Whitewashing controversies are only the start.
Results are in for the box office weekend that was, and there’s a few really interesting things that happened financially over the weekend. The Boss Baby grossed $49 million more than it had any right, proving that America’s love of babies in funny outfits is truly an endless resource. Juggernaut Beauty and the Beast continued to thrive in second place, and is on track to easily make over $500 million domestically. And Power Rangers dropped like a rock in its sophomore frame, especially compared to strong holdovers like Logan, Kong: Skull Island, and (still, amazingly) Get-Out.
But the real talk of the box office this week? It has to go to the performance of Ghost in the Shell, the much buzzed about adaptation of the 1995 anime classic. The film has been put under the microscope in the last few weeks, but apparently all that talk didn’t convert to dollars at the multiplexes. Ranking third for the week and making just $19 million, Ghost in the Shell couldn’t measure up to even the most pessimistic of pre-release tracking. And with such a low opening, the film is going to struggle to even get to $60 million in the U.S. With an estimated cost of $110 million, there’s no other way to phrase it: stateside, at least, Ghost in the Shell is a massive bomb.
And you should’t be surprised by that. Ghost in the Shell has had all the makings of a box office bomb since the first time it was an announced, and the tea leaves of its failure were pretty easy to read. From order of least important factor to most important, here are all the reasons I believe that Ghost in the Shell was destined to bomb.
1) Scarlett Johansson was the only “big” actor — and movie stars can’t sell movies on their own anymore
That has been a rotating phrase peppered through every “why did this movie fail?” analysis in the last few years…but that doesn’t make it any less true. Barring the rare exception, movie stars don’t sell movies anymore, not on the strength of their name alone, at least. Having a movie star will never hurt you, and will often times help you, but it isn’t the only step a film needs to have to turn a profit. Gone are the days where Tom Cruise could be in a movie and that would be enough to get people to see it — his own bombs like Rock of Ages, Edge of Tomorrow, and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back prove that.
But you know what I think CAN sell a movie? A strong ensemble of actors. Because the stock of a single actor is at the lowest its ever been in Hollywood, most films will cram a bunch of them all together in hopes of getting people’s attention. Look at the Fast and Furious series. Look at The Avengers, or Batman v. Superman. Most films need to be occupied by more than ONE notable name, and Ghost in the Shell frankly fails that.
Which isn’t a slight against Johansson, or even the supporting cast. Without Johansson, the film would have opened even lower, and even the most stacked of supporting casts can led to a box office bomb. But all I know is that I often have to sell movies to friends and family by one famous question: “who is in it?” And in the case of Ghost in the Shell, my answer would be “Scarlett Johansson and, um, well…the guy who played Mason Verger in Hannibal. No, not in Season 3, in Season 2…yes, before he fed his face to dogs.” All I’m saying is that even Lucy, a film primarily sold as a Scarlett Johannson vehicle (and rightly so), featured acting icon Morgan Freeman, and was not afraid to use him liberally in the marketing. There is no actor of Freeman’s stature in Ghost in the Shell, and the film probably could have used it to fill out the bench.
Of course, the obvious rebuttal to all this is that the supporting cast is made up pretty much entirely of Asian people, a decision I am honestly pretty mixed about. It’s great that the whole film isn’t entirely white people going on anime adventures, but doesn’t the Asian cast surrounding famous white person Scarlett Johannson stick out like a sore thumb? Doesn’t it make the whitewashing even more obvious? Also, the majority of the supporting cast being Asian would have been fine box-office wise if we had bigger Asian American stars in Hollywood, but that’s a whole other issue for another, less box office focused article. Let’s just say Hollywood has an institutionalized problem that will take some fundamental changes at the core of the system to fix, and leave it at that.
BUT NOT REALLY, because my next point pretty much goes hand in hand with that last part.
2) The whitewashing controversy tainted the film
Yes, this is only number two on this list, simply because most general audiences probably have little idea about the online outrage that has dominated conversation around the movie for us here in the virtual world. I’m not saying it wasn’t a contributing factor to Ghost in the Shell’s failure (it certainly was), but even if the controversy had never existed, and an Asian woman had played the main character instead of Scarlett Johansson, here’s the truth — the film probably wouldn’t have done much better, at least from a box office standpoint. As the other points on this list will address, the film had grander problems in terms of breaking into the mainstream than the race of its main character.
