Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ May Not Release in China, the World’s Second Largest Film Market
To many, the recently released Warner Bros. film Crazy Rich Asians is not just a movie—it’s a watershed moment.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, the film is the first from a major Hollywood studio in 25 years to feature a cast composed entirely of actors of Asian descent. It’s also the first by a major studio in that span to feature an Asian-American lead.
Crazy Rich Asians launched out the gate following its Wednesday premiere with a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the popular movie reviews site. The consensus concluded that the romantic comedy “takes a satisfying step forward for screen representation” by featuring characters that are at once relatable and aspirational, thanks to their immense wealth, influence, and power.
The movie has the makings of a box office smash and has garnered near-universal praise by communities of Asian descent. More than 30 nations, including Brazil, Italy, and Japan, are set to release the movie in the coming weeks. But a debut in the world’s fastest-growing and second-largest film market—China—is far from guaranteed.
It’s not unusual for a Hollywood film to arrive in China weeks or months after it premieres in the U.S. Despite its subject matter, the same fate could await Crazy Rich Asians. In the Hollywood Reporter’s cover story about the movie earlier this month, one of the film’s producers—Ivanhoe Pictures’ John Penotti—suggested he awaited what the magazine described as a “make-or-break China release.”
“We’re all praying to the China gods right now,” Penotti said. “From my colleagues in Beijing, it looks like we’re in strong consideration.”
China is crazy about film. It’s expected to become the largest movie market in the world by 2020, surpassing North America in box office sales and attendance with 200 billion yuan (roughly $29 billion) in total revenue, according to a 2017 report from Deloitte. Chinese customers have such an impact on global box office sales that some American moviegoers have accused Hollywood studios of pandering to Chinese audiences, citing excessive action sequences, which are easier to translate compared to scenes with heavy dialogue, and blatant product placement for Chinese companies.
It might seem, then, that an American film with a cast of predominantly Chinese descent would be a perfect compromise. “[Producers] were interested in getting into the Chinese market, and I was like, ‘This is a movie with worldwide and domestic potential—that just happens to star Asians,'” Kwan said in the same Hollywood Reporter profile. Western audiences are likely to find a tad more depth in Crazy Rich Asians than say, the set piece-heavy Skyscraper starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which flopped in the U.S. this summer but dominated in China with a $48 million opening weekend. Crazy Rich Asians could satisfy viewers in the Middle Kingdom thanks to the Chinese influence and identity woven throughout the screenplay—which, by the way, is multilingual with transitions between English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
Still, Chinese identity and Chinese-American identity are two different things, says Haisong Li, director of digital content at trade publication China Film Insider. “The cultural significance would not be as important as it is in the U.S.,” she tells Fortune. “In China, they are used to seeing television shows full of Chinese faces. Here in the States, it’s more about diversity and representation. That wouldn’t be the biggest selling point [in China].”
“I’d be concerned that the humor might not translate well either,” added Jonathan Papish, an analyst and journalist who spent eight years in China covering the country’s box office. “Crazy Rich Asians isn’t something that screams success in China.”
The potential for humor to be lost in translation is important. All film content imported into China must be approved by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). Films that don’t meet its standards can be censored, edited, or banned all together. Some movies have no control over how their content will be interpreted by state authorities. Earlier this month, the Hollywood Reporter published an article stating that Christopher Robin, Disney’s live-action reimagination of Winnie the Pooh, was denied a Chinese release because the character in recent months has been used as a symbol of resistance to Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his communist government. Another source told the outlet it could have been because of the “size and scope of the film” in light of China’s foreign film quota.
Indeed, China’s authorities limit the number of foreign film imports to 34, though government officials are discussing an expansion to 50. The state must consider that quota when selecting foreign films to release in China throughout the course of a calendar year. So far, according to Papish, 30 of those 34 films have been granted revenue-sharing status—meaning foreign studios take a cut of earned box office revenue. And while the summer blockbuster season is drawing to a close, several high-profile, high-concept movies are yet to release (Predator, Venom, and Aquaman, to name a few).
With the discussion of expanding the quota, Crazy Rich Asians could have hope—but not 50-films-a-year hope. “The hard quota of 34 has been fuzzy for a number of years, and I suspect more than 34 to be released this year,” Papish said, “but perhaps not reaching 50 until the final negotiations take place.” Those negotiations were set to conclude by the end of last year but continued as a result of internal changes among state authorities. Soon after, Presidents Trump and Xi became engaged in a trade war.
A Warner Bros. executive confirmed to Fortune that negotiations with Chinese officials are underway but could not confirm when the studio would find out SAPPRFT’s decision. Penotti, one of the film’s producers, noted that Hollywood-friendly countries like the United Kingdom won’t be releasing the film until November 2nd.
“We think it will be terrific and have a lot of playability,” Penotti told Fortune. “There are terrific attributes of family values, a very touching love story, and subject matter that will play for a wide audience of everyone, including China.”
“It’s a little hard to parse the bodies looking at film, from what lens they’re viewing from it,” Penotti added, referring to Chinese moviegoers. “But we have a pretty good indication that the audiences there would be interested in it, a lot of positive social media audience interaction in China. It would be terrific for the film, the filmmakers and the cast. Right now, we’re just reading tea leaves.”