By the usual Hollywood standards, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a modest rom-com, set to generate about $18 million in its North American debut starting Wednesday.
But the true sign of its success may be whether it helps usher in more films like it. Hollywood hasn’t produced a movie like this -- featuring a mostly Asian cast -- in 25 years. Like “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993, “Crazy Rich Asians” is also based on a best-selling book, and many will see it as a test of the broader appeal of an American movie with Asian themes.
“Many of us are hoping it is the dawn of a new era,” said Janet Yang, an executive producer of “The Joy Luck Club.” “The desire to finally stake a claim in the industry has been bubbling to the surface for a while.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” represents the latest effort by Hollywood to diversify its talent pool, both in front of and behind the camera. Walt Disney Co.’s “Black Panther” shattered box-office records this year and helped demonstrate the global appeal of movies with black themes and casts.
“It was really important for us for it to have ownership in the Asian-American community -- this is their moment,” Terra Potts, an executive at Warner Bros. who oversees multicultural marketing, said in an interview.
‘Big and glossy’
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a chance for Asian-Americans to see themselves on the big screen in a film that’s “big and glossy, and doesn’t show them in a position of poverty or struggle,” Potts said. The move is “not highlighting stereotypes, just celebrating who they are and the complexity of not only being Asian but Asian-American.”
Asians have been almost invisible in Hollywood. In a survey of popular movies, researchers at the University of Southern California found that fewer than 5 per cent of characters were Asian and more than one in three movies had no Asian speaking characters at all. Four percent of all directors were Asian or Asian-American; Asian female directors were nearly nonexistent in the sample.
In its annual study of moviegoers by race and ethnicity, the Motion Picture Association of America broke out attendance by Asian-Americans this year for the first time. They found per capita attendance was highest among Latino and Asian audiences, with Asians making up 8 percent of frequent filmgoers in 2017, even though they only make up 6 percent of the US population.
Money to spend
“The biggest excuse that Hollywood has had around Asian-American talent is that there’s no evidence of box-office draw around Asian-American leads,” said Andrew Lee, an Austin-based film producer who hosted a soiree fundraiser to promote the movie. “Asians actually do spend money. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.”
In “Crazy Rich Asians,” Constance Wu plays a native New Yorker who goes to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family, only to discover they’re super rich and her boyfriend, played by Henry Golding, is one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors.
With any cast, it would be a far smaller movie than “Black Panther,” which benefited from a massive budget, years of anticipation and Marvel Entertainment’s global fan base. “Crazy Rich Asians” had a budget, before marketing costs, of just $30 million. But as with “Black Panther,” other filmmakers are eager to see whether “Crazy Rich Asians” will have broad appeal.
“We are looking forward to how the general audience, not just the Asian-Americans, will react to a movie like this where almost everyone in the cast is Asian,” said Francis Chung, head of US productions for South Korea’s CJ Entertainment, which has several American film projects in development. “It’s one of those rare moments where we get to see an Asian-American cast not doing a martial-arts movie.”
Critics have reacted positively, according to review aggregator RottenTomatoes. “Joy Luck Club” was also a critical hit and had modest box-office success, earning $32.9 million in 1993. That was more than Martin Scorsese’s “Age of Innocence,” but less than Jane Campion’s “The Piano.”
“I hope we will be able to look back on this time and say, ‘This is when things started to change,’’’ Yang said. “I see a lot of signs of that.”