All that being said…the whitewashing debate certainly didn’t help the film along. It was terrible PR, and it made the conversation around the film always skew negative from the get-go. Wired posted an article earlier today claiming that the film never had a chance due to the controversy that surrounded it, and while I think they might give the internet backlash a little too much credit, you also can’t deny that the film was never allowed to be anything BUT a whitewashed anime adaptation. And no matter how many ads Paramount threw at the controversy, they could never outrun it, primarily because…
3) The marketing promised a pretty, but empty experience
Ultimately, I would say the ads for Ghost in the Shell weren’t terrible — they were well edited and memorable enough, with some cool looking shots and effects thrown in for good measure. But what the trailer did so wrong was what so many trailers are guilty of doing nowadays: they don’t actually say what the movie is about. Because, as much as I follow film news and marketing (which is to say a lot), I honestly had no idea what the story of Ghost in the Shell was.
I knew the broad strokes, sure: Scarlett Johansson plays a robot of some sort, and she was investigating…something. Cut to a million shots of slow-mo action scenes, set across a future backdrop. Ghost in the Shell, everyone: as far as the trailers told me, it was a movie about a robot who moves slowly in the future.
It must be a difficult task for trailer creators to strike a good balance between telling too much and not telling enough, but that doesn’t excuse the vagueness that peppered the entirety of GitS’s marketing campaign. Believe it or not, people sometimes need more than promises of pretty visuals to get them into the theater. From the trailers, there was no compelling reason why I NEEDED to see Ghost in the Shell, and if the box office receipts are any indication, the majority of audiences agreed with me.
4) The buzz surrounding the actual film wasn’t strong enough to overwhelm the shortcomings
For a cinephile like myself, this is the deciding faster. I’ll excuse a not very exciting cast for the hope that some unknowns could end up surprising me. I’ll chalk up the vague trailers to marketing not knowing how to sell such a distinct, special film. Hell, I’m even the kind of guy who can power through the taint of a racebending controversy if the finished product itself meets me halfway a little, and convinces me that the whole thing was simply overblown. But Ghost in the Shell, unfortunately, did none of those things.
Yeah, the reviews might not be the worst in the world, but they were still pretty flaccid. And a lot of the film critics and journalists whose opinion I trust pretty much hated the film, leaving me left with the decision that paying $10 to see the movie would be a waste of money and time. And I’m a sci-fi fan who has watched a lot of anime — in theory I’m your target audience here, Paramount, and if the film was actually good, I still would have went to see it, all other niggles be damned. But word-of-mouth said the movie wasn’t good, and that convinced me right way that seeing it in theaters wasn’t worth it. You can bet there are tens of thousands of others that also came to this conclusion.
Yes, bad buzz can kill a film — unless it’s already a well-established, well-liked brand. Which is easily where Ghost in the Shell made the biggest mistake.
5) The Ghost in the Shell franchise isn’t big enough to support a blockbuster franchise (not on its own, at least)
This was the tantamount mistake that happened with the creation of the film: studio executives convinced themselves that there was a large enough “brand awareness” for Ghost in the Shell that they could rely on it solely for success. Like has been the case for video game movies time and time again, Hollywood convinced themselves that they could call upon a niche market, make a movie for said niche market, and suddenly have a massive blockbuster on their hands. It worked for comic book movies, after all, so why not anime?
That’s the kind of hubris that many studios have fallen under in this franchise-heavy cinematic landscape, and one that they will continue to fall for again and again. Paramount was hoping that they could rely on the brand name of Ghost in the Shell to get people to watch the movie, even IF the cast wasn’t that well known, and the whitewashing controversy made people mad, and the trailers didn’t really say what the movie was really about, and the pre-release buzz around the entire project was pretty poor — none of that would matter if the brand brought people in. Once again, just look at the release of last week’s Power Rangers — pretty much everything I just wrote about Ghost in the Shell can be applied to that film as well (minus the whitewashing controversy, I suppose). But that movie opened over double this one, because there’s a huge swath of cultural currency to the Power Rangers brand.
Ghost in the Shell has a following, but it’s not a BLOCKBUSTER following, which meant that most of the audience needed to get the film over $100 million would probably be seeing it as an original thing. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say all of my previous reasons for the film’s failure didn’t exist. Lets say the film had an excellent cast, had no whitewashing controversies to speak of, released a ton of captivating trailers, and received widespread critical acclaim across the board. Would the movie, a crazy hard sci-fi actioneer not based on anything, be able to make $150 million in the current Hollywood climate?
The answer to that last question is so depressing, I don’t think I even want to write it out.