LOS ANGELES — In the eight years that Lisa Takeuchi Cullen has been developing and writing for television, she never had a producer insist on casting an Asian American as the lead in a show.
For years, Hollywood operated under the belief that Asians couldn’t sell a movie or a TV series. That all changed earlier this month when Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” debuted on the big screen, raking in $35 million in its first five days in theaters. That same week, a producer had called Cullen to pitch her a potential series.
“Usually after they explain the premise is when I jump in and say, ‘How would you feel if the leads were people of color?’” Cullen said. “This time, this producer said, ‘The only thing that’s non-negotiable is that the lead is Asian American.’”
Their exchange indicated to Cullen that the box office success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first major studio film to feature an all-Asian cast in 25 years, may have caused a tide to turn in Hollywood.
Although it is still too early to tell whether the historic romantic comedy has created lasting change for Asians in the industry, producers, writers, and talent agents say that studios are now scrambling to find Asian-centric stories like “Crazy Rich Asians,” which has topped the domestic box office for three consecutive weekends. Ticket sales dropped a mere 5.7 percent in its second week, and the film made $28 million this past weekend, the highest-grossing Labor Day box office in more than a decade. It’s also officially the most successful studio rom com in nine years.
Last month, Chu and the team behind “Crazy Rich Asians” began working on a sequel to their first film. “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang started shooting “Tigertail,” a Netflix drama about a multi-generational Asian family. Ken Jeong landed a Netflix stand-up special that will also be directed by Chu. Amy Pascal’s Pascal Pictures bought the rights to “Ayesha At Last,” a romantic dramedy novel about a young Muslim girl.
And, on the same day “Crazy Rich Asians” opened in theaters, Cullen sold a pilot pitch called “’Ohana” to ABC.
“For us, one hurdle — maybe even the tallest hurdle — is getting networks to believe that audiences will show up for these stories, and I think that’s where ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has moved the bar,” said Cullen. “In Hollywood, numbers speak. And when a movie with all Asian leads brings up $35 million in the first week, executives sit up and take notice.”
Cullen’s project, based on Kiana Davenport’s historical novel “Shark Dialogues,” will center on four hapa women who inherit their deceased grandmother’s fiercely coveted land in Hawaii. If it gets picked up as a full series, it’ll be the rare show to center non-white characters in a narrative about the island state.
“It’s really early in the season,” said Cullen, “but I’m seeing more openness.”
Albert Kim, former writer and showrunner of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” said “Crazy Rich Asians” has proven helpful when he pitched a show to networks this pilot season. “Even though I was developing this year’s pitch just before the movie had come out, awareness of the movie was really high because of all the marketing and because of all the press,” he said. “So when I referenced ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in my pitch, [the studio executives] all got it immediately.”
It was a notable contrast from last pilot season when Kim pitched a different drama series about a young Korean-American adoptee who suddenly inherits her family’s enormous fortune (not unlike “Crazy Rich Asians” main character Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who is thrust into her boyfriend’s world of over-the-top wealth).
“I had to pitch everything about this world and these characters and the tone,” Kim recalled about the process. “I think I got it across, but at the same time it would’ve been a lot easier if ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ had been out there last year. I could’ve referenced that movie, and they would’ve gotten it right away.”
The box office success of “Crazy Rich Asians” also helped Lillian Yu, who previously wrote for NBC comedy “Powerless,” sell a spec script to New Line, a studio under Warner Bros. “I think people were unsure before ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ came out whether this kind of movie could work, and everyone was really surprised that it did,” Yu said. “It opened a lot of doors for a lot of people, including me.”
Yu had begun writing “Singles Day,” a China-set romantic comedy, in February after seeing the buzz around “Crazy Rich Asians”. Yu and her agent, Max Michael — who is head of Asian business development at United Talent Agency — had anticipated that there might be a demand for Asian-centric stories if “Crazy Rich Asians” were to perform well.
Just days after the box office numbers for the highly anticipated film began rolling in, they sold Yu’s script.
“If six months, a year ago, we had taken out the same project, I don’t know that we would’ve had the success that we had with it,”said Michael, who acknowledged that studios are generally reluctant to greenlight a film that isn’t based on an existing intellectual property. When “Crazy Rich Asians” proved that it could turn a profit, Michael said, “I think we got a lot of people on their heels in terms of: ‘Maybe this is something that is worth trying. We know how to make this movie now.’”
According to Mariko Carpenter, vice president of strategic community alliances at Nielsen, brands across America are taking notice of the film’s resonance among Asian Americans. “We’re still very small in size, but what people are taking note of is not just the buying power but the influence. The success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is that we’ve been able to create this momentum, and it really stems from us being on digital and being a digital leader,” said Carpenter, referring to the host of fans who tweeted about the film in the months leading up to the release.
As for Kim, the recent uptick in Asian-centric projects makes him optimistic for the young Asian Americans looking for work in Hollywood.
“For a large part of my career, I’ve sought out projects that could feature Asian and Asian-American characters. And for the first time, producers are calling me with projects like that,” said Kim. “And what’s incredible to me is that I actually don’t have the time to take on everything, which is great because that means there’s more than enough to go around.”