April 05, 2014

Ivanhoe Pictures bets on Crazy Rich Asians

Filming of Kevin Kwan's best selling debut novel Crazy Rich Asians is to start in Hong Kong later this year, before moving to Singapore, London and Paris. The book is an entertaining satirical exploration of the lives of the super-rich in Singapore, Hong Kong and the mainland.

An instant success for Kwan, the producers of the film are hoping it will bring them similar success since it will be their debut production.

The film is being produced by the recently formed Ivanhoe Pictures, which as the name suggests has a link to Ivanhoe Mines, which was founded and is chaired by Robert Friedland. Ivanhoe Pictures is a separate company but Friedland, who is providing the financial backing, is non-executive chairman.

The president and CEO is John Penotti who was a cofounder of the highly successfully indie filmmaker GreeneStreet Films. Its films included The Bedroom which was made on a budget of US$2.5 million but ended up grossing US$38 million and Swimfan which cost less than US$10 million but went on to make US$60 million. The third figure in the founding triumvirate is Beijing-based Ray Chen, the founder of Beijing Premiere Media.

"We pursued that book in the US because we think its going to be a great movie, and secondly because in some way it defines and justifies our mission at Ivanhoe Pictures," Penotti told Lai See.

Penotti, who spend some 20 years as an indie producer in the US, had become disenchanted with the model. It's a mature market and there's been considerable consolidation among the distributors. It was becoming harder for him to get a slot with the kind of films he wanted to make.

Since 2011, Penotti's been coming to Asia to learn about the industry and to develop contacts. He recognised the market conditions he recalled from the 1990s and early 2000s in the US in terms of the talent, ideas and distributors with visionary ideas for marketing films. "I smelled the same environment that I recalled earlier in the US and I felt alive again and thought to myself, 'I want to be part of this'."

As a first step Ivanhoe has signed a four-year deal with Fox International Productions to co-finance the production of local language movies in India, Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan.

Essentially Penotti believes that he can bring his skills to Asia and create something here because the market is still growing. He wants to make movies that have broad global appeal, rather than a primarily US appeal. He thinks it was partly this that helped Ivanhoe secure the Crazy Rich Asians deal despite stiff competition from major US studios.

The film rights to the book had been secured by US-based producer Nina Jacobson, a senior film executive who had worked at DreamWorks SKG, Universal and Disney, where she served as president of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group. She was associated with The Sixth Sense, Remember the Titans, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Pirates of the Caribbean. In 2007, Jacobson formed her own production company, Color Force and had fought hard to secure rights to the Crazy Rich Asians. She had let it be known that she wanted a production company with Asian roots for the film.

"She had given the novelist her word as the protector of the film to be authentic to his story," said Penotti. Kwan apparently plans to produce further iterations of the title and wants to build a brand. "With something like Crazy Rich Asians there is an impulse from the big Hollywood studios to ensure there are some Western faces in the movie to help it sell around the world. I pitched my heart out and promised we would be true to the book," he said. The film will have an all-Asian cast.

"It has great opportunities for every major movie star - these roles are juicy fun parts," he added. Such is the interest in the film that publications and social media have been suggesting how it should be cast. The script is being written now and a director will be appointed in the summer, with casting soon after.

The film has a very good chance of being a box office success. That said, the movie business remains a risky business. As Penotti says: "We have to believe in these movies - they are our babies. Nobody is going to tell me my baby doesn't look good. On the other hand spending significant amounts of money trying to intuit the public's taste is very hard to do."


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