How Netflix Lost ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

In Featured, Industry Insights, Katherine Sanderson by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Katherine Sanderson –

This weekend, Crazy Rich Asians will make history as the first English-language film in 25 years to feature a nearly all-Asian cast, and to be released by a major studio. But the film can also boast another accolade: the film that Netflix could not get.

Yes, the luxe romantic comedy potentially could have not graced the big screen had the producers not made a crucial decision early on. When seeking a distributor, Netflix had the highest bid for the film, offering to sign on to distribute the entire trilogy, which should have won them the film rights. But the producers of Crazy Rich Asians knew that they wanted audiences to experience their film in the original, prestigious, and classic Hollywood fashion: in a theater. And for this reason, they chose Warner Bros. to produce and distribute their film.

Netflix + Movie Theaters

Netflix’s standard release strategy has ruffled a few feathers in recent years. If they do release a film theatrically (which is rare!) they will release it day-and-date (meaning the same day it is available on its streaming platform). As David Elrich said in his article on IndieWire, “It’s the equivalent of a museum buying a work of art, locking it in a vault, and making photocopies so widely available that people lose sight of the fact that they’re missing out on the real thing.” Oscar-winner Helen Mirren recently expressed her anger with Netflix for ruining the ‘communal experience’ that has been a part of film history. And even Steven Spielberg has critiqued the ‘films’ that choose Netflix as a distributor, and their eligibility to win Oscars. “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie…You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (Warner Bros 2018)

Not showing feature films in theaters has been a point of contention with directors that Netflix seeks to work with. As much as people say movie theaters are on their way out, there is still a market for theatrical release, especially internationally. And although Netflix is very invested in their streaming service abroad, the theatrical market is one Netflix simply isn’t in. As director Christopher Nolan said in 2017 “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films. They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.”  Nolan also praised Netflix’s main competitor Amazon for making the right decision, in allowing a 90-day theatrical window before releasing the content on their platform.

Netflix + Marketing

From a marketing standpoint, compared to the major studios such as Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, and Lionsgate, the proposition that Netflix puts forth for directors doesn’t actually make sense. What they offer is one form of distribution for the film. The major studios are actually distributors, which means that they not only distribute the film, but market it, ensuring that the right audiences are aware of its release. Most of them also invest in consumer products, live events, and interactive entertainment. Netflix simply does not market its original or its acquired content. Perhaps they utilize some digital advertising and print ads, but very little in comparison to the studios.

Look at NBCUniversal, especially with recent releases Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Yes, these are both existing franchises, but the point is that the studios have the proper departments to figure out just who will want to see these films, and then develop a strategy to distribute both the film, and related content. Universal Pictures also have an entire division dedicated to brand development, handling consumer products, live events, themed entertainment, and interactive games. And they have the resources to advertise on NBCU television networks like USA, SyFy, and Bravo, and in the Universal Studios theme parks.

Mama Mia: Here We Go Again and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Universal Pictures, 2018)

Why Filmmakers Still Go with Netflix

As much as I’m sure many directors would prefer their masterpiece to be seen on the big screen, many independent directors can’t turn down the purchase price that Netflix is usually willing to offer. Such as the case of Tramps, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2016. Director Adam Leon, who had won the Grand Jury prize at SXSW for his first feature, was offered $2 million from Netflix for the rights to Tramps. Given the debts he had to pay, he said he just couldn’t refuse.

But even high-profile directors like Alfonso Cuaron, who won an Oscar for directing his last film Gravity, have begun to team with Netflix. According to his executive producer David Linde, in regards their choice to partner with Netflix on Cuaron’s upcoming film Roma, it was in consideration of the film. “One of the things you have to keep in mind is today’s theatrical market for foreign-language films is really, really complex. We had to really think it through and figure out the best way for the film to be seen in theaters, but also to reach the largest audience possible. As we thought a lot about how the film would be presented around the world, Netflix’s presentation was very convincing.” Given the film is shot in black-and-white, and was filmed in Spanish, they felt this was the best decision.

Alfonso Cuaron’s film Roma will open in the US, reportedly both in theaters and online, later this year.

Netflix has a global reach, with audiences all over the world subscribing to their service, so for films that know that they are not going to attract huge numbers of people to the theater, and who feel the theatrical experience will not enhance their film, having a theatrical distribution deal with a major studio just wouldn’t make sense.

Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Made the Right Decision

In my opinion, Crazy Rich Asians was completely correct in their decision to go with Warner Bros over Netflix. Given the contemporary significance of this film, it warrants a big screen release. Warner Brothers even hired IW Group, a marketing and communications firm specialising in reaching the growing multicultural market in the US, to promote the film within the Asian-American community, offering screenings to Asian-American organizations and influential individuals (which I can assure you Netflix wouldn’t have done!) And the Asian-American community has already shown their support, starting the #GoldOpen hashtag, encouraging people to go see the film in theaters. And many Asian-Americans bought out entire theaters, just to ensure that the first weekend’s ticket sales are ‘gold’. From the trailers and advertising, I think the film looks like colorful and compelling romantic comedy, supported by a stellar cast.

Awkwafina and Constance Wu star in Crazy Rich Asians (Warner Bros, 2018)

I was more than happy to purchase a ticket to see the film on opening night (which wasn’t easy to get in LA!) As director John Chu said to The Hollywood Reporter “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.” And that’s exactly what they got.

About the Author

Katherine Sanderson currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. Originally from Colorado, she graduated with a BA in English from Santa Clara University in 2014, and is an alumna of the JPCatholic MBA program (Class of 2016). Her professional aspirations are in children/family entertainment, especially animation.

For more articles by Katherine, click here.