How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Producers Steered a Box-Office Smash and Spawned a Sequel

When a movie opens wide and scores at the box office, you can bet the studio will make another. And when a wildly unconventional movie appears to break all the rules and still find that success, you can bet it’s a carefully plotted coup.

The shepherds of “Crazy Rich Asians” are former Disney production executive Nina Jacobson, her Color Force partner Brad Simpson, and John Penotti of Ivanhoe. She has built a strong track record of developing commercial screenplays, from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Hunger Games” series to FX’s Emmy-winning “American Crime Story: People v. OJ Simpson” and this year’s follow-up, Limited Series nominee “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”

The producers could have gone many different ways, but they landed the rights to a sought-after best seller, steered it through independent development, and sold a packaged project for Warner Bros. to finance and release. After a boffo $35-million five-day box office opening, — and the possibility of a $125 million domestic total — there’s a sequel in development with the same writers (Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) and Jon M. Chu ready to direct. “Our cast and crew started hoping for a sequel before we even wrapped the first one,” wrote Jacobson in an email. “So we’re all ecstatic to be moving forward.”

Nina Jacobson and Jon M. Chu

Steve Cohn/REX/Shutterstock

The book

United Talent Agency sent Jacobson and Simpson their client Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2013, before it became a huge bestseller. “For me it was the rare experience of picking up a delightful book I couldn’t put down, loving every minute, laughing, crying, getting swept away, and caught up,” she said. “It doesn’t happen that often. This transported me to a world I’d never seen, a place I didn’t know anything about, a group of people who were all new to me. The emotions felt accessible for everybody who’s brought home someone that the family didn’t approve of for any reason. I put myself in that category [Jacobson is gay]. Or was a person brought home to a family who didn’t approve. Most people have been in one or the other position or both. In its specificity, it was universal.”

Jacobson saw it as a big popcorn movie, “not an arthouse specialty play,” she said. “It felt mainstream.” Her competitors agreed. “Other producers were vying for it, and there was studio interest, so I knew at an early stage that a studio was a possibility.” Color Force and Ivanhoe acquired all three books in Kevin Kwan’s now-published trilogy, including “China Rich Girlfriend” and “Rich People Problems.”

With no first-look studio deal for Color Force was free to set up “Crazy Rich Asians” anywhere — but the book wasn’t yet a proven success. “We acquired the book to make it,” she said. “But nowadays any movie that isn’t a big superhero franchise doesn’t get pre-slated by a studio, where they know they’re making a movie for Christmas of 2018-2019. Anything that isn’t the big blockbusters or tentpoles is competing for the remaining real estate on the studio slate. We don’t know what we have to do to get one of those spots. Maybe some piece of talent comes around, a director or actor compels them. There’s any number of ways get those slots, but you don’t know what they are, whether they’re right for your material.”

While Jacobson and Susan Collins went as a team to Lionsgate with “Hunger Games,” this time Color Force partnered with an outside producer-investor, Ivanhoe’s Penotti. They all met Kwan at Soho House in New York and won the bidding war by promising him no upfront money but an eventual studio sale. Kwan went for their plan: Develop the script, package it with a director and then go to the studios “and see how that market wants to go,” Jacobson said, “as a ‘yes or no’ prospect.”

“Kevin was on board with that, ready to take that risk with us, getting it made was what mattered.” said Jacobson. “Upfront cash is appealing. But getting the movie made is more appealing.”

When a first crack at the script didn’t work, they brought in Pete Chiarelli (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Proposal”), no matter the cost. “The book had a Nick-and-Rachel-against-the-world feel,” said Jacobson. “But Pete’s take on the emotional architecture of the movie, the triangle between Rachel, Eleanor, and Nick, was a great step forward.”

The script also boasts a raft of colorful supporting characters (played by the likes of Awkwafina, Ken Jeong and Nico Santos), but the movie could not showcase them all. “Some only get a bit of screen time,” said Jacobson. “Everything has to orbit around our key triangle, how each character fits into that central relationship. We always wanted more time for these characters, but only had so much time for characters who are not at the center of the family.” (Santos’ colorful designer Oliver gets more screen time in the sequels.)

With a strong script, the producers chased meetings with the top Asian and Asian-American directors, because “we were none of those things ourselves,” Jacobson said. They met four viable candidates, and Jon M. Chu, with all his studio experience, was at the top of that short list. “We wanted voices coming into the storytelling speaking from the heart,” said Jacobson, who met Chu while working at Disney after he directed the sequel to hip-hop musical “Step Up.” “He brings the Hollywood fun and razzle-dazzle. He gets it, feels it.”

