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Jon M. Chu’s new job title – chief creative officer of the grocery startup Weee! – may raise a few questions.
First, the filmmaker’s not quitting his day job. The Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights director is still prepping his next movie musical, Universal’s adaptation of the Broadway smash Wicked. And he sees his new role with the Asian and Hispanic e-grocer as an extension of the same passion that drives his filmmaking: the desire to share stories about different cultures.
“I’ve found this amazing opportunity to tell stories, and when I featured [certain] foods in my movies, that’s what a lot of people talk to me about, so I was already on a track of, ‘How can we do more’?” Chu tells The Hollywood Reporter. “People want to go home and try new foods, and it felt like a very interesting extension, especially during this year when entertainment is changing, and we’re having this movement where everybody is trying to learn about everybody else.”
It was Chu who, as one of Weee!’s new pandemic-era customers, initiated contact with CEO Larry Liu, who founded the Fremont, Calif.-based company in 2015. The two men – both Chinese Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area – got to talking, and to their surprise, an opportunity to collaborate emerged.
“I don’t know any combination of two people coming together with as different skill sets as us, but what we found in common was the idea of creating a new experience for food buying and, in that, culture sharing and passing,” says Chu. “It just became a very potent idea to me that I couldn’t let go of.”
In addition to being a signature element of his films, the sharing of food is part of Chu’s roots. His father, Lawrence Chu, opened the Chinese restaurant Chef Chu’s in 1970, and the family continues to run the beloved Silicon Valley staple to this day. “I’ve watched food spread the ideas of who we are as a family, as a people, both at the ground level at the restaurant and on the movie side,” the director says. “This idea of being able to make that experience accessible to everybody using story doesn’t mean [screen] content. It means the actual experience of discovering something.”
That answers another question about Chu’s involvement with Weee!, which is that he’s not a filmmaker-in-residence. (Case in point: He oversaw but did not helm the company’s stirring new video touting its cultural purpose – although Chef Chu’s does make a cameo.) Liu and Chu have spent the past year creating the latter’s new role – a fairly unprecedented one for directors and retailers alike – and building a team to support it. Chu is fond of analogizing this move as Walt Disney expanding from animated films to theme parks – in other words, adding a live experience component – and if so, the responsibility of chief creative officer is to be an imagineer of sorts. When he visited both the Fremont headquarters and Weee!’s La Mirada offices in southern California, Chu found a young, mostly Asian staff who believed in the same vision.
“I think everyone is there for the reason of crystallizing the stories of our parents and grandparents, how they cooked for us,” he says. “How do we create stuff that helps teach me how to pass that on to my children? How do we make it easy for my parents to send a gift box of comfort foods to my kids when they go off to college? These opportunities to expand story from screen to your house felt like the new things that storytellers are looking to do, and it was so unique that I had to jump in on it.”
Weee!’s website and mobile app currently already have a social component alongside the e-commerce; each product’s page includes a robust reviews section where customers post photos and multilingual quick takes, but Chu and his team will ideate ways to further enhance engagement, including tapping into the director’s extensive rolodex for partnerships with Hollywood studios and Asian American leaders and influencers like the nonprofit Gold House.
“When I think about Crazy Rich Asians, what else can I do? You can make a TV show or another sequel, and we can do all those things, but those are years apart, and you’re dependent on everybody else. This was suddenly another avenue, a totally different medium of story: food. I know that, and I love that, and I could use all my creative juices and create a team that can be sort of this incubator of how to experiment in that space,” Chu says. “And as our business is changing, it seems to be stuff that all storytellers should be looking at.”
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