American actors and filmmakers in Hollywood at a time when US entertainment companies are taking heat for not giving enough opportunities to non-whites. Its success would also be a big win for Warner Bros., which gambled on the film by giving it a wide summer release and a robust marketing campaign.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a US$30 million love story, especially at a time when the romantic-comedy genre has been all-but-abandoned by the franchise-focused major film companies.
The studio and the filmmakers are about to find out if their bet will pay off. The movie, based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel about a young Chinese American economics professor who discovers her boyfriend comes from one of Singapore’s wealthiest families, is expected to collect a solid US$29 million in the US from Wednesday, when it opens in cinemas, to Sunday, according to pre-release audience surveys.
The film, starring Michelle Yeoh, newcomer Henry Golding and Constance Wu and shot in Malaysia and Singapore, may exceed those expectations, thanks to stellar reviews, identifiable themes and a growing sense that cultural buzz is building behind the picture.
Studios have faced intense scrutiny for the lack of inclusion in film casts and executive ranks. Productions including Black Panther, Get Out, Girls Trip and BlacKkKlansman have repeatedly proven that movies that reflect the lives of non-whites can succeed commercially.
But a July study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative said the industry has made little progress on diversity in the last decade. Asian audiences, in particular, have hammered studios online for “whitewashing” by casting white leads in movies including Aloha and Ghost in the Shell.
“There’s really a lot of momentum going on right now. People are ready to see a movie like this that’s relatable to everyone,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for ComScore. “But all of this is predicated on a solid movie that delivers the goods. None of it matters if the movie doesn’t work.”
Producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson caught wind of Kwan’s novel at the time of its publication in 2013.
They teamed with John Penotti, an indie film producer who had just launched a production company focused on the Asian market, Ivanhoe Pictures, whose parent company SK Global is an investor in the film. China’s Starlight Culture is also a backer.
Rather than pigeonhole the movie for the Chinese market, producers thought the book’s universal themes of romance and family would make it broadly appealing. The possibility of opulent visuals of Singapore, with its glamorous homes and tourist destinations, were ideally suited for the big screen, they said.
“We never saw it as a movie for the Asian market,” said Jacobson, who is known for adapting books such as The Hunger Games. “We saw it as a movie for all markets.”
Despite early interest, there was no guarantee Crazy Rich Asians would get the backing of a major studio. And even if a studio took it on, the film risked getting lost among a trove of bigger projects, or getting watered down by Hollywood’s painstaking development process.
Penotti said he first heard about the book from an industry contact who at the time believed the studios wouldn’t touch it.
“I got tipped off to it by a studio friend who said, ‘We can’t do this because it’s all-Asian and we can’t figure out how to do it with a white female star,’” Penotti said. “I swear to God, that was the conversation. … I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? This is a gift.’”
As outsiders, the producers knew they needed to get a feel for Asia’s unique old-money society. Before they had a script, they flew to Singapore and Hong Kong to experience the culture at first hand. Simpson attended a dinner at a private club to eat Peranakan food — a hybrid of Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine — with a group of wealthy heirs, who compared photos of their yachts on their iPhones.
Director Jon Chu, known for Hollywood movies such as Now You See Me, was looking for a film to channel his own Asian American experience, and even considered moving to China to make movies there. His sister suggested he pursue Crazy Rich Asians, which reminded him of his first visit to Taiwan as a child.
“I saw the potential universality of it,” Chu said. “I saw the opportunity to sneak my story in there.”
When the producers pitched the movie in 2016, the #OscarsSoWhite movement was in full swing, and companies were eager to find movies that did not focus on white people’s stories.
“It just happened we had this movie with an all-Asian cast, right at the moment when people were under pressure, because every movie had starred the same Caucasian people over and over again,” Simpson said.
Warner Bros. was wowed by Chu’s pitch, which detailed how he planned to use Singaporean visuals and Asian-language versions of classic songs to bring the story to life. Streaming giant Netflix offered a rich deal with a big upfront payday, but the filmmakers went with Warner Bros., which promised a major cinematic release.
“[Chu] really found a cinematic vocabulary for the film that would make it must-see viewing,” said Courtenay Valenti, Warner Bros.’ president of production, who championed the movie at the Burbank studio.
The movie still faced major challenges. One was a shortage of English-speaking Asian and Asian American actors working in Hollywood. Chu set out with a widespread talent search that used casting directors in cities including Vancouver, Beijing, Singapore and Hong Kong. The male lead, Golding, a television host with no acting experience, was discovered by an accountant in the Malaysian office.
Then there was the difficulty of filming in tightly regulated Singapore. Penotti used his connections with government officials to secure key locations, including the majestic Gardens by the Bay nature park and Marina Bay Sands, a giant casino resort with a rooftop infinity pool.
They had to convince concerned officials that the film would portray the country respectfully. The filmmakers created a sizzle reel of footage Chu shot in Malaysia, spotlighting the film’s Singaporean actors and scenes highlighting the region’s food and culture, including a scene of a family making dumplings together.
The negotiations to secure Gardens by the Bay, used for the movie’s pivotal wedding reception scene, took four months, Penotti said.
“This was not as simple as, here’s some money, we want to shoot on your location,” Penotti said. “We were filming in Malaysia and we still hadn’t locked down the most important location in the movie.”
The marketing campaign had to cater to Asian Americans but also attract a wider audience that turned classic romantic comedies such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding into breakout hits. The first screening was attended by Asian American social media influencers.
The cast split into groups to attend promotional events in cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto, Miami and Boston. A series of more than 350 pre-release special screenings quickly sold out, said Warner Bros. Pictures worldwide marketing president Blair Rich.
“We knew there was something in its DNA that wasn’t just entertainment, but was going to be really meaningful for people,” Rich said. “We knew we had to be careful about letting the Asian American community have ownership of the movie, but also making sure it was clear this was a movie for everyone.”
The goal, filmmakers said, is to pave the way for more mainstream movies about the Asian experience. Penotti and Chu are in the early stages of a film about the recent rescue of a Thai youth soccer team from a flooded cave.
“For us, it’s opening a whole new [opportunity for] making many more Asian films that have a global appeal — projects that we’re supporting so that you don’t have to wait another 25 years,” Penotti said.