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Why 'Crazy Rich Asians' Missed The Mark In China's Box Offices

Dec 4, 2018
Originally published on December 5, 2018 10:14 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When "Crazy Rich Asians" opened in theaters this year, expectations were the film would perform respectably. Instead, it smashed projections and grossed well over $100 million domestically.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) So your family is rich.

HENRY GOLDING: (As Nick Young) We're comfortable.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) That is exactly what a superrich person would say.

KELLY: "Crazy Rich Asians" features an all-Asian cast and an Asian-American lead, and Warner Brothers had high hopes that moviegoers in China would go just as crazy for it as the American audience had. Instead, when it opened this past weekend in China, it bombed. Well, here to tell us why is Ben Fritz. He is a Wall Street Journal journalist who's covered the film industry for years, and he joins me now. Hi there, Ben.

BEN FRITZ: Hello.

KELLY: When I say it bombed, just how badly did it bomb?

FRITZ: Well, it opened to about $1 million, which is pretty, pretty awful compared to, you know, this film made $174 million at the American box office. So it's a disaster.

KELLY: And what happened? Why when Warner Bros. thought they had this formula for success, this all-Asian cast, this was going to be so attractive, why did it not go over in China?

FRITZ: Well, there's a few reasons, some that are beyond Warner Bros.' control, which is that when you open a movie in China, you don't get to decide when it will open. The government does. And it opened a few months after it did here, so, of course, piracy has been a big factor for people. People in China who want to see it may have pirated it online or via DVD.

KELLY: Oh, so it's possible that Chinese viewers did want to see it. They've just already seen it.

FRITZ: That is true to some extent. I think that probably played a role. But, you know, a big issue is that American comedies rarely perform well overseas. You know, comedies tend to be culturally specific. What's funny to us may not be funny to people in a different country. And although on the one hand some people may have thought, well, this is a film about people from Asia and there's a lot of Asian-Americans and the movie takes place in Singapore right next to China, it's really an Asian-American story. It is very much not an Asian story - certainly not a Chinese story.

KELLY: What movies have done well in China this year?

FRITZ: Frankly, it is the big blockbusters, the superhero movies and the animated movies. Those are the ones that tend to perform well. So the latest "Avengers" was a huge hit. The latest "Jurassic World," "Venom," "Ready Player One" - these are all movies that grossed $200 million or $300 million there. And, you know, I think the key thing to understand is that, in China, they have a very robust film industry of their own. They're very good at making comedies, including romantic comedies like "Crazy Rich Asians." So they have their own films that kind of fill the need for people who want to see that kind of movie.

KELLY: This all matters because China is the second-biggest market, and it's actually on track to become the largest film market and overtake the U.S. and Canada. Is that right?

FRITZ: That's correct. It's only a question of whether it's going to be in 2019 or 2020 or maybe 2021. But it is going to happen soon. And, you know, more and more, what Chinese audiences want to see is going to dictate what Hollywood studios make and therefore what we see in our own movie theaters here. This is exactly why franchise movies are becoming the predominant type of moviemaking.

KELLY: "Avengers Part 97" is what you're saying.

FRITZ: Yeah, get ready for it.

KELLY: (Laughter) I mean, it does sound as though you're predicting the demise of a lot of genres beyond big action thriller - the demise of the romantic comedy, which would make me personally very sad. This is my favorite genre.

FRITZ: I describe these genres as endangered species. They're not dead, but they're not - you know, they used to be common. You'd have a very diverse mix of movies in theaters at all times, you know, lots of dramas or romantic comedies. Now, you know, you see a few of them every year. But what you do see instead is you see more and more of them on streaming services and cable. So they're not dying. They're just not going to be available very much in movie theaters. They're going be more and more available on your TVs and your iPads.

KELLY: That's Ben Fritz. He's covered the film industry for years. His new book is called "The Big Picture: The Fight For The Future Of Movies." Thank you, Ben.

FRITZ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.