“Crazy Rich Asians” opened Wednesday on a wave of favorable reviews and Warner Bros. hype promoting its Asian stars and exotic Singapore setting. That’s the right focus for the first studio wide-release of a contemporary movie with an all-Asian cast since Disney’s “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago.
The midweek opening of $5 million is on par with expectations. It falls below the (adjusted) $8 million Warners’ family comedy “We’re the Millers,” which also opened on an August Wednesday in 2013. That film wound up with $44 million and a $177 million total. This mid-week opening (with no prior night previews) is meant to fuel word of mouth into the weekend. The film’s A Cinemascore suggests the studio made the right move.
This isn’t a high-risk project that otherwise breaks new ground. The film is mainstream commercial, and producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson won the bidding for the project (before it became a million-seller) knowing there was studio interest, eventually selling their developed package to Warner Bros. Pre-opening five-day predictions for “Crazy Rich Asians” are around the $30 million mark, which should launch its ultimate success.
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Truth is, “Crazy Rich Asians” only looks risky in the context of the current weak market for comedies, romantic and otherwise. The genre was as strong as any through much of the 1980s through the early 00s, from “9 to 5,” “Pretty Woman,” “Home Alone,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “The Grinch” to “What Women Want,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Hitch,” and “Meet the Parents.” But by 2010, comedy was ebbing as a dominant box-office force.
Two factors contributed to this. The first: studios started to earn a majority of their grosses from foreign receipts, with comedy a far less reliable export than action-related titles. The second: increasingly, a comic tone was creeping into commercial non-comedies, led by animated movies targeted to wide audiences, live-action titles such as “Alice in Wonderland” and Marvel’s funnier entries (“The Ant-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”), and genre hybrids like “Get Out” last year.
That’s why “Crazy Rich Asians” with its atypical characters looks riskier than it is. In reality, it looks like not only a smart but a reasonably safe bet for Warners. Here’s why.
1. Strong Appeal for its Core Audience
Asian-Americans are a diverse group, and lumping Chinese-Americans with their Korean or Indian or other peers is silly. But they do share an experience of being made to feel more outside the American mainstream, and “Crazy” is also set in multi-ethnic Singapore. These characters are stand-ins for wealthy Asians of all backgrounds.
There are nearly 4 million Chinese-Americans, with Asians overall making up eight percent of the country. They are, to put it mildly, an underserved audience.
Many of the successful comedies in recent years — “Girls Trip” among many appealing to African-Americans, Mexican Eugenio Derbez’s efforts in (mostly) English with “How to Be a Latin Lover” and “Overboard,” “The Big Sick” starring Muslim-American Kumail Nanjiani — have tapped a core of interest from people similar to those portrayed. Because women are another underserved audience (even if they are the majority population, and not a minority), some of the biggest comedy successes in recent years — “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Bad Moms” — have worked because they boasted female appeal.
That’s Movie Comedy 101 these days, at a time when R-rated male-centric comedies like “The Hangover” series seem close to extinct. And in this case, the Asian audience in North America, per MPAA statistics, is eight per cent of frequent moviegoers, more than their share of the population. The question is not ‘is this a risk?’ but ‘why did the myopic studios not figure this out sooner?’
2. The Zeitgeist Boosts “Crazy Rich Asians,” Along with its Originality
Comedy is supposed to make fun and take risks as an outlet for societal pressures and a way to defy norms. In an era of elevated (and often appropriate) political correctness, audiences are more likely to gravitate to a film that seems to take chances.
Though “Crazy Rich Asians” is not the Asian-American equivalent of a Richard Pryor concert film, its makers grounded the movie in unassailable authenticity, making the specific universal. That gives you plenty of leeway. The title is brilliant: in your face, different, in three words saying, “no, we aren’t PC.” It conveys the essence of the film.
And it sounds different: covering fertile new territory elevates the movie, and the marketing emphasizes its Asian-Americans bonafides, from bestselling novelist Kevin Kwan, successful studio director Jon M. Chu and co-screenwriter Adele Lim to the whole cast. Similarly, Jordan Peele could do whatever he wanted with horror/comedy hybrid “Get Out.”
3. It Didn’t Cost Too Much
“Ghostbusters” was the #1 comedy of 2016. But because the $125-million movie under-performed in the U.S. (around $130 million) and grossed even less overseas, with additional marketing costs it was a flop. The mistake was its expense and too-high expectations.
“Crazy Rich Asians” cost $30-million before marketing. That often is seen by studios as a risky level for a film. Release schedules are littered with films in that range with an equal marketing spend and scant foreign appeal that gross around $30 million after opening wide. And they lose money. The studios would rather gamble on something more expensive and pre-sold that will do well domestically and score the usual double overseas numbers.
But a modest budget can also lead to huge profits. “Bridesmaids” cost a little bit more than “Crazy” and ended up with a worldwide gross around $300 million, plus of course subsequent strong post-theater revenues. The key is to be original and have something to offer as an alternative to the same-old titles. In this case, they seem to have found the elements needed.
4. Foreign Is Icing on the Cake
With a lower budget, counting on international to pull in two thirds of the gross isn’t necessary. But many American comedies, even those with primarily female appeal, score decent foreign returns even if they’re less than domestic. The exceptions tend to be local American comedies (sometimes African-American) that translate less well (or are rejected for racist reasons in some countries). The movie will do well in many territories, including Asia–how well remains to be seen. Again, its low budget means the foreign take is gravy.
Finally, this movie is a major achievement for the “Crazy Rich Americans” team. The real lesson: question the conservative business models that studios use for making decisions about what movies to make, often abetted by a lack of representation (in this case, Asian-Americans) in key roles. A film like this has taken far too long to get made. If “Crazy Rich Asians” breaks out, of course, expect a raft of imitators, which is why the filmmakers insisted on a studio release–not going with Netflix– to validate the movie in Hollywood. The studios should re-examine their models for other under-served communities as well.