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Marketer A-List 2018: 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Warner Bros. marketing chief says 'this was so much more than a movie'

By Published on .

A scene from the hit film.
A scene from the hit film. Credit: Warner Bros.

The huge success of "Crazy Rich Asian" was anything but assured in the months before the movie opened in August. "It was a leap of faith," recalls Blair Rich, president of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros., who says the project represented a lot more than a film both to her and the studio. "I've been at the company for 21 years and worked on a lot of movies, but this one has a lot of personal pride."

The marketing department, she says, "took it very seriously to show the world that diversity and inclusion can be entertaining and reach a broad audience."

The Warner team had to leap a lot of hurdles: "Crazy Rich Asians" was the first major Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years; its actors were not megastars; and the movie was a romantic comedy, a genre drawing lackluster box office in recent years.

Moreover, to be a blockbuster success, the film had to draw a far wider demographic than might naturally be drawn to a film with a specific one referenced in the title.

"We always thought of it as an event film. Period, end of story," says Rich. "At other places it would have been treated as a niche film."

The studio began by landing lead actors Constance Wu and Henry Golding on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in November 2017. "Part of our strategy was to build up the cast," says Rich. "They were not complete unknowns but they were not household names."

Traditional marketing included trailers, out-of-home and commercials, along with tie-ins with TV shows like "The Bachelorette" finale and a promotion with iHeart Radio offering a trip to Singapore in conjunction with the Singapore Tourism Board. But in other ways the studio broke from marketing convention by giving the film the earliest advance screenings in the studio's history, starting in April with 354 locations. Warner hosted "tastemaker" screenings with influencers and did grassroots outreach to organizations like the Asia Society.

"It was hugely important that the Asian-American community felt they had ownership of the movie," says Rich.

They did. Asian-American groups began buying out whole theaters, contributing to a solid $26.5 million box office take on the film's opening weekend. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a film opening typically draws an audience that is 8 percent to 10 percent Asian-American. But it said 38 percent of the opening audience for "Crazy Rich Asians" was Asian-Americans. The remainder of ticket buyers were Caucasians (41 percent), Hispanics (11 percent), African-Americans (6 percent) and others (4 percent), according to The Hollywood Reporter, citing Warner and Comscore.

"It was a real heartbeat to the notion that representation of one culture was a win for others that were underrepresented," says Rich, adding that the film resonated with the LGBT community as well. "It became a rallying cry," she says, citing celebrities like Lena Waithe who lent their support to the film.

Warner says "Crazy Rich Asians" has raked in $237 million in U.S. box office to date, and Box Office Mojo ranked it the 13th-highest domestic grossing film of 2018. The film also notched the biggest opening for a romantic comedy in nine years. Film versions of the other books in Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians" trilogy are now planned.

But for Rich, the stakes for her team were more than financial. "If we had failed at making ['Crazy Rich Asians'] successful, it would be a failure way beyond a movie not making money. We would have been letting down a community," she says.

The day the film opened, Time magazine ran a cover story titled "How 'Crazy Rich Asians' is about to change Hollywood." Says Rich: "I've been working my whole career to land a cover of Time magazine. This was so much more than a movie."

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