Kevin Kwan's heart was pounding. It was a Friday evening in October 2016, and the author of the breakout 2013 novel Crazy Rich Asians was in his Manhattan home, on a conference call with the producers of the planned film adaptation — Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson and John Penotti — and its director, Jon M. Chu, along with their respective legal teams, about 22 people in all. They had a massive decision to make.
Behind one door: Warner Bros., which had outbid other traditional studios with a distribution offer for Crazy Rich Asians a week earlier. Behind the other: Netflix, the great disrupter, which had come in hot the following Monday, dangling complete artistic freedom, a greenlighted trilogy and huge, seven-figure-minimum paydays for each stakeholder, upfront. Now Warners had come back with not so much a counteroffer as an ultimatum, giving the filmmakers just 15 minutes to pick an option. Jacobson spoke up: "We're going to go with whatever Kevin and Jon want to do."
Kwan's lawyer, Peter Nichols, was pulled over on the shoulder of Pacific Coast Highway texting his client furiously. Kwan and Chu had already tried to rationalize the cash grab: "Maybe we donate a percentage of our extra income to great causes," Chu recalls the two having discussed the night before. "But where does that money go? Right back to trying to get to this position of getting us [Asians] on the big screen."
No wonder Kwan, 44, was nervous. "I could sense every lawyer on the call shaking their heads: 'Ugh, these stupid idealists.' Here, we have a chance for this gigantic payday instantaneously," he says. "But Jon and I both felt this sense of purpose. 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." Adds Chu: "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."
And so the director and the novelist passed on the crazy rich offer — "I could have moved to an island and never worked another day," says Kwan — and said no to Netflix. After more than a dozen advisers hung up in disappointment, Kwan called Chu. Both were in tears as Kwan asked, "What just happened?"
This is what happened: A major studio was throwing its weight behind an all-Westernized Asian cast and creator in a theatrical film release for the first time since 1993, when Disney made The Joy Luck Club, until now the only Hollywood studio movie to feature an entirely Asian-American ensemble. That multigenerational drama — a film its executive producer Janet Yang says isn't "commercial" enough to be made today — earned $33 million ($57 million adjusted for inflation). Unlike 2000 foreign-language Oscar winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2005 novel adaptation Memoirs of a Geisha (both released by Sony), Crazy Rich Asians centers on contemporary characters. The Meet the Parents-type tale — a Chinese-American professor accompanies her boyfriend to Singapore, not realizing that he's heir to a richer-than-God fortune — is a romantic comedy, another first in the tiny canon of Asian-American studio films, and a format that has struggled to find its way at the box office in recent years.
So even with the runaway success of Kwan's novel, which became an international best-seller (more than a million copies sold in more than 20 languages), Warner Bros. — whose chairman and CEO, Kevin Tsujihara, happens to be the first and only studio chief of Asian descent — is rolling the dice too. Early tracking has the film's five-day opening weekend at around $20 million, a solid number that's ahead of most recent rom-coms — and the industry is watching closely. "I don't think any movie wants to have to carry the weight on its shoulders in terms of, 'If this movie doesn't work, is this a big stumbling block for this kind [of film]?'" says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, of comScore. "But I think studios are learning that the biggest risks can reap the biggest rewards. To have that biggest punch, you want that wide theatrical release where everyone is talking about it."
For all of Netflix's reach and riches, it won't give films an exclusive theatrical window, which means major cinema chains won't play its movies — and the streamer doesn't offer proof, at least publicly, of a film's performance. "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," says Jacobson. "It meant something to us to become a 'comp' for somebody else."
Crazy Rich Asians was almost made by Wendi Deng Murdoch, Rupert's China-born ex, after Graydon Carter gave her an advance copy of the novel. "She was the first person that came calling and, of course, she knows this world," says Kwan, whose book is a satirical take on his own Singaporean upbringing. "She had a vision for the movie that completely jelled with what I saw."
