When screenwriter Soo Hugh was preparing to pitch Pachinko (a series based on Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel) to Apple TV, Crazy Rich Asians had yet to be released. It was the first major Hollywood studio film in 25 years to star a majority-Asian cast, which she remembers someone bringing up to her at the time: “I really hope Crazy Rich Asians does well,” they said.
“At first, I was really annoyed by that comment,” Hugh tells InStyle. “I was like, ‘wait a minute, that’s premature pressure on this movie.’”
And she’s not the only one who felt it. Days before the movie’s release, Kevin Kwan, who wrote the book it’s based on, was asked by the Washington Post how he felt about Crazy Rich Asians possibly being a watershed moment for representation in Hollywood. “I don’t even know how to answer that question, that’s just way too much pressure,” he said.
In the months leading up to its release and even in the weeks after, there was plenty of discussion about what a movie like CRA could mean for the Asian-American community and for future Asian-centric movies and TV shows. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Jon Chu acknowledged that there was a lot riding on the film — the sense that the prospects of a whole community's body of work could hinge on how well-received Crazy Rich Asians was.
According to a 2018 study from University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, out of 1,100 popular films from 2007 to 2017, the year before Crazy Rich Asians came out, just 4.8% of characters of a discernible ethnicity were Asian. "We can sugarcoat it all we want,” Chu said, “but the moment you bring up an Asian-led movie, there's one example to point to, and that'll be us."
If the movie did well — as no shortage of industry think-pieces pointed out — it could open doors for other movies and TV shows starring Asian faces. If it bombed, it could be made into an example for why these kinds of movies can’t be made.
Now that it’s almost a year after Crazy Rich Asians was released, we know it quickly became the most successful studio rom-com in nine years at the U.S. box office, and ended up grossing an estimated $174 million. Suffice to say, it passed the litmus test.
So what came of all those think-pieces? Did the floodgates open, giving Asian-American actors a million leading roles, and greenlighting Asian-inclusive sitcoms that were previously languishing in a slush pile, all of which are now coming soon to a TV screen near you?
It’s difficult to determine causation and correlation — in other words, it’s hard to say for sure that the movie’s success helped usher along other Asian-centric projects like many had hoped it would. But Hugh says that when she did finally pitch Pachinko, which is about a Korean family that migrates to Japan, Crazy Rich Asians had just opened to mass acclaim.
“I would be naive to say that it wasn’t a factor [in pushing the pitch],” Hugh says. “It very much helped grease the way, if that makes sense. It made it a little easier.” Indeed, Apple picked up her show.
Mariko Carpenter, vice president of strategic community alliances at Nielsen, says that Crazy Rich Asians is one of the largest factors contributing to “a momentum” in diverse representation.
“It showed that [Asian-American consumers] have the influence and the reach to make a difference,” she says. “Young people are seeing the world through a diverse lens so they’re expecting that in the media that they support. We see data that brands and companies that are embracing diversity are the ones winning, the ones seeing growth, and it really comes from the desire of the consumer group.”
Even if CRA can’t speak for everyone, the movie was still a milestone in representation. Maya Erskine, an Asian-American actress who starred in Hulu’s PEN15 and the upcoming Plus One, says it “100%” changed the industry — and the way Asians are seen onscreen.
“It was really exciting, for me, to see Asian men onscreen in the most beautiful way,” she tells InStyle. “I hadn’t had that experience, except for watching [Hong Kong-based director] Wong Kar-Wai films. In America, I don’t think I can name a movie where you’re seeing Asian men sexually, honestly, and in a way that’s like ‘wow, that guy is so hot and he’s leading this movie.’ In that way, it was a really emotional experience to watch.”
The last movie before Crazy Rich Asians that had an Asian-led cast, The Joy Luck Club, came out in 1993. As Andrew R. Chow wrote for the New York Times, the film adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel of the same name garnered optimism and hope for change in Hollywood at the time.
Then, it took 25 years for another movie like it to make it to the big screen. Diana Son, a screenwriter who worked on Dirty John and 13 Reasons Why, attributes that lack of follow-through to an “inherent bias” in the industry that said that Joy Luck Club’s success was just a fluke.
“It’s not that The Joy Luck Club failed to inspire Asian-American writers and directors to try to sell their stories,” she says. “What it failed to produce was more financing opportunity. That just comes down to, were the people who were making decisions about what TV shows and movies get made, were they interested in our stories? And I think the answer was no.” But things are different now, right? As Mariko Carpenter said, there’s finally some “momentum” around diversity and inclusion. And with millions made at the box office and sequels on the way for the next two books in the series, Crazy Rich Asians’ success is hard to ignore.
