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The little-known film company that made ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ possible

The cast of "Crazy Rich Asians" at Build Studio on Aug. 14 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

A decade ago, a movie producer named John Penotti was feeling low. He had just nearly lost his shirt on a series of independent productions that he made during flush times only to find the 2008 financial crisis had claimed many of the distributors who would buy them. Casting about for a new model, he decided to investigate the Asia market.

There was only one problem: He knew nothing about Asia.

Ten years later, the Paterson, N.J., native has a thriving company, Ivanhoe Pictures, specializing in the continent. Unlike many of the Hollywood studios that in recent years traveled across the Pacific seeking global projects, the boutique-size Ivanhoe has undertaken a local and curatorial approach, in the process creating a business model for a continent that has long vexed American entertainment executives.

This weekend will yield a major dividend of those efforts. Penotti’s Ivanhoe is a principal behind a different sort of Asian-themed production, one aimed at American audiences: “Crazy Rich Asians,” the emerging romantic-comedy phenomenon set in the United States and Singapore that opens in American theaters Wednesday.

“My experience in Asia before I started this was limited to being a Wong Kar-wai fan,” Penotti said during an interview at his Santa Monica offices on a recent afternoon, alluding to the Hong Kong auteur. “It took two years of immersion, of traveling there for months at a time, before I even began to feel comfortable. My wife began asking if I had another family there.”

It’s a fictional family that will prove Ivanhoe’s coming-out party.

The summer comedy is dead. Long live the summer comedy.

Even before its release, “Crazy Rich Asians” has distinguished itself as an increasingly mythical Hollywood creature, an original book-based success in a summer season long immune to them. Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, in part about a young New York academic who falls for a wealthy colleague from Singapore, has been turned into a movie by “Step Up” director Jon Chu and Warner Bros. The movie is shaping up to be a smash by August standards, with pre-release surveys suggesting as much as $25 million in grosses its first weekend — nearly the entire size of the film’s $30 million production budget.

More important, it is the first major studio picture to feature an entirely Asian American principal cast since “The Joy Luck Club” a quarter-century ago, helping it sail into the history books. “Crazy Rich Asians” stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and others.

But for all the glitzy headlines, the film is the result of gritty shoe-leather work by Penotti, who, together with “The Hunger Games” producers Color Force, bought the book at an early stage.

Is ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ historic? ‘That’s just way too much pressure,’ says Kevin Kwan, who wrote the book.

Ivanhoe helped hire Chu, courted a bidding war between Warner Bros. and Netflix and served as financier with the studio. And little of it would have been possible if not for the groundwork laid years earlier, allowing Ivanhoe to establish itself as a solid transpacifically oriented company that could discover and finance “Crazy Rich Asians” in the first place.

Not for nothing have American companies sought to crack local Asian markets. The continent has been a growing source of moviegoing; it now contains half of the world’s top six countries by box office. But the challenges have been numerous.

Studios in the 2000s began investing in local-language productions and more expensive English-language global titles. Many quickly ran into obstacles and scaled back. The big titles were too pricey, given the size of the likely audience, and the local ones too small, given the effort likely required.

(Of those entrants only Sony, which has an obvious corporate connection to the continent, continues to operate at a high level. Netflix has recently begun producing local-language productions in Asia, but the jury is out on whether it will succeed. Meanwhile, even studio exports are imperiled as China produces its own big-budget pictures that garner huge box office numbers in the country without needing a single dollar in the United States.)

Penotti watched as so many studios got involved in these land wars in Asia and saw an opportunity. A veteran of the independent film world who was behind such Oscar darlings as “In the Bedroom,” he wanted to find a way to capitalize on a place with a growing audience and resources but with distinctly local ways of doing business. (Script development, for instance, is often not as intense as in Hollywood.)

After reaching out to and ultimately teaming with the Singapore-based American mining mogul Robert Friedland, he began to understand some of the problems.

“The studios seem to be doing it wrong, trying to either impose their way on local cultures or make these big tent poles that not enough people wanted,” Penotti, 54, said from his office, a loft-like space with high ceilings and exposed brick and an array of posters on the wall. “They were trying to re-create an American model verbatim on another continent.” The solution, he felt, was a blend — taking what worked in America but reformatting for Asia.

The solution, in other words, was remakes of English-language hits.

So the company produced a Chinese take on the 2009 Anne Hathaway romantic comedy “Bride Wars” in 2015; the 2007 Frank Oz family dramedy “Death at a Funeral” became an Indian movie several years later; and India will soon see a new retelling of the Jeff Bridges Western thriller “Hell or High Water.” (Like “Hell,” many of the titles come from Ivanhoe sister company Sidney Kimmel Entertainment — both are part of the umbrella SKGlobal — which is behind mid-budget American hits such as “The Kite Runner” and “The Lincoln Lawyer” and rarefied art-house pieces such as “Lars and the Real Girl.” It doesn’t hurt that they’re in the library and cost Ivanhoe nothing.)

Because these projects are done with the local market in mind, they have a defined audience and a budget that gets them to profitability sooner, according to company executives. They also are the result of a more human approach.

“The idea is to get on the ground and have them know you, which we can do as a small and nimble company but not everyone else can,” said Kilian Kerwin, Ivanhoe’s global executive vice president. Kerwin spends month of the year hopscotching across Asia. About a fifth of Ivanhoe’s 25 employees are also based on the continent.

The company also produces a large number of original local-language productions in countries including South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia — basically doing, years before Netflix, what the streamer is now attempting.

But not everyone has been as sanguine about the firm’s efforts.

The local-language remakes are uneven critical performers at best, in part because the cultural elements don’t port over easily. “A not-great Hollywood romantic comedy gets even worse in this atrocious Chinese remake,” Variety wrote of the 2015 version of “Bride Wars” that Ivanhoe produced.

And one producer who is not involved in Asia and asked for anonymity so as not to be perceived as criticizing another company expressed skepticism about the model. “Local language requires an incredible amount of work on the ground and for potentially very little return, because the movies don’t travel,” the producer said. “There’s a reason a lot of companies got out of it.”

Penotti did not provide numbers but says the company is profitable. Friedland was not immediately available for comment. A Warner spokesman did not make studio executives available for comment.

The movies open themselves up to criticisms of cultural hegemony, as well, of a United States forcing its hits on a continent that already has a rich cinematic history.

Penotti waves these worries aside. “There’s been a great history of Japanese films and Korean films being remade in English,” he said. “I think [hegemonic critiques] are a very limited way of looking at it. There’s a skill in identifying what stories could be adapted and how they should be adapted so they feel authentic to a given culture.”

Meanwhile, the revenue Ivanhoe will bring in from “Crazy Rich Asians” box office will be used to pursue more projects in this vein. Penotti says he’d like to keep making English-language movies that will appeal to Western audiences. The company has optioned “The Walled City,” a young-adult look at teenagers fighting to escape a fictionalized version of Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong.

He’s also behind one of the half-dozen projects in development about the Thai cave rescue, again teaming with Chu and working in concert, the pair hopes, with the Thai government. (Chu has been adamant that the project have Asian roots. “I refuse to let Hollywood #whitewashout the Thai Cave rescue story! No way. Not on our watch,” he tweeted shortly after the announcement.)

Penotti has hired an as-yet-unnamed executive to oversees these efforts. Despite the fraught history, he said he expects the business of Asian-themed films for English-language audiences to grow by quantum leaps in the wake of the success of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“The number of calls to us the last few weeks alone has been remarkable,” he said. “My Spidey sense is there’s a lot more coming here. I don’t think this is a flash in the pan.”