‘Crazy Rich Asians’ comes early to Ireland. Why?

The all-Asian movie is a box-office smash in the US. Suddenly money is driving diversity

Crazy Rich Asians: such films often spend weeks in transatlantic limbo before arriving at your local enormoplex

Crazy Rich Asians: such films often spend weeks in transatlantic limbo before arriving at your local enormoplex

 

You may have missed a minor story that just sneaked into a quiet corner of the film trade papers. Warner Bros has decided to release Crazy Rich Asians, Jon M Chu’s hit US comedy, nearly two months earlier than originally planned in Ireland and the UK.

Some on Twitter are already congratulating themselves on a victory against “the Man”. The journalist Omid Scobie trumpeted: “Glad @WarnerBrosUK came to their senses and moved up the UK release date of @CrazyRichMovie to September 14. Relegating it to November 2 was an insult!”

“An insult!” I tell you. It is, in fact, still common for studios to unveil movies here a month or two after their American releases. The blockbusters will open at much the same time. But Pirating is less of a concern. No huge merchandising campaigns need to be co-ordinated.

This is, however, still an interesting development. Aware it has an unexpected smash on its hands, Warner Bros is, it seems, attempting to capitalise on strong word of mouth from the United States. This is good news for Chu and his talented cast. It is also good news for those seeking greater diversity in Hollywood.

By some measures, Crazy Rich Asians, which is based on a popular novel by Kevin Kwan, is the first studio picture with a majority Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, in 1993. Had it flopped we’d probably have had to wait another 25 years for a third such project (assuming the medium lasts that long).

Happily, Crazy Rich Asians turned out to be a genuine smash. The picture took an impressive $34 million, or €29.5 million, in its first US weekend, thus registering the biggest opening for a comedy since Girls Trip, a year ago. Pay attention to that sentence. Both Girls Trip, a largely African-American project, and Crazy Rich Asians, set among Singapore’s hyperwealthy, concern communities underserved by mainstream cinema. Money changes everything. Money looks to be driving diversity.

Not everyone was happy with Crazy Rich Asians. In a much-shared post, Sangeetha Thanapal, a writer from a Singapore-Indian background, complained about the focus on one sort of Asian.

“While it is being billed as an Asian movie, it is made up almost entirely of east Asians,” she wrote. “The few brown people featured in it are seen in service positions to the glamorous and wealthy Chinese characters. The dominance of east Asia in the worldwide imagination of who constitutes the idea of Asia is troubling.”

She may be right. But the argument serves mostly to emphasise the casual, reckless way that “Asian” is used in anglophone cultures. In the US the word is often taken to mean “east Asian”: Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese. In the United Kingdom it more often covers “south Asian”: Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. Some linguistic rethinking needs to take place.

Sorry to Bother You: Boots Riley’s savage satire might never be released in Ireland, despite Sundance raves
Sorry to Bother You: Boots Riley’s savage satire might never be released in Ireland, despite Sundance raves

At any rate, the apparent success of Crazy Rich Asians should make nobody complacent. The news comes as controversy bubbles concerning the international fate of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Imagining a modern version of indentured servitude that skirts definitions of slavery, the savage satire picked up raves at the Sundance Film Festival and has gone on to become a significant indie hit. When will we see it in Ireland or the UK? Possibly never.

Riley has claimed that international distributors are ignoring Sorry to Bother You because it features a largely African-American cast. “Even tho we’r outperforming a gang of other movies, distributors r claiming ‘Black movies’ dont do well internationally and r treating it as such. There’r films that bombed here, that theyr distributing. Let em know wsup,” he said on Twitter.

The argument about “black movies” underperforming overseas is an enormously tricky one. It is true that Black Panther and Get Out took significant sums outside the US: $646 million (€559 million) and $79 million (€68 million), respectively. But the ratio between US and overseas takings tells a different story.

Forty-eight per cent of Black Panther’s worldwide gross came from the “international” market. Just 32 per cent of Get Out’s was taken in the wider world. These days studios expect that figure to be nearer 65 per cent. The most recent Fast and Furious film took 82 percent of its haul outside the United States.

Riley is, however, right to call such arguments out as sophistry. Using the same simplistic logic, you could claim that non-Americans object to Star Wars (Solo took just 46 per cent overseas), horror (A Quiet Place is at 43 per cent) and animation (Incredibles 2 is still at only 47 per cent). Nobody will be keeping the next Pixar film or the next Star Wars release from UK or Irish cinemas. Caution, laziness and, yes, a degree of racism still play into these calculations.

Some bright spark may still grab Sorry to Bother You. The market is there.

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