And that momentum has translated to what we’re about to see more of onscreen. As of now, there are several high-profile projects starring, or created by, Asian-Americans in production, according to GoldOpen.com, which tracks creative projects from underrepresented groups. The end of May will see the release of Always Be My Maybe, a rom-com starring Ali Wong and Randall Park (of Fresh Off the Boat). Late Night, a comedy starring Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, will be released in early June. At the end of June, Yesterday, a romantic musical starring Himesh Patel will hit theaters.
The cast of Crazy Rich Asians are fast becoming veritable movie stars in its wake, too. Scene-stealer Awkwafina is getting her own scripted Comedy Central series based on her life experiences, co-starring BD Wong. The comedian also has a movie lined up for this July, a dramedy called The Farewell, which premiered to rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. And CRA heartthrob Henry Golding, who had no acting credits to his name before taking on the role of Nick Young, announced three new major roles after the movie’s release: Last Christmas, a rom-com co-starring Emilia Clarke; Guy Ritchie action flick The Gentlemen; and Monsoon, a romantic drama directed by Cambodian filmmaker Hong Khaou.
Sometime later in 2019, Netflix plans to release Wu Assassins, a period crime drama series set against the backdrop of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1800s. With pilot pick-up season in the works, Asian-fronted comedies like Sunnyside, starring Kal Penn and Joel Kim Booster, are set to hit primetime. And Mulan, the first Asian Disney princess, is getting the live-action treatment in a movie that’s coming out in 2020.
“You always want to make sure that it’s not a moment, it’s a movement,” says Franklin Leonard, CEO of The Black List, a yearly publication featuring Hollywood's most popular unproduced screenplays. “And I think it’s far more likely that will be the case now than it was several years ago. You have a number of people who have the ability to make decisions about what gets made and what doesn’t, who understand the realities of diversity and inclusion creating an economic windfall.”
Given that several studies have found that ethnic and gender diversity boosts earnings in general — from a higher innovation standpoint to businesses’ financial bottom lines — it stands to reason that this model bodes well onscreen, too. The ticket sales around CRA and Black Panther certainly back that up. And while both films broke records at the box office, Leonard thinks the talent behind these projects is what will ultimately create lasting change in Hollywood.
“I don’t want to give the industry credit for waking up to this realization that diversity can make money — that’s part of it, but equally important is the extraordinary talent of people making content that is as good, if not better, than the traditional content,” he says. “I think it’s a combination of the clearer reality of money being made, and two, the generation of talent that basically said, ‘oh ok, so that’s how high the walls are? I guess I gotta climb that high.’ That’s true for black folks, queer folks, Asian folks, literally everyone. And they rose to the absurd standard that the industry set. So there’s a situation where it’s like, if the industry doesn’t get it, we’re going to go outside the industry, and the industry is going to be less relevant.”
And to his point, fan fervor now plays a role in determining what's relevant — much more than it did in 1993. Along with Crazy Rich Asians, last August saw the release of other fan-favorite Asian-centric projects, including Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Searching — and the reaction on Twitter culminated in the month being termed “Asian August.”
Not only did those movies galvanize the community and generate social media chatter, that chatter in turn helped put more butts in seats. Gold House, an organization devoted to elevating Asian voices, launched the #GoldOpen campaign to buy out theaters to make sure Crazy Rich Asians had a successful opening weekend. To pay it forward, Chu and Golding bought out theaters for Searching, the 2018 thriller starring John Cho, the subject of the #StarringJohnCho online campaign aimed at promoting the casting of Asian actors in blockbuster movies. At the time #StarringJohnCho was created, the creators called Cho “Hollywood’s best hope for an Asian-American leading man” and a “visible example of a marketable, successful Asian-American actor.”
But has the paying it forward continued? Were Hugh’s pitch landing at Apple and the several Asian projects in development just a few flukes, or a sign that CRA really has changed Hollywood for Asian-American creators and their stories? While we can’t say for sure that the bevy of Asian-led projects came about because of the movie we all saw and loved last summer, Asian-American narratives at least seem to be thriving more than they had before.
The challenge moving forward will be for those in the industry to make sure these rising tides really do lift all boats, so we can continue to see all kinds of Asian-American stories. After all, “Asian-American” can encapsulate vast communities: Vietnamese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans; people who grew up with immigrant parents, those who are Asian adoptees raised by white families, the ones who are crazy rich, and so forth. One of the criticisms of Crazy Rich Asians was that it couldn’t possibly represent all Asians — and it shouldn’t have to.
“Asians aren’t a monolith; we can’t keep telling the same story,” Hugh says. "We need to be brave enough to say that our people are worth a million stories." Because there are around 20 million of us ready to buy the tickets.
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