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Media & Entertainment

After 'Crazy Rich' smash, Hollywood embraces Asian faces

Success of Awkwafina's 'The Farewell' proves diversity is good business

Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Constance Wu and Gemma Chan pose in January. "Crazy Rich Asians" star Awkwafina's recent film "The Farewell" has hit the theaters on July 12.    © Reuters

NEW YORK -- While the Hollywood blockbuster "Avengers: Endgame" seems set to dominate America's box offices this year, a low-budget Asian American film, "The Farewell," dethroned it in per-theater revenue over its opening weekend.

Released on July 12 in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, "The Farewell," starring Awkwafina, who rose to fame in "Crazy Rich Asians," sold an average of $88,916 worth of tickets in each venue, with total box-office revenues of $2 million, according to the cinema database Box Office Mojo. "Avengers: Endgame," released in 4,662 theaters in the U.S. in April, took an average of $75,075 per theater, according to Box Office Mojo.

Directed by Lulu Wang, based on her own experiences, the film tells the story of Billi, a Chinese American woman who returns to China when her beloved grandmother is terminally ill. Billi struggles with her family's decision to keep Grandma in the dark about her disease and to stage a wedding intended to bring everyone together one last time.

The film rides a wave of Asian American content that has surged since last year. Many more Asian faces have been featured in studio movies, including "Crazy Rich Asians" star Awkwafina (the professional name of American actress Nora Lum), who takes on her first dramatic lead in "The Farewell."

"I feel like we couldn't have made our film three years ago," Anita Gou, co-producer of "The Farewell," told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chan Han, Aoi Mizuhara and Li Xiang on set for "The Farewell." (Courtesy of A24)

Gou, who grew up in Taiwan and the U.S. and is a niece of Hon Hai Precision Industry founder and Chairman Terry Gou, said the industry's attitude toward diversity has changed "drastically." "The Farewell" was well received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year in the U.S. and was bought for about $6 million by A24, an American independent entertainment company.

Its success follows a series of movies featuring Asian American leads in 2018 and 2019, including "Crazy Rich Asians," "Searching," "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," "Stuber" and "Always Be My Maybe," which features Ali Wong and Randall Park as childhood sweethearts reuniting in San Francisco.

Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of New York's Museum of Chinese in America, said she particularly remembered one scene in "Always Be My Maybe." As Park's character, Marcus Kim, watches a poetry slam, he texts Wong's character, Sasha Tran, saying: "Wish they had stuff like this when we were kids." Maasbach said she felt tears blurring her sight because the exchange spoke to her own upbringing in the U.S., where she "did not see a lot of role models."

Maasbach, now 47, wanted to be an actress and worked for a theater company in Los Angeles in the 1990s, where she often auditioned for one-line roles.

The aspiring actress went into investment banking in 1999, finding it "much easier" than pursuing a career in the film industry. "I wish that I was younger," said Maasbach. "If I had been in this atmosphere and I was in my 20s, there'd be no doubt in my mind to pursue acting and theater, just so aggressively."

"Crazy Rich Asians" was a milestone for Asian Americans in Hollywood, raking in $238.5 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. The film was applauded for many things, but most importantly, it challenged the idea that Asian American actors and stories lacked "bankability."

"It became a self-fulling prophecy because [studios] kept making certain type of movies that would reach that demographic -- 18 to 35, young, white people," said Janet Yang, an Emmy-winning producer who brokered the first sale of Hollywood films to China.

But the landscape of American society has been transformed by social media, said Yang, allowing underrepresented communities to tell their own stories on inexpensive platforms where young people have embraced diversity and inclusiveness with open arms.

The rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube has also pushed Hollywood to rethink its strategy. Both Netflix and Amazon have produced and acquired locally authentic content in Asia, such as South Korean dramas, exposing U.S. viewers to a variety of foreign content they have rarely seen.

Initially, Hollywood was slow to react, rolling out a raft of so-called "whitewashing" films -- in which white actors are cast as nonwhite characters -- in 2016. "Aloha," "Doctor Strange" and "Ghost in the Shell" all drew criticism for casting Caucasian actors as Asian characters. So what made Hollywood roll out the red carpet for a full-Asian cast film in 2018?

One notable influence was the social media campaign #StarringJohnCho, created by William Yu, 28, then working in advertising, who photoshopped the well-known Korean American actor John Cho as the male lead for blockbuster movie posters.

"I wanted to start a conversation, I wanted people to share and comment and retweet and add their thoughts to it," said Yu. "Hopefully this project opened up some eyes to how they thought what a leading man should look like."

William Yu created #StarringJohnCho by photoshopping Korean American actor John Cho into Hollywood blockbuster movie posters. 

The #StarringJohnCho campaign became a powerful movement, striking a chord with Jon M. Chu, director of "Crazy Rich Asians," who revealed in an interview with Character Media, an Asian American entertainment news site, that it encouraged him to take on the full-Asian cast project.

Adele Lim, co-screenwriter of "Crazy Rich Asians," who had grown up in Malaysia, said she took the job in order to help portray her culture, but had low expectations of its reception in Hollywood. Even after the film project received the green light, Lim worried about the box-office response, fearing that if the film flopped, Hollywood would not give "Asian Americans a chance for another 25 years."

The filmmakers were not fighting alone. While the movie crew was busy recreating the lifestyle of wealthy Singaporean families, a group of young and "crazy rich" Asians descended from Silicon Valley to ensure the film's success.

"I was surprised to learn how passionate they were about Asian representation [in Hollywood]," said Yang, co-founder with a group of technology industry executives of Gold House, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization aimed at increasing the societal impact of the Asian diaspora, and #GoldOpen, which supports Asian American creative projects.

Together, the Gold House group bought all the available tickets in hundreds of theaters across the U.S. to ensure successful opening weekends for Asian American films, including "Crazy Rich Asians" and "The Farewell."

"It was a risk, [even though] the book had been quite popular," said Douglas Montgomery, vice president of category management at Warner Bros., which made the film, and chairman of the Japan America Society of Southern California. "Even Warner Bros. was waiting to see how it did and it did very well." Eventually, Warner Bros. approved a sequel.

Montgomery also cited the success of "Black Panther" and diverse casting in the U.S. television show "Riverdale" as reasons that the studio took on "Crazy Rich Asians."

"We do believe that diversity is good business," said Montgomery. "If you look at something that is a business, if you just do the right thing, it's not necessarily sustainable... [But] we believe diversity [will be] sustainable."

One of the first Asian American leads to be cast in a major network television show after "Crazy Rich Asians" was Desmond Chiam, who plays Wyatt Cole in ABC's "Reef Break." Chiam said he literally lay down on the street in an alleyway next to a pub when he heard he had gotten the role.

The actor said Asian American friends had also been cast in various projects. "We actually have this little group chat and we said, 'Hey, we're all working right now, simultaneously,'" Chiam chuckled. "That has never happened before."

With Asian American films continuing to blossom in Hollywood, many believe it is also encouraging the next generation to explore their identities. "Growing up, I often felt that there are only two ways to identify -- either you're Asian or you're American. You always felt very torn between those two things," said Yu.

"[But] you have different ways to be Asian American and there's no correct way."

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