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This Philly billionaire helped bring ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ to the big screen

Philadelphia native and philanthropist Sidney Kimmel, now a movie producer, made a move to expand to Asian markets at just the right time — one of his first deals resulted in 'Crazy Rich Asians.'

Constance Wu, left, and Michelle Yeoh in a scene from 'Crazy Rich Asians.'&
Constance Wu, left, and Michelle Yeoh in a scene from 'Crazy Rich Asians.'&Read morewarner bros.

The box office hit Crazy Rich Asians has won a deserved reputation as an all-Asian success story, but it also got a big boost at a crucial time from a crazy rich Philadelphian: Sidney Kimmel.

The South Philly native, fashion industry billionaire, and philanthropist is also a busy movie producer, and his recent expansion into the Asian market led him to buy the company that had the rights to Kevin Kwan' s best-selling book (and, shrewdly, its two sequels; the first of which is already in the works). In a way, though, the road that led Kimmel to Crazy Rich Asians can be traced all the way back to Depression-era South Philadelphia, where Kimmel, now 91,  grew up, and where he first fell in love with movies. Or, at the very least, with Carole Lombard.

He remembers seeing her on screen with Clark Gable when the price of admission was five cents.

"The movie cost a nickel, and my mother would give me a dime, and if I were feeling like a brave little soldier, I'd buy two soft pretzels and bring her three cents back," Kimmel said by phone from Southern California, where he now lives with wife Caroline, formerly married to erstwhile Eagles owner Leonard Tose. (Kimmel owns the home once owned by Johnny Carson).

That three-penny remittance made a difference in those days, and Kimmel retained that respect for budget-conscious women. After the war (he served two tours in the Army, one in Korea) he went into the garment business for W.R. Grace, buying from it the company that became Jones New York. He made his fortune on a line of smartly tailored but affordable clothes for professional women. It's a strategy that helped turn Jones into a company that posted $4 billion in annual sales by 2000. He left the business a few years later, at 67 (at that time listed among Forbes magazine's richest people, with a net worth north of $1 billion).

Crazy Rich Asians is a fashion-forward film, but former clothing-magnate Kimmel said his background wasn't much help. He had no input on the wardrobe used in the film, and, in fact, didn't recognize the expensive couture on display in the movie.

"I made clothes for women on Wall Street," he said.

Even while building Jones New York, he indulged his love of movies.

"I did read scripts from time to time, and I finally made the plunge with [1984's] Blame it on Rio. …It didn't make much money," he said.

He was undeterred and took a second plunge as producer.

"The second movie was 9½ Weeks, and that was the keystone. It was not accepted by American audiences, but overseas it was a major, major hit," Kimmel said of the sexually candid Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger film. "More than five years after release, we were still seeing significant revenue. That really hooked me, and I thought, 'I should be doing more of this.' "

And he did, producing over the years dozens of movies — including The Lincoln Lawyer, Moneyball, United 93, and The Kite Runner.

Kimmel is known for having a good eye for good scripts and the confidence to allow filmmakers to do their thing.

"I sit in on the writers' meetings, I get very involved in the process until they start shooting. Then I step away. You've already done the homework, you're satisfied with the cast and the budget, and you know how much risk you're taking, and you also know you don't want to go to Albuquerque," said Kimmel, who has nothing against New Mexico, but at his age, the thrill of location shooting is gone.

His first independent ventures, in the 1980s and 1990s, were made under the banner of GreenStreet Films, in partnership with John Penotti — titles include the critically praised art house hit In the Bedroom (2001). In 2004, Kimmel founded his own company, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, often working in distribution partnership with studios. Hits included Hell or High Water (2016), which was nominated for an Oscar.

>> READ MORE: 'Hell or High Water': Jeff Bridges' genius turn in contemporary western

The screenplay had been on the list of promising but unproduced screenplays when Kimmel snapped it up. He had a feeling the movie, about brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) who steal from the bank about to foreclose on them would connect with Americans still reeling from the mortgage crisis. Others won't so sure.

"He sent me the script and said, 'What do you think?' and I said, 'Sidney, I don't know, this is kind of depressing.' He's like, 'You're wrong,' " said Penotti, citing it as an example of Kimmel's sound movie instincts. "It's in the zeitgeist, this movie is part of a  conversation that has to be had."

Kimmel puts it another way: "It had a very good message. Don't let the banks rob you."

As the movie competed for best picture, Kimmel was thinking about opportunities overseas, where the movie business is still growing exponentially. In China, for instance, they're building theaters rapidly, 22 screens a day, according to Penotti. That's where the growth is — the North American market is mature.

Kimmel didn't set out to create this watershed moment for representation in film with Crazy Rich Asians. It started as a business opportunity. His s close friend and former partner Penotti was working for a company in Singapore (where Crazy Rich Asians is set) called Ivanhoe that financed local-language movies for Asian markets, India, and Mexico. In 2017, Kimmel Entertainment and Ivanhoe merged to form SK Global Entertainment, giving Kimmel control of Ivanhoe properties.

Including, as it happens, the option to make Crazy Rich Asians, already in motion.

"The opportunity came to us and we jumped on it," Kimmel said. "We picked up the option not only on Crazy Rich Asians, but on the second and third books as well, hoping the first would do well."

It did. The movie, made for $30 million, has grossed $100 million worldwide and has remarkable legs — dipping only 6 percent at the U.S. box office since opening day, and just now getting started in Asia.

"[The filmmakers] didn't want the studios to mess with it. They felt they knew the proper way to engage an audience with an all-Asian cast, and studios have a reputation for screwing things up. John Chu has total freedom, but it was obvious he knew what he was doing," Kimmel said.

SK Global's eventual Hollywood partner, Warner Bros., turned out to be a huge asset, Penotti said.

"They got it the way we got it. They understood that we were building a film for an international audience. That the story had all the beats and attributes of a romantic comedy that should play around the world. There wasn't any tendency for them to say, 'We have to be careful about casting,' or trying to broaden it out," Penotti said. "Warner Bros. was aggressive in marketing the film, and very smart about how to get the conversation going, and keep it going."

Crazy Rich Asians is one in a long line of very smart movies for Kimmel, said friend Sherry Lansing, former head of Paramount Pictures, where she oversaw production of hits like Titanic.

"Billy [Lansing is married to William Friedkin] and I noticed that whenever we saw a movie that we loved, Sidney was a producer. It was uncanny," said Lansing, who knows Kimmel through his charity work.

Lansing — who'd rather you didn't know she appeared in Rio Lobo as a young actress — met Kimmel when she organized a march to raise money to fight cancer. She thanked Kimmel for footing much of the bill and for pledging $25 million to Lansing's Stand Up to Cancer organization. (He's funded cancer centers in Baltimore, San Diego, and Philadelphia, where he has also funded the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the American Jewish History Museum, and other enterprises. He's estimated to have given away more than $700 million).

"Here you have this man who has built a big company and obviously accumulated a lot of wealth. But he's not spending it on himself. He's spending in making movies that he hopes will change the world, and spending  it trying to find a cure for cancer. And he's producing Crazy Rich Asians when he's 90 years old," Lansing said.

He's come a long way from penny pretzels and 5 cent matinees, but movies still enchant him, and the challenge of making hits still gets him going.

"As tough as the fashion business was, the film business is by far much more difficult. It's more difficult to make money, I would venture to say. For every 10 movies that are made, perhaps one or two make money, one or two break even. So most lose money. The odds are against you," he said. "The film industry and the fashion business are two entirely different entities. I consider myself very lucky to have had success in both."