Behind the Scenes of the Largest “Crazy Rich Asians” Activation Event in the US

By Yvonne Lim Wilson

I first met playwright and founder of Color Arc Productions Christine Hoang a few years ago through her book club exploring works by Asian American authors as well as Asian American topics. When she posted that she would be hosting a book club event for “Crazy Rich Asians,” I was excited about reading the book in anticipation of the film. But then, in addition to postings about the book club, postings about a huge community film activation event through the Austin Asian American Film Festival, a night market started appearing everywhere, and then announcements that celebrities from the film would be here in Austin for the event. It started to become a huge, huge, deal—becoming the largest “Crazy Rich Asians” activation event in the country.

The Crazy Rich Asians Night Market & Luxury Experience, sponsored by the Austin Asian American Film Festival, in partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse and Warner Bros., was held at the Long Center on Aug. 4 and supported by dozens of volunteers. More than 2,000 people attended the free Night Market event and more than 200 attended the VIP fundraiser. The event team has also been an active part of the the #goldopen movement on social media to sell out opening weekend shows. All VIP tickets sold from the event included a ticket to the film, and individual members have purchased rows of tickets to help sell out three shows and counting.

I had the chance to ask AAAFF Board Members Andrew Lee, Christine Hoang and June Lien more about the event and how it came to be, and what we can expect from the AAAFF next.

AA: Christine, tell me about how you got involved with this activation event.

CH: During the month that I was touring and performing in “People of Color Christmas,” [December 2017] AAAFF Board President JD Chang introduced me to Andrew Lee over breakfast tacos. I had just become an Advisory Board member of AAAFF, and we began talking about ideas for AAAFF. That’s when Andrew filled me in on his ideas for the CRA Activation Event, which he initially envisioned as a fashion show.

I told him I was planning to do a book club on Kevin Kwan’s novel in anticipation of the movie, and that I was all in for the activation event. A few months later, Andrew, JD, and I attended SXSW together in March 2018, where we continued to poll Asian American leaders in film and entertainment about the idea. Based on the feedback we received at SXSW, the vision for the event shifted from fashion to food (Food. So Asian, right?). That’s when the Night Market idea started to take more shape.

Thereafter Andrew connected with Warner Bros. In June, Warner Bros. arranged for us to see the advanced screening of CRA at Alamo Drafthouse. I cried in the movie theatre as that was the first time I had ever seen an all-Asian cast on the big screen. It was so emotionally validating. That pumped us up even more. After the advanced screening, more ideas started to take form, more people were recruited to help, and two months later, based on the passion of our volunteer workforce and the generosity of our sponsors and the excitement of the community, AAAFF hosted the largest CRA Activation Event in the country (as confirmed by Warner Bros) in collaboration with Alamo Drafthouse and Warner Bros.

AA: What does it mean to you for Austin to host the largest community-based event in anticipation for the movie premiere?

CH: It means that things aren’t just happening in L.A. and New York. Asian Americans in the South have a voice and can make an impact too. Austin is home to many passionate Asian American creatives and we make things happen here because we have talent AND we do the work. Hopefully our efforts will draw more focus on Asian Americans in the South and get folks interested in the stories we have to tell and the work we do.
AL: AAAFF just became a non-profit organization in the winter of 2017, and while we’ve had 11 years of film festivals, I felt that AAAFF needed to match the scope of the national conversation through a calling card event that will help put our film festival on the map and that Austin will show up in a big way to represent Texas’s Asian population, the third largest in the nation.

Lien described the whirlwhind pace in which the event came together with the celebrity guests from the film confirming attendance just four weeks ahead of the event. VIP tickets for the activation event were completely sold out. Each VIP ticket included a ticket to see the film during opening weekend.

JL: We didn’t know we were going to be the biggest activation event. As we got closer to the event, the marketing group at Warner Bros. were telling us about other events. We were all floored but proud we were able to make it happen. We had gotten feedback from Chloe Dao and Christine Ha that they were coming. We were watching their old shows. There was this huge swell of pride. It felt like it was our time. We also made an effort to be inclusive and reach out to all Asian groups. I’m really happy we had two stellar Southeast Asian artists at the Night Market.

AA: What was the most memorable comment/discussion point you heard during the panel discussion?

AL: Ronny Chieng had commented on the idea that there was nothing more emasculating than Asian men talking about being emasculated. He said that you just need to be masculine and that would be the best way to represent ourselves. The concept of putting aside our verbal/online complaints about representation and taking action TO BE what we want to be was a very affirming ideology that justifies our community to LEAD and not just be dissatisfied.

CH: I loved the entire panel discussion. The words Chloe Dao and Christine Ha shared were so heartwarming and lovely. And the panel discussion with CRA stars Ronny Chieng and Chris Pang, CRA screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, all smoothly moderated by Minji Chang, was just excellent. But my favorite comments were from Adele Lim. Maybe because I’m a writer too and I have a writer crush on her, but Adele spoke so eloquently about the struggle of being Asian American and not quite fitting in in American, and then not quite fitting in in Asia. There are huge societal and familial pressures pressures on Asian Americans to achieve certain levels of success and “make it” because of our parents’ immigration sacrifices, and Adele said those specific pressures are unique to the Asian American experience as she did not see that when she grew up in Malaysia.

JL: I loved having Adele on the panel. She said, “Ultimately, you can’t depend on outside validation for who you are. You need to dig deep and understand that you are worth it. You are something, you have a strength in your voice that matters.” It was a poignant statement knowing she was a TV writer and never thought she’d be able to write for a movie, and never one starring Asian Americans. This was her first movie and she was masterful with the script. Plus, being the only woman participating on the panel, she was able to highlight the need for more Asian American male leads. She mentioned that the guys in the film have sex appeal and great abs. That’s not something the men on the panel were going to say.