The deal didn't pan out, partly because of timing (Murdoch was in the midst of her high-profile divorce from Rupert), but UTA, representing the adaptation rights, was fielding plenty of interest. "I met with, I think, six producers in one day," says Kwan. "It was like a beauty contest." Many had renminbi signs in their eyes. "They were interested in getting into the Chinese market, and I was like, 'This is a movie with worldwide and domestic potential — that just happens to star Asians.'"
Color Force's Jacobson and Simpson, known for the Hunger Games franchise, saw it the same way. "It feels so mainstream and accessible — anybody can relate to being rejected by in-laws," says Jacobson. She and Simpson vowed to secure financing from a company with Asian ties, and UTA steered them to Ivanhoe Pictures, Penotti's then-brand-new company with offices in Singapore and Hong Kong. While Kwan had lucrative offers, he optioned his book to Color Force and Ivanhoe for just $1 (with triggers in place for him to earn more as the project got made) in exchange for the right to remain involved with development decisions — a rare opportunity for a first-timer. "To say, 'I'm going to do this for a dollar,'" says Simpson, "the only other person I know who does that is Stephen King."
The team decided to package the project with a script and a director before going out to studios. "You don't want to just be another piece of development. With a movie like this, people are never going to have to make it, and it could get lost," says Simpson, who adds that in 2013, two years ahead of #OscarsSoWhite, Hollywood was "sort of pre-this moment of, 'Let's have more representation.'" (Before going with Color Force, Kwan fielded pitches that included turning his heroine into a white woman; "It's a pity you don't have a white character," he was told by one producer.)
By 2016, the team had a working screenplay by The Proposal's Peter Chiarelli and was ready to bring a director on board. Jacobson and Simpson approached a few contenders, all of Asian descent. Chu, then 36, had just completed production on Now You See Me 2 and was looking for his next project. He'd had success with action sequels (2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation scored $376 million worldwide), dance and music films (Justin Bieber documentaries) and movies that are both (the Step Up franchise), but none of the eight films in his 10-year career had explored his own Chinese-American identity. "Something in me shifted during those Twitter-sphere protests of Whitewashed Out and Starring John Cho," he says, referencing two hashtags decrying Asian underrepresentation in Hollywood that were trending at the time. "I was like, 'I have this power to do something, but what is the story?'"
He took a few meetings in China, but nothing connected with his experience. Then his sister called, nagging him about a book she'd urged him to read a year earlier. He phoned his agent, UTA's Rob Carlson, to ask about Crazy Rich Asians. "How did you know?" Carlson replied — he'd been sent the script from Jacobson and Simpson that very day.
Chu's presentation to the producers began with old photographs of his parents, immigrant restaurateurs who bought him filmmaking books in high school, and his four older siblings, who personally catered his first short-film screening at USC. The pitch then segued to a multimedia vision board for "a way we haven't ever seen Asians before," Chu explains. "Contemporary, stylish, at the top of art and fashion, emotional, funny, sarcastic and unapologetic. Confident." He also offered up a dream casting sheet, "the Avengers of fucking [Asian] actors," which included Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu, The Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng, Silicon Valley breakout Jimmy O. Yang, martial arts cinema legend Michelle Yeoh and Brit beauty Gemma Chan. Wu met with Chu about playing Rachel, but her ABC sitcom conflicted with his shooting schedule, so she was out. Then a month or so later, Wu was on a flight and "I guess I was feeling dramatic or something," says the 36- year-old star. She wrote Chu an email: "Dates are dates, and if those are unmovable, I understand. But I would put all of my heart, hope, humor and courage into the role. What all this could do means so much to me. It's why I advocate so much for young Asian-American girls, so they might not spend their life feeling small or being commanded to be grateful to even be at the table."
The letter convinced Chu, who pushed production about five months to accommodate Wu; soon after, Yeoh, 55, joined as Nick's fearsome mother, Eleanor. The Chinese-Malaysian Crouching Tiger star, who had looked into acquiring Crazy Rich Asians' option herself, made it clear she was not interested in playing a tiger mom stereotype. "Eleanor was very representative of some of the most beautiful women I've met in Asia who take a second seat, because that's how you manage your husband's position in the society," she says. "And I don't think it's just Chinese women — I think it's very universal to be self-sacrificing, first to your husband, and then to your children."
