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.
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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.