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Why Box Office Tracking Is Still Off for Diverse Movies Like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

Crazy Rich Asians,” with a $35 million five-day opening, over-performed initial box office estimates, which had pegged the picture to open to $18 million just three weeks ago.

As with other groundbreaking films featuring diverse casts, tracking projections underestimated the opening weekend — the same thing that happened with “Black Panther,” “Wonder Woman,” “Girls Trip,” “Coco,” and others over the last few years.

Estimating the opening haul for any film is an inexact science, part market research and part gut feeling. Films with black, female, Asian-American, or Latino leads — groups grossly underrepresented in Hollywood — can be even harder to predict because of the lack of comparable films, or comps, some box office trackers say. Of course, studios are also conservative in their estimates, eager to not look bad by over-shooting the potential opening number.

One thing tracking can’t take into account for films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” is concerted social-media campaigns encouraging moviegoers to attend during the opening weekends. Hashtag challenges have been effective at getting the word out and attracting wealthy benefactors and organizations to buy out theaters or ticket blocks.

The #BlackPantherChallenge resulted in hundreds of sold-out theaters and “Crazy Rich Asians” had a similar social-media campaign using the #GoldOpen hashtag on social media. Lena Waithe, Vanity Fair editor Radhika Jones, “Crazy Rich Asians” screenwriter Adele Lim, and university alumni groups were among those who bought out theaters or purchased ticket blocks to support the picture.

“#GoldOpen is a movement to educate our audience about the importance of opening weekend and how critical it is to go out to the theaters during that first weekend,” said Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment.

Sugihara said Asian-American artists and activists have taken a page out of the playbook by African-American artists who have shown strong support for each other’s film projects. The #GoldOpen campaign first began in earnest with last summer’s “Gook,” the Justin Chon film that looks at the 1992 Los Angeles riots through the lens of Korean-American shop owners.

The effort is also highlighting other films featuring Asian-Americans behind and in front of the camera that are being released in August. Other films include “The Darkest Minds,” directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson; “Dog Days,” written by Elissa Matsueda and Erica Oyama; “The Meg,” an American-Chinese co-production; and the Netflix release “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” based on the novel by Jenny Han and starring Lana Condor.

Sugihara is heartened by the impact of the #GoldOpen campaign. She said there have been a number of screenings organized by CAPE at AMC Century City, and she has heard anecdotally that some exhibitors have had to add last-minute screenings to meet demand for “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“It’s been really amazing to see it all come together. It’s a moment that has turned into a movement,” Sugihara said.

But why are diverse films so often under-estimated?

“At best, often tracking is difficult, particularly with films that have a diverse cast and original IP,” said comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “It reminds me of the housing market. When you have something that doesn’t have a lot of comps, it becomes difficult to use for comparison purposes.”

Finding films to compare to “Crazy Rich Asians” is tough. Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” represents one of the few major studio films featuring a predominantly Asian-American cast. The last predominantly Asian-American cast in a major studio production was 1993’s “Joy Luck Club,” a period piece released when ticket prices were much lower, making it a poor comparison. “Trainwreck,” in 2015, was the last rom-com to earn more than $100 million domestically, while this year’s “Overboard” topped out at $50 million. But “Trainwreck,” unlike “Crazy Rich Asians,” was rated R.

Other films with diverse casts have also had their box office appeal severely underestimated. “Coco,” the 2017 Disney-Pixar film set in Mexico, saw early estimates for its Thanksgiving five-day opening of $55 million and up. It ended up with a much stronger $71 million for the five-day period. “Girls Trip,” last year’s No. 1 comedy, saw early estimates of $25 million for its opening weekend and instead went on to make $31.2 million. Before “Black Panther,” the disparity in tracking black films was often so far off, that observers coined the expression “Black don’t track.”

Ultimately, the more diverse films that are released, whether flops or hits, the easier it will be to find comparable films. Maybe then, box office trackers won’t be “surprised” every time a diverse film over-indexes.

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