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Jon Favreau on 'Chef's' box-office success and the power of social media

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Chef Jon Favreau Roy Choi
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Jon Favreau admits to being a bit obsessive when it comes to box-office results, as any good blockbuster director should be. “That’s the ultimate scorecard for whether you get to make more movies or not,” he told EW Tuesday night at an event for his latest film Chef, a small-budget pic about an influential chef who goes back to his roots by opening a food truck.

After opening on just six screens in early May, the film gained momentum throughout the summer, sticking around for over 18 weeks. Chef‘s $45.9 million worldwide earnings might seem paltry compared to, say, Iron Man‘s $98.6 million opening weekend, but of course in box-office terms, it’s all relative. Based on Chef‘s modest production budget and minimal marketing, Favreau’s return to indies after nearly a decade of trafficking in big-budget tent poles was a runaway success.

“People came back and saw it over and over, which meant that I connected with people who felt passionately about the film,” said Favreau. “There was not one billboard for the movie. Everything was from word of mouth. That was what was exciting. Much like the food truck in the movie, its success owed itself to the people who were reacting to what we were doing.” Favreau attributes a lot of that buzz to the “power of social media,” likening its ability to help an indie find its footing to its ability to bolster the stature of anything from stand-ups to food trucks.

“I’m used to movies that, when they do well, they come with a big bang and they go away quickly because the next big movie comes out,” he said.

As for what comes next, Favreau was a hesitant to make any big pronouncements about Chef‘s awards potential. He noted that a summer release isn’t ideal for awards recognition, but considering the fact that it is still around in select theaters and that the DVD is coming out on Sept. 30,  there is always the possibility that it’ll be included in the mix when ballots start coming in.

“Because I’m part of the community, I get to participate in awards season at parties or with my friends who’ve been nominated, but I’ve never been nominated for any of the year-end awards,” he said. “If anything happens, that’s fantastic, but I can sincerely say that I’ve gotten more out of this already than I could ever have hoped. The fact that I got to tell a story that I care deeply about that moves me and has moved people? That’s as good as it gets when you do what I do for a living.”

Part of that storytelling was aided by the close watch of Roy Choi, a Los Angeles-based chef famous for popularizing food trucks with his Korean taco truck Kogi. Choi served as a co-producer, technical adviser and mentor to Favreau from pre-production through editing. At Tuesday’s event in West Hollywood, Favreau and Choi stood side-by-side as they cooked up the same Cubano sandwiches served in the film for a hungry, captivated crowd. “People have tried to book us for cooking demos,” Favreau said, laughing.

For Choi, Chef became somewhat of a passion project, as he tried to make sure that his peers and his profession was represented accurately. “A lot of films struggle to capture the soul of who we are and the idiosyncrasies of who we are. The imperfections and our style and our swagger and the things we find important and the OCD aspects. Food, in some films, becomes just set dressing,” he said. “I hardly made any changes to the script, but the small changes I did make were around the romanticism of certain things. In the original script he had his character in his chef’s coat going to the farmer’s market and smelling the produce. I was like ‘no!’ That had a big red line though it. It went from that to him in his street clothes just going like ‘gimme two of these, gimme two of those.'”

And, for Choi, it worked. He said, “Jon really invested his time and his thought and his life into this movie. The chef community and the restaurant community really felt like someone was looking out for them here.”

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