Box Office Round Up – April 9 – April 11, 2017


Get behind the numbers of last week’s box office! This week, Chris Neumer investigates the oft unseen pros of whitewashing your Asian lead and why studio executives continue to put their personal gains ahead of the moral victory of doing the right thing.

by Chris Neumer

One of life’s true ironies is that common sense and rationality often have nothing to do with good business sense. The politics and behind-the-scenes machinations of the matter might actually encourage corporate executives to act in a way that isn’t in their companies best financial interest.

When news of this sort gets out, the country is outraged!  Exclamation point! It cannot be tolerated! And then something else comes up, the masses get distracted and the practices continue. In matters of national government, the practices are often condemned by one political party when they are the minority and then championed when they are in power.

The trick to living a fulfilling and relatively outrage-free life is to understand how these things work. For example, in 2016, Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to as a Supreme Court judge to fill the spot that had opened by the passing of Antonin Scalia. The Republicans then refused to even allow a vote on him. They said that this was because Obama was in his last year of office. They said that this was because the people deserved to have their voices heard by someone they elected recently. They said lots of things.

What the Republicans meant was: we’re going to do everything possible to get someone we want on the Supreme Court. Oh, the Republicans were terrible! The Republicans awful! The Republicans were playing partisan politics!

And the Democrats had made the exact same argument in 1992. The only difference was their attempt was unsuccessful.  In a weird way, that seems to be the major split between the two parties; both do untoward, unethical things, only the Republicans gain from the acts.

Last week, Paramount franchise-hopeful, Ghost in the Shell, was released and landed with a thud that is normally reserved for meteors hitting the remote wilds of Siberia. It opened to roughly $20 million on a $110 million budget.

In the immediate aftermath of the opening weekend fiasco, Paramount trotted it its domestic distribution chief, Kyle Davies, to speak with the media. In an interview with CBC News, Davies said:

“We [Paramount] 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 honouring the source material and make a movie for a mass audience. That’s challenging, but clearly the reviews didn’t help.” 

Those were his comments in their entirety.

And the internet erupted in a fit of moral pique. “Studio Admits Ghost in the Shell Whitewashing was a Mistake” read one headline; “Paramount Says ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Flopped Because of Whitewashing Controversy” read another. Interestingly, the one take away that no one seemed to have was the one that I had: save for the lack of box office returns, Paramount couldn’t have been happier with the way this all unfolded.

In filmmaking, there is a concept that director Alfred Hitchcock popularized called the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is basically an object (or concept) that the filmmakers need to get their script moving forward. The maltese falcon in the film of the same name is probably the most famous example of a MacGuffin. It’s a thing that everyone is looking for that does nothing but serve as a goal.

For Paramount, I think the whitewashing controversy served as their situation’s perfect MacGuffin. They wanted—needed!—something out there that would help explain that they weren’t incompetent at filmmaking; that notion would be bad for business. So, rather than come out and say, “Hey, we made a terrible film that cared more about attracting new audiences rather than satisfying the hard core fans,” Davies faced the media and said that he thought that the controversy behind the casting of Scarlet Johansson in the lead caused the reviews to be bad.

It was perfect! It deflected any and all blame for the stink of Ghost in the Shell’s failure off of Paramount and onto the whitewashing or critics… even though Paramount is the only party actually responsible for the mess of a film they released.

In this sense, the whitewashing of the lead serves a very similar role to the casting of Ben Affleck. If the movie does well, no one says anything. If the movie flops, the studio can simply blame Affleck. Either way, the studio does not come off as inept or stupid… unless you contend that casting Affleck was stupid, but, as discussed earlier, that’s the whole point of casting Affleck!

Because you can improve your racial tolerance simply by casting an Asian person in a leading role and you can improve your commitment to equality by decreeing on a company wide level that women and minorities be hired. You cannot, however, convince the American public that you are smart with one move after a huge bit of idiocy. Dan Quayle is still trying to live down ‘potatoe’.

After Davies spoke with the media, everyone became focused on broader issues of casting choices, issues of racial interpretation* and what responsibility a company has to original source material. Absolutely no one focused on the fact that Ghost in the Shell completely sucked and that, as I pointed out last week, Paramount had pushed away the diehard fans of the original source material in an attempt to attract new audiences that ultimately never materialized. It was the perfect example of someone thinking that one bird in the bush was worth two in the hand… and the media decided to delve into why it’s important for robots to have a specific race.

Davies couldn’t have done any better for the company if he had a magic wand.

The trick, going forward, will be to get journalists to realize that Paramount’s ‘acknowledging that the whitewashing controversy was a liability to Ghost in the shell is a good sign’, might not be the good sign that they think it is.


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