As the film industry moves more and more toward prioritizing worldwide box office over domestic ticket sales, genres such as dramas and romantic comedies have begun to die out. Major studios, focused on billion-dollar grosses that can move stock needles, mostly make big franchises instead. One of the best examples of that shift is Disney reportedly declining to make a sequel to its 2009 smash hit The Proposal because of the lack of wider merchandising opportunities—even though that movie made more than $300 million on a $40 million budget. Romantic comedies, the thinking goes, are too culturally specific to play well worldwide.
The movie expected to be the exception to that rule was one of 2018’s most surprising successes—Crazy Rich Asians, which was made by Warner Bros. for $30 million and released in the doldrums of August. It grossed $173 million domestically, outstripping all predictions; a sequel is already in development. Because its cast features a number of Asian stars, including Michelle Yeoh (a legend of Hong Kong cinema) and Lisa Lu, and because the plot centers on an Asian American woman meeting a Singaporean family, Warner Bros. had some hope for the film’s crossover potential in major international markets such as China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
So far, that hasn’t been the case. While Crazy Rich Asians played well in the U.K., Australia, and Singapore (where it’s set), it has underperformed in much of Asia and completely tanked in China, opening to $1.2 million last weekend (good enough for eighth in the country’s box office). For comparison, the No. 1 movie in the country this year is the Chinese war thriller Operation Red Sea, which grossed $575 million. Meanwhile, the American movies that performed best in China in 2018 include CGI-laden blockbusters such as Avengers: Infinity War (which made $359 million in the country), Venom ($241 million), and Ready Player One ($218 million). Crazy Rich Asians is one of a handful of American comedies to even open in China.
Various diagnoses have been offered for the film’s failure. For one, the novelty of an all-Asian cast (many in the ensemble are Asian American actors) was significant in the U.S. but obviously not so much in China, where most major movies feature Chinese stars. The film’s depiction of ostentatious wealth—a subject that typically chafes government movie regulators—might not sit well with some viewers in the Communist state. Plus, aside from Yeoh, actors such as Constance Wu and Ken Jeong have less name-brand recognition in China. Still, Warner Bros. might have hoped for a little more of a foothold, since part of the sequel to Crazy Rich Asians will take place in Shanghai. It’s also worth noting that, in part because the film’s Chinese release date came three and a half months after the U.S. debut, many potential theatergoers in mainland China had plenty of opportunity to see the movie abroad or watch pirated versions online.
International tastes can certainly change, of course. When Captain America: The First Avenger opened in 2011, the Marvel-brand superhero was seen as too little-known outside the United States. That film made only $193 million outside North America. But its sequel, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, went on to make $454 million globally, and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War made $745 million outside the U.S. and Canada, including $180 million in China alone. That eventual success was cultivated through Disney’s careful brand management, which turned once-niche characters into globally recognized superstars.
Crazy Rich Asians might have too big a mountain to climb on that front, since American comedies simply never do well in China (unless they’re action flicks, or children’s movies such as Coco and Zootopia). But as I’ve written before, American studios gearing their filmmaking toward Asian markets might be a poor long-term strategy anyway. As Chinese studios become their own powerhouses, the market share of American movies in the country has dipped dramatically.
Certain blockbuster projects, such as Ready Player One (a story about video-gaming, which is hugely popular in China), will always rely on foreign grosses to make a profit. But many of Hollywood’s biggest surprise hits this year—such as A Quiet Place, Crazy Rich Asians, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody—made huge profits domestically by devoting smaller budgets to films that thrived on critical acclaim and word-of-mouth success.
Crazy Rich Asians didn’t need to do well in China to be one of the most exciting filmmaking stories of the year. It disproved a long-standing myth: American audiences wouldn’t flock to a contemporary story centered on an all-Asian cast, the first that Hollywood had produced in decades. International box office remains a major part of a studio’s calculation before giving a script the green light. But ignoring the purchasing power of domestic audiences would have robbed American moviegoers of some of the most interesting and innovative mainstream films of the year.