Alternative Investing: Entertainment

Strong opening for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ could mean the romantic comedy is making a comeback

Key Points
  • "Crazy Rich Asians" topped expectations to become the No. 1 movie in U.S. and Canada theaters over the weekend.
  • The film's debut exceeded box-office expectations, with most recent numbers from Warner Bros. putting it at $35.3 million for the first five days, according to comScore.
  • This proved to Hollywood that the world is ready and hungry for films led by Asian casts. It could also mean a comeback for the big-screen romantic comedy.
The cast of 'Crazy Rich Asians' (L-R): Ken Jeong, Jon M. Chu, Jimmy O. Yang, Sonoya Mizuno, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Constance Wu, Chris Pang, Nico Santos, Ronny Chieng, and author Kevin Kwan.
Emma McIntyre | Getty Images

By winning the box office this past weekend, "Crazy Rich Asians" proved to Hollywood that the world is ready and hungry for films led by Asian casts. But the film's success could also mean a comeback for the big-screen romantic comedy.

The film's debut exceeded box-office expectations, with most recent numbers from Warner Bros. putting it at $35.3 million for the first five days, including $26.5 million from Friday to Sunday, according to comScore. "Crazy Rich Asians" opened in 3,384 theaters and cost a modest $30 million before marketing. By contrast, "The Joy Luck Club," the last major Hollywood film with a majority Asian cast, played in no more than 600 theaters after its 1993 release.

"Films like 'Crazy Rich Asians' have universal themes that everyone can look to. [Warner Bros.] marketed this as a movie for everyone, and it worked out brilliantly," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.

Based on a best-selling novel by Singaporean-American author Kevin Kwan, "Crazy Rich Asians" follows a New York University professor who accompanies her boyfriend back to his home in Singapore for his best friend's wedding and discovers he comes from one of Singapore's richest families. Relationship and family drama ensue as she navigates the mostly hidden world of the ultrawealthy.

Rom-coms, as well as comedies in general, have stumbled at the box office in recent years, following the distant era of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts blockbusters.

"Think Like a Man 2" was the last rom-com to open at No. 1 when it was released in 2014, according to Dergarabedian. The following year, Amy Schumer's R-rated "Trainwreck" was the last rom-com to earn a total over $100 million. Her more recent comedies ("Snatched," "I Feel Pretty") have been less successful.

The success of "Crazy Rich Asians" may be a test case for studios to see if romantic comedy can still generate buzz and do well in theaters in the era of video-on-demand. Netflix is turning out a steady stream of the kind of rom-coms Hollywood used to. Its recent hit, "Set it Up," which generated significant media buzz, is a contemporary version of the successful '90s and 2000s rom-coms. The genre is thriving on streaming services because of the minimal buy-in from subscribers — viewers looking for often formulaic satisfaction without having to leave their living rooms.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is forgoing these mid-budget summer movies for blockbuster action and cheap horror flicks. Rom-com budgets are usually relatively low, but their high marketing costs mean a streaming-service release is a safer bet, said Dergarabedian.

Yet in light of this state of the industry, the creators of "Crazy Rich Asians" turned down a tempting deal with upfront seven-figure paydays from Netflix, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Director Jon M. Chu and Kwan, who was also executive producer, wanted the first major Hollywood movie with an Asian-American ensemble in 25 years on the big screen, along with all the publicity and precedence it entailed. A successful theatrical release would emphasize the good business of diversity proved in recent years by films like "Black Panther" and "Get Out."

"If the movie came out on Netflix, you would never know how well it did. Netflix doesn't release data on individual projects, and so there's no way to prove to other studios that hey, 'Crazy Rich Asians' made money and people wanted to see it," Hollywood Reporter's Rebecca Sun told CNBC's Power Lunch on Friday.

Why 'Crazy Rich Asians' turned down Netflix

Significantly, 38 percent of ticket buyers were Asian, compared to a typical 10 percent for opening weekend — an "unprecedented showing for a Hollywood studio release," according to The Hollywood Reporter. Per 2017 MPAA statistics, Asians made up 8 percent of frequent moviegoers, even though they make up 6 percent of the U.S. population.

By selling the film as a glitzy, crowd-pleasing, family rom-com with high entertainment value, Warner Bros. seems to have successfully marketed the film to both Asian-American audiences hungry for their own cultural moment and the wider audience needed to top the box office.

"['Crazy Rich Asians'] may have singlehandedly brought back the traditional rom-com," said Dergarabedian.

The gals of the big screen

The early success of "Crazy Rich Asians," which attracted a 68 percent female audience during opening weekend, may also be indicative of an underrated trend: the profitability of women-targeted films.

Female ensemble casts as seen in "Girls Trip" (2017), "Bad Moms" (2016) and "Bridesmaids" (2011) have led some of the biggest comedies in the last several years. Last year's "Wonder Woman" was another critical box office win for Warner Bros. While the average superhero movie draws a 62 percent male audience, the Gal Gadot-led blockbusters reached near female-male audience parity by its third week, according to Variety.

Movies with strong female leads and female point of views are "resonating incredibly well with audiences," said Dergarabedian. "Movies have the power to open people's minds, but they have to be a certain quality."

A good summer for moviegoers

"Crazy Rich Asians" is also riding — and will likely contribute to — a good summer for the movie industry. The 2018 box office is up 8.8 percent so far compared to the same period last year, with summer numbers up 12.4 percent, according to comScore.

The diverse array of quality content in recent months is also significant, from documentaries ("RBG," "Won't You Be My Neighbor") to tried-and-true franchises ("Mission: Impossible — Fallout," "Incredibles 2") to new twists on old genres, like "Crazy Rich Asians."

"We may see a resurgence of the rom-com back in the movie theater, but that remains to be seen," said Dergarabedian. "It also has to be a good movie."