Since day one, Crazy Rich Asians has bore the burden of being the first Hollywood film in a long time — 25 years, to be exact — to feature an all-Asian principal cast with Asian-Americans in lead roles. It’s rare to see a production like it, rarer still to see it top the box office.
The returns mark a historic win for everyone involved, and though it’s proof that a movie about contemporary Asian characters played by (actual, non-whitewashed) Asian actors could dominate the box office, it remains to be seen whether the movement has made an impact on the industry, and more importantly, will last.
For now, the team behind Crazy Rich Asians are optimistic. On Monday, EW spoke with the producers for this week’s issue, before news broke that a sequel is now in development, about what the big box-office debut means for the future of Asian- and Asian-American led films from an industry standpoint. The conversations below are condensed from two separate calls: one with John Penotti of Ivanhoe Pictures, which helped finance Crazy Rich Asians, and one with Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson of Color Force, which first acquired the rights to Kevin Kwan’s novel in 2013, on which the film is based.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction to that final tally of $35.3 million? How did you feel?
JOHN PENOTTI: I know it sounds trite, but I refreshed my page three times. I had to make sure I was looking at the right thing… I tried to lower my own personal expectations, because I just didn’t want to be disappointed.
NINA JACOBSON: Ecstatic. Overjoyed. Thrilled. Obsessed.
BRAD SIMPSON: It’s been an extraordinary experience. We obviously wish we were prescient and could say when we optioned this book, we somehow knew this would happen. The word we keep using is “joy”… Nina and I, as white producers, understood on an intellectual level but never fully understood the power of representation [until now]. We’ve been blown away, sitting with Asian-Americans in audiences, saying they experienced seeing themselves on screen for the first time.
JACOBSON: “Joy” was the word that Kevin wrote down for himself as the mantra as he wrote the book, and it carried over to the experience. It always felt like this had the potential to be a big hit commercial movie — we never saw it as a specialty movie, we never thought it wasn’t a big mainstream movie. The depth of feeling and passion it would inspire because of the timing and the significance of the growing frustration over whitewashing, the desire for audiences to be seen and heard, that was something that has been really humbling to see. It’s been humbling to see what it means for people to be seen, to be heard, to see themselves on screen not as the sidekick, not as the ancillary character, but as everything in this movie.
What were the keys to making this successful opening happen?
JACOBSON: Certainly the Asian-American community, the degree to which they have come together to give us the wind beneath our wings, to creating all of this excitement around the release of the movie, and to make enough noise that other ears perked up, is so compelling.
PENOTTI: I think we had a good sense early on that Jon had directed a really heartfelt, compelling film. We saw it even in the earliest of rough cuts, but there was absolutely no doubt that the marketing and publicity challenge of this was going to make or break this, because we knew that the film was always the strongest attribute. My concern always revolved around, could we come up with the words to convince people that they need to look broadly at it? … Warner Bros. made it an event film. They found a way to broaden the talking points around what people are now embracing, the idea of representation and Asians as protagonists.
On that note, have you already noticed more people being encouraged to pitch Asian-led stories, more projects finally being greenlit? Is this a win for representation?
JACOBSON: I certainly hope so and believe there will be a ripple effect.
SIMPSON: I hope the ripple effect is not necessarily copy-cattying, but more opening up the conversation about what types of movies and TV shows a general audience will go see… We’ve all seen a lot of stories about, to be frank, the trials of white people, and I think that people want something different, want cultural specificity. There are a lot of stories that haven’t been told, so why don’t we tell those stories instead of trying to tell the same stories over and over and over again? I think in some ways our film was burdened, and it’s just one story, one very particular story and one particular journey. I hope it opens up to a multiplicity of stories that can be told as a result.
PENOTTI: It’s easy to throw the words “watershed moment” around this, but I think it’s exactly that. I’ll tell you that starting not just this weekend but the last four months as anticipation for the film grew, we’ve been pitched some of the most terrific Asian-focused, global films [at Ivanhoe], and it’s just incredibly heartening. We have hired another executive at my company who’s going to focus a hundred percent on [representation]. We’re making sure there’s not another 25-year delay. We just won’t let it happen.
In your opinion, there’s been a definite push for inclusion, then?
PENOTTI: Yeah. Let me be clear: It’s not even chatter. You’ll start seeing announcements, even beyond our company but for sure from us in the coming weeks on films that are absolutely now a reality because this film has demonstrated that there is a voracious appetite for diverse stories. Crazy Rich Asians is just one story. There are countless more.
SIMPSON: I think there has been a movement over the last couple of years, if you look at Hidden Figures, Get Out, and The Big Sick, where you’re seeing that audiences have been ready for this for a long time.
JACOBSON: The people who are lagging are not audiences. It’s been decision makers who have been a little slow to hear what audiences are telling them, that they want more diversity, that they want to be given more choices in the marketplace.
Just to make it clear now, once and for all, are there Asian movie stars?
JACOBSON: Absolutely, unequivocally, and we’ve been lucky enough to have a movie full of them.
SIMPSON: The amazing thing about this movie is, all of these actors wanted to be in this movie, but the only reason we were able to get them wasn’t just their enthusiasm for this movie but because they’re underemployed. I feel like we were able to get a group of actors in this movie that, if the marketplace were more fair, wouldn’t have been available, because they would have been working on 17 different movies that they starred in all at once. There’s a wealth of talent out there that’s not being used.
PENOTTI: I’ve been involved in a lot of films, but I’ve never seen the core of a movie — our director, our cast, our producing team — [like this], in contact every day since the wrap. I’m talking every day, we have been in group contact, sharing moments and anecdotes, and it’s gotten many times very personal, very emotional. This cast, this director, are voicing the issues, concerns, and hopes of a gigantic population.