The makers of Crazy Rich Asians aren’t afraid of a challenge. They’re putting out their film—the first US studio entry with an all-Asian cast in 25 years—with the specific goal of proving to Hollywood that audiences will turn out for an Asian-focused story. And they turned down a whole lot of cash to have the opportunity to prove their point.
This week’s cover story in the Hollywood Reporter chronicles the making of the film, adapted from the Kevin Kwan novel of the same name. It follows a Chinese-American professor who travels with her boyfriend to Singapore, where she meets his extraordinarily wealthy family. The piece reveals that Netflix offered “complete artistic freedom, a greenlighted trilogy and huge, seven-figure-minimum paydays for each stakeholder, upfront,” for the film’s distribution rights.
But the producers had something else in mind. “We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button,” director Jon M. Chu told the Hollywood Reporter. “We were gifted this position to make a decision no one else can make, which is turning down the big payday for rolling the dice [on the box office]—but being invited to the big party, which is people paying money to go see us.”
Chu, Kwan, and producer Nina Jacobson believed that Crazy Rich Asians can serve as a comparison, or “comp,” for future films with predominantly Asian casts, proving to financiers that such stories can be profitable. The only way to set that benchmark is to get the film an exclusive window in theaters (which Netflix typically doesn’t do), and review the box office results (Netflix doesn’t publicly disclose viewership for any of its films or TV shows).
With that goal in mind, the team decided to take a less lucrative offer from the major Hollywood studio Warner Bros, who’d give the film a traditional theatrical release and a comprehensive marketing campaign.
It’s a brave, if risky decision—and not just because the filmmakers’ payouts, based on percentages of profits, may not be as high. If the film falters at the box office, it could scare off studios from investing in similar films in the future, as unfair as that would be. Luckily, the film is tracking for an $18 million-plus opening ahead of its Aug. 15 release, according to Variety, well ahead of the openings of other recent rom-coms, like Overboard and Love, Simon.
“We can sugarcoat it all we want, but the moment you bring up an Asian-led movie, there’s one example to point to, and that’ll be us,” Chu told the Hollywood reporter. “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.”
The example of several recent blockbuster successes by black filmmakers seem to have informed the decision. “You can look at Get Out, you can look at Black Panther—it changes the whole economics of the business when movies like that succeed,” Jacobson said. “It meant something to us to become a ‘comp’ for somebody else.”
In a Facebook post, one of the film’s stars, Constance Wu, compared the uphill battle of Asians in Hollywood with that of black filmmakers, quoting director Ava DuVernay: “‘I work in an industry that really has no regard for my voice and the voice of people like me and so, what do I do? Keep knocking on that door or build your own house?'”
“My dear Asian American friends, we are building our own damn houses,” Wu wrote. “We got the tools, the ability and we definitely got the style.”
The Crazy Rich Asians team’s decision to put the film out in theaters instead of opting for streaming also underscores Netflix’s inconsistency as a film distributor. The theatrical experience is still extremely important to many filmmakers, and until the streaming service warms up to the idea of showing more of its movies in theaters before they hit the internet, it could continue to lose out on projects like this one, despite its deep pockets and promises of creative independence.