The “Crazy Rich Asians” cast with director Jon M. Chu (second from left) and executive producer Kevin Kwan (far right)

Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock

Chu was also a master of the visually compelling iPad PowerPoint pitch. “He started with pictures of himself growing up with his family,” said Jacobson. “He saw a story of self-discovery, an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time. Rachel is confident, sure of herself, but she is a more fully realized complete person as a result of these experiences, regardless of this romance. That spoke to him in powerful way that we loved. An important part of the story for him was what it means as an Asian-American to be both at home and not at home. When you leave America, you are both here and there. It’s the experience of the Asian diaspora, what it feels like to have both an ancestral home and an actual home.

Chu brought in Malaysian TV writers-room veteran Adele Lim (“Lethal Weapon”) to add authentic detail and specificity. “Her family was still in Malaysia,” said Jacobson. “She stayed with them on location, she married a white guy, brought him home, and could speak to those experiences.”

The producers made their deal for a $30-million production and wide release with Warner Bros., which now owns the Kwan trilogy.

Awkwafina and Constance Wu in “Crazy Rich Asians”

Warner Bros.

Culture clash

“Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu was so eager to land the lead of Rachel that she begged the producers to wait for her to be available. “She’s the prototype of the all-American girl next door,” said Jacobson. “Likable, down to earth. We told Warners that’s who we want, but hadn’t gotten married. They were on board. We wanted to give our partner a voice in such a big casting decision, and we agreed to wait for her.”

Rachel is an economics professor thrown into a classic fish out of water milieu. “She’s misunderstood, in waters she’s not familiar with,” said Jacobson. “She’s a woman who, under any other circumstances, is a confident, capable woman who could thrive anywhere. We wanted a cool, confident New Yorker who has not spent a whole lot of time thinking about what clothes to put on. Every character is defined by wardrobe, every character had to have a specific identity. You wanted her to feel over her head. She assumes she can do this anywhere [and] she doesn’t realize how intimidating Singapore will be. Rachel doesn’t need a man to fulfill her. She’s in love with Nick, and comes to a place of self realization that she’s the catch, even though he’s Prince Charming!”

“Crazy Rich Asians”

Nick is played by suave newcomer Henry Golding, a local Singapore television host turned instant movie star. “Nick has to pass for Singapore native,” said Jacobson, “he’s not American. [Americans] Awkwafina or Ken, they’re part of an eclectic community there, people who travel.”

Romantic comedies are always about barriers to romance. “Often the things that get in the way of romance are a misunderstanding or a mishap,” said Jacobson. “Here, the dramatic stakes in the way are cultural conflict. And it’s also a romantic movie where the women are the most dynamic characters.”

“Crazy Rich Asians”

Sanja Bucko

After the producers set up the Warners deal, Malaysian Hong Kong martial arts star Michelle Yeoh (“Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) joined the cast as Nick’s powerful mother, Eleanor. “She brought great insight into the script,” said Jacobson. “The importance of family. The idea of a love story with her as a great obstacle between the lovers would be lost if Rachel gets Nick at the expense of his family. Those values are legitimate and philosophically hold their own weight. The reasons and concerns of the family — will Rachel be the right person for him and what it will mean for the family — had to feel like a legitimate argument. She’s not villainous.”

Yeoh helped with the little details of how to play Mahjong, and suggested that the grandmother disdain Eleanor. “Even after all this time, she hasn’t won over her own mother-in-law,” said Jacobson. “Why would she be so sure this woman was wrong for her son? How can it come from a place of love, even if it’s not what the lovers want? How can her perspective come from a place of love and devotion?”

“Crazy Rich Asians”

Warner Bros.

Singapore

Another big star of the movie is Singapore. That’s where Asia-savvy Ivanhoe, based in Beijing, came in. “They really appreciate what makes Singapore special as a locale,” said Jacobson. “They let you go make the movie: we needed their trust and relationships in Singapore to help pull it off, which was no small thing. It was a very joyful filmmaking experience, some of most fun I’ve ever had.”

They shot three weeks in small but beautiful Singapore, “the airport city of the future,” said Jacobson. “So modern, so architecturally futuristic, iconic locations.” They closed down the Marina Bay Sands for the engagement party, the Botanical Gardens with its super trees for the wedding reception, as well as Raffles. They filmed five weeks of interiors in more production-friendly Kuala Lampoor, with frequent shopping trips to Hong Kong. Whatever the movie suggests, there was no location filming in Shanghai or New York, said Jacobson. “There’s lots of clever movie magic.”

With plenty more to come.

Next up: Peter Hedges’ fall festival drama “Ben is Back” (December 7, 30West/Roadside Attractions), starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, 2019 features “Where’d You Go Bernadette?” (March 22, Annapurna), directed by Richard Linklater and starring Cate Blanchett, “The Goldfinch” (October 19, Amazon/Warner Bros.), starring Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson, Joe Robert Cole’s drama “All Day and a Night” (Netflix) starring Jeffrey Wright, and upcoming FX comic-book adaptation “Y,” a post-apocalyptic series pilot starring Diane Lane.