August 15, 2018

How the boutique company behind 'Crazy Rich Asians' is pioneering a new model

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 Patterson, N.J., native has a thriving company, Ivanhoe Pictures, specializing in Asia. Unlike many of the studios that in recent years traveled across the Pacific seeking global projects, the boutique-sized 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 bring a major dividend of those efforts. Penotti's Ivanhoe is a principal behind a different sort of Asian-themed production, one that is 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.

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 usually immune to them. Kevin Kwan's 2013 novel, in part about a young New York academic who falls for a colleague who happens to come from a family of Singapore tycoons, 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 some gritty shoe-leather work by Penotti, who, together with "The Hunger Games" producers Color Force, bought the book at an early stage.

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



You can return to the main News page, or press the Back button on your browser.