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Why 'Crazy Rich Asians' Author Kevin Kwan Turned Down Netflix

As studios bid for the production rights to his books, he was more focused on making a statement than a profit.
Why 'Crazy Rich Asians' Author Kevin Kwan Turned Down Netflix
Image credit: Jami Tarris
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This story appears in the November 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In October 2016, Kevin Kwan was on the most consequential conference call of his life. He’s the author of Crazy Rich Asians, the best-selling novel series, and two moviemaking giants were bidding to take his vision to the screen. A choice had to be made: Sell to Netflix or Warner Bros.? “I’d never been on a conference call with that many people ever,” says Kwan. There were lawyers. Agents. Film producers. And the clock was ticking. Warner Bros. had given them 15 minutes to make up their minds.

Related: Five Hidden Traps That Can Affect Decision Making

If Kwan wanted instant riches, the choice was clear: Netflix. It offered up-front seven-figure-­minimum payouts for the movie’s stakeholders, plus a guaranteed trilogy. But Kwan and the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, had larger ambitions. Warner Bros. outbid the other Hollywood studios -- and while it wasn’t offering Netflix’s mountain of cash, it would place the movie in theaters. That mattered to Kwan and Chu, because they wanted to create more than just a movie. They wanted a cultural statement.

Crazy Rich Asians would be the first Hollywood studio rom-com to feature Asian leads, and the first studio movie in 25 years to have an all-Asian cast. “We needed to be able to prove to the industry that a movie like this could work,” Kwan says. Hollywood studios release their box office numbers -- so if it was a hit, everyone would know. (Of course, if it was a flop, everyone would know that, too.) Netflix never shares viewership numbers, so its results would be secret.

“Trust me, it was a damn hard decision,” Kwan says. But ultimately, they rolled the dice with Warner Bros. Two years later, on the opening weekend of Crazy Rich Asians’ August 2018 theatrical release, he learned he’d made the right choice. “They kept having to revise the box office estimates, because the number kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “That’s when I truly knew we had a hit.”

Related: 5 Steps to More Smoothly Delegate Decision-Making

These are the kinds of decisions that Kwan believes have made his career. “I’ve always played a long game,” he says. He even did it when selling his book to a publisher. Multiple houses bid on it -- and the one he chose, Doubleday, wasn’t the top bidder. He picked it because he trusted the vision of a young editor there.

“I feel strongly that there really are no shortcuts, and you have to put in the hours -- the years, actually -- to make something a success,” he says. “I think that some people assume that I woke up one day and just wrote a book that became a surprise best-seller. But I had more than 15 years of experience in the publishing and media biz, and so many book ideas I pitched never went anywhere. I took every lesson and used every contact to create the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy and to give it a fighting chance in the marketplace.”

Related: The 5 Pitfalls of Decision-Making, and How to Avoid Them

The first book came out in 2013, which means five years’ worth of risk-taking has now been vindicated. But he hasn’t paused to celebrate -- he’s still playing the long game. “I’m traveling nonstop to promote the movie,” he says. “We’ve got a whole world to conquer!” 

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