AA: The event had so many different elements to it: live graffiti art, DJ, night market with local vendors, celebrity chef, voter registration, art display, fashion display, makeup, outdoor screenings, red carpet lineup, as well as the VIP event and panel discussion. What was the idea behind the lineup?

CH: The idea was to highlight the best we have to offer here as an Asian American community in Austin, in Texas, in the country, and in the world. We had folks from Houston and Dallas also come down to represent. We had VIP panelists who flew in from Manila and Los Angeles. The diverse Asian American representation you saw at our #CrazyRichAustin event demonstrates that we are more than the quiet, hardworking, “cause no trouble” model minority stereotype. We are artists. We are voters. We are activists. And I would also like to point out that the Asian Family Support Services of Austin was also there to represent at the Night Market; AFSSA provides support to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking, and we want to make sure those noble causes are heard and supported as well.

AA: Why is it important to support this film?

JL: This is a big deal for us. The success of this one movie will greenlight six different movies [featuring Asian American lead actors] at different studios that are waiting to see how this does. The stakes are so high for this movie. This is a case of one equals six. The goal of the event was to reach as many people as possible and encourage them to go see the movie. It’s part of what we do in the festival: encourage Asian American representation in film. That’s why we helped to sellout three showings during the movie’s five-day opening weekend.

AL: As a full time professional film producer, I have always been set up to lose discussions regarding casting Asian Americans in roles or developing Asian American themed stories. The main reason is that there are very few studio-produced Asian American led or storied movies to prove a track record of success for investors to finance such projects. It takes a studio like Warner Bros to break the chicken or egg cycle and show that Americans and the world are ready to spend money to watch Asian American stories. Since the last studio-produced Asian American story with an all Asian American cast and director was “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago, we just can’t allow “Crazy Rich Asians” to fail in the box office. The success of CRA will create many new opportunities for Asian American filmmakers and actors, as director Jon Chu said in a recent interview.

CH: Because it’s THE best Rom-Com of 2018. You don’t have to to just take my word for it. Go read all the reviews supporting its 100% Rotten Tomatoes score. And it’s also important to support CRA because #RepresentationMatters. This is the first film to be written by, directed by, and centered on Asians Americans in 25 years. Supporting this movie means you support Hollywood greenlighting more stories created by and centered on Asian Americans because it’s noble, profitable, and smart. AAAFF already bought out an entire theatre before the #CrazyRichAustin event even happened. And I personally got 2 rows of seats for my friends and family at another screening. So yeah. We are mobilizing. We are doing the work. As director Jon Chu said, “It’s not just a movie, it’s a movement.” It’s time.

AA: Tell me about AAAFF and how this event fits into your mission and what you are trying to accomplish?

AL: AAAFF has been a volunteer-run film festival over the past 11 fests. It also included a three-year hiatus when the film festival pretty much died until Executive Director Tim Tsai took up the banner to resurrect it. After we became an official 501c3 non-profit, we began brainstorming what kind of fundraising event we would want to organize. It just so happened that the release of “Crazy Rich Asians” had the most perfectly aligned message with AAAFF’s mission: to tell Asian and Asian American stories via media arts and help Asian Americans explore opportunities in cinema. Representation in mainstream media encompasses both those pieces of our mission!

AA: Anything else you want to say about the film, the book, the actors or celebrities who attended?

AL: Asian representation in Hollywood is a very broad effort because it encompasses everything, including the myriad of Asian people groups, economic levels, and unique social and family dynamics. “Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t propose to represent all Asian cultures or even all the problems within the Singaporean community where the story is set. What I hope it does is prove that Hollywood can invest in more Asian American talent so that we can begin to represent the bountiful and compelling Asian and Asian American stories in mainstream media. I think this international best-selling book, director Jon Chu, and his cast are the perfect ones to open that door. Ronny, Chris, Adele, and Peter were very articulate during our panel to help illustrate the paradigm we’re in and why the passion behind representation is monumentally important.

AA: What other things can we look forward to from AAAFF?

AL: We hope to continue partnering up with studios for large marketing activation events to help entertain and educate Central Texas of Asian/Asian American filmmaking. For both our annual festival and year-round programming, we’d like to bring in Asian and Asian American filmmakers (both up-and-coming and veterans) to help our Austin audiences further connect with stories from the Asian community. That said, our biggest push right now is to raise a budget that allows us to have ongoing paid staff to foster an increasingly growing and impactful annual film festival.

AA: What’s next for Color Arc Productions?

CH: Color Arc has been in contact with a few local Austin high schools to see if we can get economically disadvantaged kids to see a screening of Crazy Rich Asians. Austin ISD, however, doesn’t start school until after opening weekend of CRA, but I think it is still a worthwhile cause to have students see themselves as heroes and romantic leads on the big screen, even if those ticket sales won’t be counted during the critical time window of opening weekend sales. Color Arc Productions will host a workshop reading of a new musical I am currently writing called Romeo & Katrina: A New American Musical Set in Post-Katrina New Orleans on Saturday, September 29, 2018 a 3pm at The VORTEX Theatre.

After that workshop is done, I’ll be busy working on my next project with Andrew Lee. After he saw my play People of Color Christmas, he told me, “This needs to be a television show.”  So I will be writing a television pilot called POC Parties based on my play People of Color Christmas, and Andrew will produce it. There you have it. Austin AsAm creatives doing the work to tell Asian American stories in the South!

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Learn more about the Austin Asian American Film Festival at www.aaafilmfest.org. You can follow Christine Hoang for daily postings about CRA, #goldopen, Color Arc Productions and more at @1christinehoang on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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