Nailing that nuance in Eleanor's character was required before Yeoh would commit, so Chu brought in Malaysian-born TV writer Adele Lim, who worked with Chu to incorporate not just more cultural specificity into Chiarelli's script, but also emotional authenticity. Resolving the face-off between Rachel and Eleanor without villainizing the latter required a deft touch and a new third act, original to the movie. "This hold that parents have on their children is a specifically Asian thing," says Lim. "It presents itself in really aggressive ways sometimes, but it comes from a place of deep devotion."
Finding the film's male lead was, unsurprisingly, the toughest challenge. The character of Nick Young was "the type of human being that walks between the raindrops," says Terri Taylor, who scoured the globe with fellow casting director PoPing AuYeung. "The list [of contenders] always remained fairly short. It was probably a vast difference in volume compared with if we were trying to cast Ryan Gosling's [role] in The Notebook."
The talent agencies scoured their rosters, and some drama schools in the U.S. and U.K. told the casting directors that they hadn't seen anyone who fit Nick's type — as in, an Asian leading man — in a long while. Just days before the team had to deliver a candidate to Warners, Wu was set to read with four finalists in L.A. and four in China. But none felt quite right to Chu.
Then the director received a tip from an accountant in the production's Malaysian office who remembered watching a travel video years earlier that was hosted by a handsome young Asian man with a British accent. Intrigued, Chu and Taylor began cyber-stalking the social media accounts of Henry Golding, a Singapore-based presenter for travel programs on the BBC and Discovery Channel Asia.
"Jon started following me on Instagram, and I was like [gasps], 'What does this mean?'" says Golding. Shortly thereafter, Chu reached out via a mutual friend and Golding, 31, sent a self-tape for what he figured would be a bit part. That led to a 17-hour trip to L.A. for a chemistry read with Wu, then, days later, a screen test with the studio that required the newly married Golding to cut short his Cape Town honeymoon.
"He's like John F. Kennedy Jr. in New York, cooler than any of these [other] guys we were reading, and he's not even trying," Chu says, adding that Warner Bros.' film chair, Toby Emmerich, was likewise charmed. "We showed Toby and he was like, 'Is there even a choice to be made here? Obviously that dude.'"
The surprise casting was a coup for Chu, but after it was announced, there was a bit of backlash in some corners of the internet (the Malaysian-English actor is biracial, while Nick is Chinese-Singaporean).“What is the level of Asian-ness you need to be to be profiled as Asian?” says Golding, who has since booked two more films, including Paul Feig’s September mystery A Simple Favor, opposite Blake Lively. “Spending my childhood in England, I was always labeled as Asian. I’m Asian. I was born in Asia, I’ve grown up most of my life in Asia. Jon would not have chosen me if he didn’t think I was right for the role.”
With the casting team still hustling to fill 76 speaking parts, nearly all of them Asian, the eight-week shoot commenced in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in April 2017. (The $30 million production would move to the more-costly Singapore for its final three weeks.) For its cast — hailing from the United States, England, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia — the experience was somewhat surreal. "We've all been 'that Asian' on set at one point. That dynamic didn't exist here," says Chinese-Korean-American rapper-actress Awkwafina, 29, who plays Rachel's best friend. Adds Korean-American actor Ken Jeong, who plays her father (earning the 49-year-old the affectionate off-camera nickname "Papafina"): "We've gotten to a point where it's accepted to have Asian-American supporting roles in major movies, and I've been a beneficiary of that. But when all the participants are Asian, it's even more joyous to support the story and each other."
Everyone was on the lookout for potential blind spots and cultural cliches. Wu convinced Chu to remove dialogue from the book wherein Rachel boasts about never dating Asian men. Yeoh, touring Eleanor's kitchen set, pointed the finger at a packet of MSG. "You can't have that on the table!" she exclaimed, but Chu reassured her that no one would notice. (She was later vindicated when the director sent a snapshot of the pair on set to his father — owner of the deceptively old-school Silicon Valley power spot Chef Chu's — who ignored the film icon next to his son and instead complained about the MSG in the background.)
