For the first time in U.S. box-office history, two movies with Asian-led casts recently finished in the top-five of the weekend box-office. Crazy Rich Asians, the first movie since 1993’s Joy Luck Club with a predominantly Asian-descent cast is a bona fide phenomenon, reigning supreme with a haul of more than $28 million in its third weekend of release. However, the considerable shadow cast by Crazy Rich Asians, may cause one to miss the notable success of Searching, in its first weekend of wide release. In Searching, a thriller shot entirely from the point of view of smartphones and laptop screens, John Cho (of Harold and Kumar fame) plays a father whose 16-year old daughter goes missing. While Searching finished with a weekend total of $6 Million, its success coupled with Crazy Rich Asians is all the more noteworthy when one calculates the per-theater averages for films with wide release i.e., movies shown in more than 600 theaters. Crazy Rich Asians and Searching finished first and second in box-office performance respectively, with averages of $7,325/theater and $6,338/theater.
The success of these two films with multiple Asian-descent actors in the principal cast underscores the box-office potential of diversity. While much needed attention has been garnered for the under-representation of Black actors in Hollywood, the same issue of under-representation for Asian actors has received relatively less attention. The success of Crazy Rich Asians and Searching this past weekend is indicative of a pent-up demand for Asian representation on movie screens and it would serve producers well to recognize the box-office potential in casting Asian actors in prominent roles.
My research with co-author Peter Younkin of the University of Oregon examines the impact of cast diversity on box-office performance and shows that movies with multiple black actors in the principal cast significantly outperform movies with all-white principal casts. While our analysis did not reveal a performance premium from casting Asian actors – likely due to few films with multiple Asian actors in our sample – it is important to note that we found no evidence of a long-presumed performance penalty from casting Asian actors. Furthermore, our analysis of box-office performance across the United States found that in cities with populations that are predominantly white, movies with diverse casts performed just as well as those with all-white casts. Moreover, in the case of cities with significant minority populations (Hispanic, Black, Asian), movies with diverse casts (particularly multiple black actors) performed significantly better than those with less diverse casts. Diverse casting on the screen is profitable.
The performance of Searching indicates that the success of Crazy Rich Asians is no accident. While casting token Asian stars to broaden appeal in international markets, such as India and China, has become more common in the past few years (e.g., Deepika Padukone in 2017’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Hollywood executives would be well served to recognize the box-office potential of diverse casts domestically – otherwise, money is simply being left on the table.