According to one Paramount executive, the Ghost in the Shell box office returns were negatively affected by the “conversation regarding casting.” When any movie performs badly at the box office, there’s going to be a lot of discussion over why and how it happened, with studios keen to pinpoint exactly what caused the failure. In the case of Ghost in the Shell there are many reasons why it’s performing so badly – starting with the fact that many critics just don’t think it’s all that good, with its rating on Rotten Tomatoes currently standing at 45%.
So far, Ghost in the Shell has performed poorly at the box office, taking just $19 million in its opening weekend against a budget of $110 million. Not only that, but it was outperformed by The Boss Baby, DreamWorks’ latest animated offering about a talking baby who likes to run global operations from his high chair. Despite all the dissection and pinpointing, though, there seems to be one fundamental reason why audiences aren’t flocking to theaters for Ghost in the Shell; the casting of Scarlett Johansson.
The issue is not the actress herself, but rather the fact that she plays the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg that most people felt should be played by an Asian actor, since the anime series the movie is based upon originated in Japan. While the original anime director, Mamoru Oshii, didn’t have a problem with the casting, Paramount has now recognized that the controversy has hurt the movie’s audience figures. In an interview with CBC, Kyle Davies, domestic distribution chief for Paramount, didn’t apologize for the casting choice, but he did say he felt that the discussion surrounding the movie negatively impacted its reviews:
“We had hopes for better results domestically. I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews. You’ve got a movie that is very important to the fanboys since it’s based on a Japanese anime movie. So you’re always trying to thread that needle between honoring the source material and making a movie for a mass audience. That’s challenging, but clearly the reviews didn’t help.”
Ghost in the Shell isn’t the first project to be accused of whitewashing and, sadly, it won’t be the last. Last year, Marvel came under fire for the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange – a dramatic difference from the character’s appearance as a wizened ancient Asian man in the comics. Marvel was also criticized for Finn Jones’ casting as Danny Rand in Iron Fist; while he is portrayed as a white man in the comics, many felt this was a missed opportunity to cast an Asian actor in the role that many felt should have been Asian to begin with.
History is littered with such casting fails, but what is surprising, is that the big studios don’t seem to be taking any lessons from all of this. Paramount had an opportunity to really open up a lucrative market Westernized anime remakes if they had handled the whole affair with tact and cultural sensitivity. They didn’t, and in turn, that has impacted badly upon not only Ghost in the Shell, but any possible future anime remakes, too.