A Fresh Approach! Rotten Tomatoes Co-Founder Backs Crazy Rich Asians

August 28, 2018
Serial tech entrepreneur, Patrick Lee is in Melbourne to help launch #GoldOpen in Australia, a movement which is ensuring that diversity comes to our screens sooner than later.

“It all started with the director, Jon M. Chu,” says Patrick Lee about the origins of #GoldOpen. “Jon’s dad had a famous Chinese restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area. Jon did a dinner there, and invited 20 or so tech executives, and there he spoke about why it’s so important to support a film like Crazy Rich Asians. Basically, there are 4 Asian American film projects that are sitting on the desks of major studios, and all of those studios are looking at the performance of Crazy Rich Asians to determine whether those projects get greenlit or not. He said, all of those projects would be greenlit if Crazy Rich Asians was a success, and if it performed poorly it would set us back decades. That was the start, and from there, we talked about how we could support this. And our idea with #GoldOpen, was, let’s start by buying out theatres, and getting friends and influencers to come and see the movie, and have them pay it forward by further buying out theatres, or putting it on social media and getting friends to come and watch the film. It went like wildfire and even made it out here to Australia.”

Crazy Rich Asians sits at $80m in the US box office and is about to open in Australia, with the buzz ringing loudly in everyone’s ears, Asian or otherwise.

Wind back to 1998, when Patrick Lee, along with two other Asian American overachieving undergraduates, launched Rotten Tomatoes into the world, changing the film review landscape forever.

“Senh Duong was the creator and our COO,” says Patrick, who became CEO of the start-up. “And then we had Stephen Wang, who was our CTO [Chief Technology Officer].

“Essentially, we were doing a lot of work with the entertainment industry, and Senh was our creative director,” Patrick continues, referring to Design Reactor, which specialised in interactive design. “Senh came up with the idea for Rotten Tomatoes on the side. He was really into Hong Kong movies and loved Jackie Chan, and when Rush Hour was coming out in the States, he wanted to know what everyone was saying about the movie, so he decided, ‘hey, what if I take all of the reviews, put it in one place and have a score for it.’ Format wise, it was similar to, when you open up a newspaper and you see a full page ad for a movie with quotes on it. If the movie is good, it’s going to be from your favourite film critics, and if the movie is bad it’ll be a radio DJ or something like that. So, ‘what if I do the same thing, but only include real critics and put good and bad reviews’. And that’s how the idea was born.”

Sold to IGN in 2004, and since then to various others (currently owned by Fandango), Rotten Tomatoes has copped a fair share of criticism from movie studios, filmmakers and film writers, but according to Patrick, that is just one side of the argument.

“A lot of criticism that I have heard is that you’re basically boiling things down to a single number. A lot of films are complex, and you can’t just do that. And I totally understand that, but at the end of the day they can go to Rotten Tomatoes and that can help them make their decision but there’s nothing stopping them from reading the reviews, good and bad, and learning more about the film that they’re thinking of seeing. It does help narrow things down a little bit.

“What we found when we were running it, was that marketing was the biggest predictor of opening weekend box office. So even if a film is ‘Super Rotten’, but they had crazy marketing for it, it would still do well on opening weekend, it just would drop very quickly. It wasn’t because Rotten Tomatoes made it drop, but it was an indicator that the film probably wasn’t very strong, and word of mouth made it drop.

“If anything, Rotten Tomatoes has helped a lot for the limited release, indie films. People go on to the site or the app, and see, ‘hey, all these wide release films are Rotten, oh and there’s one that is 97% Fresh, what is this?’ It makes them aware, and maybe they’ll look at the trailer, and consider other possibilities. And I think that is huge, especially for films with little or no advertising. It helps those kinds of films and increases their discoverability.

“One misunderstanding that people have is that they think it’s just like a letter grade. If a film is 50% that it’s terrible. But 50% doesn’t mean 5/10. It means that half the critics recommended the movie. It’s like a coin toss of whether you like it or not. I’ve had people come to me saying ‘it’s 90% and I didn’t like it.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, you’re the 10%.’ And vice versa. So, that’s one thing that people confuse.”

After selling Rotten Tomatoes, Patrick spent time in Hong Kong and China working on start-ups there, and it was there that he could finally understand his place in the world and what he could try to do about it.

“I was born in LA and grew up in Maryland. On the coasts of the US, there’s a decent amount of Asians, but I remember in elementary school there were only 3 Asians. In high school there were more. But it was clear that you’re a minority. America is a great place, but when I moved to China and Hong Kong for 6 years, it was like ‘wow, this is what it feels like to be part of the majority’, and I looked like everyone. But then, a year in, especially when I was in China, I was like ‘I’m still very different because I’m Westernised.’ I’m like a minority everywhere. After a while you accept it and you think about what sorts of things you can do in terms of representation of Asian Americans or westernised Asians around the world.”

In Hong Kong, Patrick met Nick La, who later moved back to his hometown of Melbourne, and started WePloy, which Patrick advises on. Like Patrick, Nick and a collective of Australian industry leaders, such as Girl Geek Academy co-founder Lisy Kane, Hacker Exchange’s Jeanette Cheah, and Sheryl Thai from Cupcake Central have decided to do something about the representation of their identities in mainstream media, and will be hosting a #GoldOpen screening of Crazy Rich Asians in Melbourne.

“It’s been 25 years since Joy Luck Club, for a film to have an Asian writer, an Asian director and an all Asian cast, and have a wide release,” says Patrick. “We were pushing really hard for this. When I first saw Crazy Rich Asians, there were no reviews, and I was like ‘yeah, this one is decent, it should be Fresh.’ And when it came out, for a couple of days it was 100%, but held steady at about 93%, which is still a really high score. And what was also really heartening for everyone was the director said that a $20m opening would be really good. And we blew that out of the water. And we believe that it had to do with this massive outpouring of support, which helped jumpstart it.”

#GoldOpen’s Crazy Rich Asians screening is on September 7 at Melbourne’s Village Cinemas Crown, and is a fundraiser for charity One Girl. For booking information and pricing, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/210313666500430/

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