Warner Bros. has acquired “Crazy Rich Asians” and has fast-tracked the romantic-comedy for production. It will be one of the only major studio movies to feature an exclusively Asian cast. Rights for the project attracted a heated bidding war.
“Crazy Rich Asians” unfolds in a world of opulence, as new and old money collide among a set of Chinese families living in Singapore. It’s being pitched as a combination of “Devil Wears Prada” and “Pride & Prejudice,” and follows Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor and her boyfriend, Nick Young. When Nick invites Rachel to attend his best friend’s wedding in his home town of Singapore, he fails to mention that as the heir to a massive fortune, he is viewed as the country’s most eligible bachelor.
Color Force’s Nina Jacobson her partner Brad Simpson came on board two years ago when Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name was still in the manuscript stage.
“It was just a page turner in and of itself,” said Jacobson. “It was a delight to be taken into this world that as a Westerner I didn’t know. It felt so new and fresh and gave you so much insight.”
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Color Force, which produced “The Hunger Games” series, brought in Ivanhoe Pictures, the maker of “In the Bedroom,” and developed the project and packaged the film with Jon M. Chu directing from a screenplay by Adele Lim (Fox’s “Lethal Weapon”) and Pete Chiarelli (“The Proposal”). To get the gig, Chu, a first-generation Asian-American, put together a visual presentation that included family photos to show his deeply personal connection to the material.
Jacobson and Simpson knew that finding the right studio home would take a lot of time and effort. Aside from “The Joy Luck Club,” which was a hit when it came out in 1993, and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which was not when it bowed 12 years later, there have been very few U.S.-backed films centered around Asian characters and experiences. It also comes at a time when the romantic-comedy genre is struggling. It’s been a long time since “Pretty Woman” and “Notting Hill” filled theaters, and with a few exceptions, such as “Trainwreck,” most studios have largely stopped making meet-cute films. The “Crazy Rich Asians” producers think that there story and setting is a novel way to revive the genre.
“At a time where we keep asking how we can compete with TV and other offerings, it’s important to give people something different,” said Simpson. “We’re taking them to a world that hasn’t been shown much on film.”
The story may be a rarity for Hollywood, but it hits at a time when the issue of diversity is being hotly debated across the entertainment industry. The Chinese film market is second only to the U.S., but despite its box office contribution, very few films feature Asian characters. Only 5% of speaking parts in film, television, and digital programming were played by Asian actors in all of 2014, according to a study by USC. Indeed, there have been several instances of white actors playing roles that were originally designated for Asians, including Emma Stone in “Aloha” and Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming “Ghost in the Shell.”
“Inclusion is good business,” said Jacobson. “Inclusion is a way of reaching new and broader audiences and keeping material fresh.”
Production may begin as early as this spring in Singapore. The producers are embarking on a worldwide search for the cast. “Crazy Rich Asians” was a bestseller upon release, with nearly one million copies in print worldwide. Kwan saw the novel as the first in a trilogy. His follow-up, “China Rich Girlfriend,” was a commercial success, and the last installment in the series, “Rich People Problems,” debuts next summer. Kwan felt so strongly that Color Force and Ivanhoe were the right companies to produce the film that he optioned the novel for a dollar.
“I am beyond thrilled that the amazing film my fans around the world have been waiting for is finally happening,” said Kwan in a statement. “I have such tremendous respect and trust in Nina, Brad, Jon, and Warner Bros, and I know they are going to create an incredible, history-making movie.”
Simpson and Jacobson will produce along with Ivanhoe President John Penotti. Kwan will serve as executive producer along with Ivanhoe’s Chairman Robert Friedland. Courtenay Valenti and Jon Gonda will oversee the project for Warner Bros. The studio has been trying to increase diversity both in front of and behind the camera — it lined up a female director in Patty Jenkins to oversee “Wonder Woman,” and enlisted African-American filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa to oversee “The Flash.”
The deal for “Crazy Rich Asians” was negotiated by Ziffren Brittenham LLP. Kwan is represented by Alexandra Machinist at ICM and Chu by WME and Principato Young.