Box Office Round Up – March 31 – April 2, 2017

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures in theaters March 31, 2017.

Get behind the numbers of last week’s box office! This week, Chris Neumer investigates why upsetting your built in audience in favor of people who don’t like your franchise yet is not the way to go. Ghost in the Shell take note!

by Chris Neumer

One thing I find fascinating is that when you learn other people’s passwords to things, they almost always make sense. I was spending the night at a friend’s house recently and his wifi password was the first names of his wife and two kids. Of course it was!   It made perfect sense! For a split second, I debated about whether I should mention that it was an easy password to guess.

…However, then I realized, had I been trying to crack it, it would have taken me forever to do so. Even if I’d thought of that (obvious) combination, I don’t think I’d have had the forethought to try the three names in different orders to get the correct password. It would also have required me to know how to spell his wife’s interpretation of the name ‘Amy’, but I digress.

I feel very similarly to this when I look at the box office estimates on Sundays and see that films like Ghost in the Shell opened to numbers like $19 million. Of course it did! It made perfect sense! For a split second, I debated about emailing a couple of studio executives that I know that they should stop trying to adapt live-action films from anime titles.

It isn’t done often—by my count there were two previous live-action, studio adaptations of anime films—but when it’s done, they flop and flop hard. The ignominious duo is Spike Lee’s Oldboy and The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Add in Ghost in the Shell and you’re looking at a pile of cinema that repels audiences while attracting flies. Total combined budgets of the three? $260 million. Total combined opening weekend takes? $39 million.

Gulp.*

* Also interesting is that, while looking up Speed Racer’s budget, I learned that the Wachowskis are now both women. Somehow I missed this in March of 2016.

This is a small sample size to be sure, but it also makes perfect sense. Anime carries with it a certain stigma in American society. It’s a combination of desperation and patheticness that was previously reserved for Star Trek fans in the 1985 and online film bloggers in 2002. Suffice it to say, Kate Upton is not out there on weekends posting on Instagram about her intense love of anime.

….However, therein lies the rub. Ghost in the Shell was greenlit and given a reported $110 million budget because of the enormous popularity of the original anime. It had a huge built in fanbase! But, to capitalize on its investment, Paramount had to draw in new viewers… which meant not ever mentioning in marketing that the film was based on anime source material. (Trailer one, Trailer two).

It brings up an interesting philosophical question: what good is a built in fan base if you have to ignore it in your wide-scale marketing campaign?

One of the other issues with Hollywood adapting anime films and series’ into movies is the white-washing that occurs with the casting. Whenever any material from Asia is remade, the first thing the studios do is turn the lead into someone that (they believe) will draw in audience members. Good bye Motoko Kusanagi, hello Mira Killion, as played by Scarlett Johannson.

This move upsets the fans of the original, the same way that casting an Asian Han Solo in his prequels would anger American Star Wars fans. It’s not racist, but in our charged society it certainly can be viewed through that lens if you want it to be.*

* Racist would be arguing that Roger Murtaugh should be white in the Lethal Weapon TV series. Roger Murtaugh is black (and too old for this shit).

So, in summary, Ghost in the Shell’s production pissed off the property’s true fans for about five different reasons and did so in order to appeal to another audience that never materialized. And thus, a $19 million opening.

What’s probably most interesting about this situation to me is that Hollywood has a glut of big budget movies adapted from anime titles/series’ coming out in the next two years. Netflix is releasing Death Note in August. Something worth noting: the lead’s name changed from Light Yagami to Light Turner for this adaptation. This sparked such an outcry amongst fans of the original that almost 16,000 die hard fans signed a petition to boycott the remake. Akira, Beyblade, Bleach and Naruto have all been announced. However, the big daddy of them all is James Cameron’s Alita: Battle Angel.

Cameron is not directing the film, that task has gone to Robert Rodriguez,* but he is producing it with his normal producing partner, Jon Landau. Some power players get credit with producing things that they simply agree to put their names on. Cameron is not one of those people. He gets involved. The only feature that he has produced that he didn’t direct is 1995’s Strange Days… and that has long been rumored to be a contractual part of his divorce from Kathryn Bigelow (Cameron was also an executive producer on Bigelow’s Point Break).

* I think it’s fascinating to consider that Rodriguez, who is best known for making movies with no budget, is going to be working with Cameron, who is best known for making movies with all the budgets. Prior to Alita: Battle Angel, Rodriguez’s biggest budget was Sin City 2’s $65 million. Alita: Battle Angel is reported to have a $200 million budget. That’s… something.

Cameron is a different beast. He always has been. And I’ve written before that you should never cite his films as gospel or include them in any box office conversation because they are outliers… Why that is, I’m not sure, but it has always held true.

Alita: Battle Angel makes this interesting, because it’s a Cameron vehicle (ish) and it possesses all the usual adapted-from-anime short comings: a non-Asian lead and the anime stigma. Interestingly, Alita: Battle Angel’s lead is Rosa Salazar… who, ignore the name, is considered an American actress, even though she was born in Canada and is occasionally referred to as “Cuban American”. Also interesting, the lead in Alita: Battle Angel is a female, ass-kicking cyborg.

So I have no idea what will come of that other than a semantic discussion about whether casting a woman of color in place of an Asian character is considered ‘white-washing’ or whether it marks social progress. Suffice it to say, the only people who might have had a worse weekend than the producers of Ghost in the Shell were the producers of Alita: Battle Angel.

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