“Crazy Rich Asians” was a massive hit in the U.S. when it opened this summer, thanks to the romantic comedy’s groundbreaking casting, stellar reviews and feel-good story. But the movie barely registered in China when it finally opened there last weekend.
The $30-million Warner Bros. release, directed by Jon M. Chu, opened with a meager $1.1 million in mainland China, ranking in eighth place during the weekend, according to box office data firm EntGroup.
It’s a disappointing result for the film, which takes place in Singapore and Malaysia and features a cast almost entirely composed of Asian and Asian American actors. China is by far the most important foreign country for Hollywood studios, representing the second-largest box office market in the world, behind the U.S. and Canada.
There’s no denying that “Crazy Rich Asians” is still a highly profitable success, having collected $238 million in global receipts, including $174 million in the U.S. and Canada. But multiple factors explain why audiences in China didn’t turn out for the movie.
The studio struggled for months to even get the movie shown in the country, where the government heavily regulates what films are shown in theaters and frowns on depictions of gratuitous wealth. When “Crazy Rich Asians” finally opened in China, it had been more than three months since it premiered in U.S. theaters, and it was already available through digital retailers such as iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
That means anyone in China who wanted to see the film had ample time to do so through piracy, which remains a major issue for studios in the country.
“If you have a movie people want to see and they don’t have access to it legally, they are going to find other ways to see it,” said Rance Pow, founder and chief executive of cinema consulting firm Artisan Gateway. “That lag probably hurt ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ ”
Analysts also blamed the poor performance on negative audience reviews for the film in China. Users of the Chinese film information website Douban, known as a hub for cinephiles, gave the movie a lackluster rating of 6.2 out of 10.
Some online commenters in China took issue with the portrayal of Chinese family concerns in “Crazy Rich Asians.” The film’s central conflict hangs on Michelle Yeoh’s disapproving mother character, who goes to extremes to prevent her son from marrying a Chinese American economist. Many found the story line too stereotypical, according to local media.
“Chinese family dynamics are not what is portrayed in the film,” said one user of the social media site Weibo, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “The family plot feels starchy.”
Social media buzz is crucial for movies in China, where audiences primarily go online to buy tickets and decide what they want to see, said Rob Cain, a producer and expert on the Chinese movie business.
“That's what makes or breaks a picture in China, and it’s instantaneous,” Cain said.
Been there, done that
Another likely factor is that Chinese moviegoers didn’t find the movie culturally relevant. Whereas it had been 25 years since a Hollywood studio made a contemporary film with an all-Asian and Asian American cast, China’s film industry frequently releases locally made comedies.
The film’s producers had said all along that they were not making the film for Asian markets, but rather thought the story and themes would have broad appeal. Unlike most modern blockbusters, it did more than 70% of its business in the U.S. and Canada.