The cast forged out together nearly every night for street food and karaoke, led by the ensemble's local natives, who included Golding and Chieng, who was raised in Malaysia and Singapore. ("When I read about the movie, I called my agent and said, 'If you can get me an audition, I swear I can book this one,'" says Chieng, 32, who plays one of Nick's snobby cousins. "In fact, this is the only one I can book, because there's no other movie that's going to ask for this kind of accent.'") Although many of the actors had never met prior to production, "everybody was on the same page," says Silicon Valley's Hong Kong-born Yang, 31, who plays an obnoxious playboy in the Singaporean high-society scene. "We all kind of grew up the same way, so there was no convincing, like, 'Oh, hey, we're going to Chinatown for Asian food, but don't worry, it's not that adventurous.' Like Gemma and Sonoya [Mizuno], they're basically models, but we're always on the same page about eating. Nobody's vegetarian."
The actors stay connected via a massive WhatsApp group text, and several made it to Chu and graphic designer Kristin Hodge's July 27 wedding in Napa (Golding was a groomsman). "I'm so used to being the token that I forgot how much it meant to have your people around you," says Nico Santos, the Filipino-American star of NBC's Superstore who plays another of Nick's cousins. "I didn't have an Asian crew I rolled with until I found Crazy Rich Asians."
Ahead of the film's Aug. 15 opening, Warner Bros. has embarked on a unique marketing campaign befitting its unprecedented film. In April, an unheard-of four months before release, the studio hosted a tastemakers screening at downtown L.A.'s Theatre at Ace Hotel for 1,200 people, most of them Asian-American. Audible sniffles were heard throughout the darkened theater as the romantic comedy played out onscreen.
"When they do screenings, a lot of Asian-American people have this overwhelming urge to cry. And they don't know exactly why," says Awkwafina. The Ocean's 8 breakout can perhaps relate, having teared up one evening during the shoot when Chu showed her some of her dailies. "I've never seen myself as a character in a movie," she told him.
More advance screenings have been held in major cities including San Francisco and Washington, D.C. On July 26, designer Prabal Gurung and several of fashion's Asian stars hosted one in New York. Warners also is working with Asian-American community organizations to arrange theater buyouts and develop outreach strategies to a demographic that, according to the MPAA, registered the U.S. and Canada's second-highest per-capita theater attendance (behind Hispanic/Latinos) last year. Still, Asians represent just 6 percent of the American population, so for Crazy Rich Asians to be a success, it will have to play broadly — as, in fact, its sole studio predecessor did in 1993.
"There was no point in thinking about whether Joy Luck Club could succeed on an Asian audience alone," recalls producer Yang. Like Crazy Rich Asians, Amy Tan's novel "was not just an Asian thing," she adds. "Nobody even thought about Asians as a distinct demographic group back then." But that film's resonance with generations of Asian-Americans has obscured its wider reach, which Warners is betting on for Chu's film. "I really believe it will work on a broad basis," says production president Courtenay Valenti. "It's a story with rich themes about identity and culture and where do you belong, which are so universal, especially in terms of the conversation that's resonant today worldwide." The film will have a staggered international rollout in dozens of markets, from Australia to Italy, although a make-or-break China release is not yet confirmed. "We're all praying to the China gods right now," says Ivanhoe's Penotti. "From my colleagues in Beijing, it looks like we're in strong consideration."
It has taken a rapid succession of undeniable hits — Hidden Figures, Get Out, Girls Trip, Black Panther — for Hollywood to warm to the concept that culturally specific stories can lure wide audiences by offering novel takes on well-worn genres. "When people get to see either themselves on screen or fresh faces who aren't the same old lineup, reshuffled, we're seeing breakout success," says Jacobson. Still, the creatives behind Crazy Rich Asians know that the marketability and near-future prospects of an entire community's body of work likely hinge on their perceived success or failure. "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," says Chu. "To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that's what we asked for."
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.