Hollywood movies

Whitewashing ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and Other Hollywood Movies Isn’t Just Offensive, It’s Bad Business – Quartz

The $110 Million Live-Action Remake of the Anime Classic ghost in the shell is now on the verge of disappearing from theaters. After a horrific opening of US$19 million, the film’s box office saw a steep drop of 72% in its second weekend of release. Some predict the film could end up losing over $60 million for its studio, Paramount. It could also be a career setback for its star, Scarlett Johansson, who first established her action icon cred as Catsuit Black Widow in Marvel’s on-screen superhero universe.

So who is to blame for the box office bomb? An analysis by Quartz suggests the film was likely doomed from the moment it cast Johansson as ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ – despite vehement objections from Asian American media activists and fans of the original source material. According to my survey of half a century of major studio films that cast white actors in roles originally imagined as characters of color, the phenomenon is strongly associated with box office disaster.

In particular, over the past decade there have been 18 major studio releases that highlight a “racially dysmorphic” cast, starting in 2008 21 (which reimagined a team of mostly Asian-American blackjack players as white characters played by Jim Sturgess, Jacob Pitts, and Kevin Spacey), to last year strange doctor (starring Tilda Swinton as a former white woman) and gods of egypt (with Gerard Butler as Set, an Egyptian god passing through Scotland), until this year ghost in the shell. (For the purposes of this analysis, only films featuring white performers in culturally inexplicable settings or depictions, or designed to appear non-white through cosmetics, were included, not remakes that effectively shift the narrative into a new setting or situation.)

Of these 18 films, only six were profitable. Among the most profitable, only three—21, strange doctor and Star Trek: Into the Darkness (with Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonian Singh) – could be ranked hits. But even given these successes, the 18 films will have collectively lost nearly half a billion dollars for their studios, which is production and marketing expenses – a staggering amount, even in today’s Hollywood economy.

(Note on my calculations: the general rule for Hollywood films is that total costs are double the production budget, including marketing. Profit margins below include estimated marketing costs; box office and budgets come from Box Office Mojo and The Numbers. .)

So what accounts for this epic failure of films that feature “whitewashing” and “cosmetic racism” (e.g., yellow face, brown face, and black face)? There are several reasons why these films tend to fail.

The first explanation is the simplest: Audiences are increasingly rejecting whitewashed films. In the age of social media, race-related controversy tends to generate a widespread viral response. A quick analysis shows that in the two weeks preceding ghost in the shell, there were almost 35,000 posts on the subject of “whitening” on social networks, generating more than 680,000 reposts and replies; these posts were five times more likely to attack the phenomenon than to defend it. Paramount admits that the negative buzz helped shape critical opinion of the film, and potential ticket buyers were unquestionably driven away as a result.

Then there is the fact that Casting white actors in non-white roles presents significant narrative challenges. Some films offer dubious vanities in order to make minority roles suitable for white actors. ghost in the shellThe strange plot twist reveals that “Major Mira Killian” is the brain of runaway Japanese teenager Motoko Kusanagi, planted in a Caucasian robot shell. Others simply refuse to explain racial asynchrony – as in 2015 Aloha did in the cast of Emma Stone as “Allison Ng” in part Chinese and last year strange doctor made with Tilda Swinton. Still others use prosthetics and makeup in an effort to change the features of white performers, invariably with horrific results. Joel Gray’s yellowish, elvish appearance as martial arts master Chiun in the 1986 action film Remo Williams is the fuel for nightmares (Grey was nominated for a Golden Globe for the role!). And the least said about Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess’ Spock-from-Hell yellowface appearance in 2012 cloud atlas, the best. This dissonance comes at a cost, making it harder for audiences to suspend disbelief and derailing the authenticity of the cinematic narrative.

Finally, whitewashed films tend to be extremely expensive. There’s a direct relationship between big-budget films and whitewashed roles: studios generally believe that, with a few exceptions (like, say, Will Smith), only white actors can reliably “open” a blockbuster. Film sets featuring white actors playing non-white roles are also typically exotic vistas or elaborately imagined futuristic societies, requiring expensive filming or heavy use of CGI.

Yet despite clear evidence that whitewashing doesn’t work, studios continue to make the same mistake year after year. In fact, since the 1960s, the number of racially dysmorphic major studio films has steadily increased, from six in the 1960s and 1970s, to 10 in the 1980s and 1990s, to 18 so far in the years 2000 and 2010.

The exercise may have been reasonable (although still ethically questionable) half a century ago. The six films counted during the Civil Rights era generated, on average, more than 150% of their costs in net profits. But the 10 films released in the era of multiculturalism only brought in 13%. And the 18 released in our current “post-racial” era have on average lost 10% of their budget.

Upcoming projects like Netflix’s mostly white live-action remake of the wildly popular manga series Death threatand Warner Brothers’ long-discussed live-action remake of another anime classic Akiramake it clear that whitewashed narratives aren’t going away anytime soon.

It’s a shame, because all the evidence suggests that the cycle – in which big-budget films seek out big-name (white) stars – is easily broken. get outJordan Peele’s brilliant $4.5 million horror film starring relatively obscure black actor Daniel Kaluuya, could become the highest-grossing film of a generation, having grossed $186.3 million in the world to date. The fate of the furiousdirected by veteran African American filmmaker F. Gary Gray and featuring a multiracial cast, just opened with the biggest weekend box office take in history.

Meanwhile, Asian Americans now spend the most per capita on movie tickets of any demographic group in the United States, followed closely by blacks and Hispanics. (People of color bought 55% of all tickets for the last Fast and Furious release!) And Chinese box office revenues are expected to surpass those of the United States for the first time in 2017. The future of the film industry lies with non-white audiences. Isn’t it time for Hollywood studios to stop biting the hand that feeds them?