'Ghost in the Shell': How a Complex Concept, "Whitewashing" and Critics Kept Crowds Away

Dogged by controversy since the production was first announced, Ghost in the Shell, the futuristic action pic released over the weekend by Paramount, ultimately didn't create much of a stir at the box office. Its notoriety — both among fans of the original Japanese manga on which it was based and among those who argued an Asian star should have been cast in the central role — may have raised its profile only to make it a more tempting target for demanding critics who appear to have sealed its fate.

Opening in 3,440 locations, the movie, starring Scarlett Johansson as a cyber-warrior determined to discover the truth about her own life, pulled in just $19 million domestically — ranking third on the weekend. It was easily overshadowed by the $49 million debut of Fox/DreamWorks Animation's The Boss Baby and the third frame of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which took in another $47.5 million.

"Ghost in the Shell suffered from tough reviews, an unfamiliarity of North American audiences with the source material, a so-called 'whitewashing' controversy that may have had an effect — though it's almost impossible to quantify that effect empirically — and a very crowded and competitive marketplace that has taken down almost as many films as it has boosted to unprecedented heights," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for ComScore.

Internationally, where Ghost opened in 53 territories, it did somewhat better. Ranking second on the weekend, the pic collected $40.1 million and was No. 1 in 11 markets, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. The film, directed by Rupert Sanders (handling his first movie since 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman), is set to open in Japan and China on Friday, and given its performance in Hong Kong, it could make up some ground there. But, produced on a budget of $110 million by Paramount, DreamWorks and Reliance, Ghost now looks as if it will end up in the losing column.

In North America, the audience for the film was dominated by older males — men comprised 61 percent of the opening-weekend crowd, and 76 percent of the audience was over 25. The film played better in cities than rural areas, and it attracted a relatively upscale crowd. Forty-four percent of the audience opted to see the movie in 3D, and Imax theaters accounted for 15 percent of the opening-weekend take. All of which suggests the movie may have captured some of the longtime fanboys, familiar with the manga series by Masamune Shirow, which first appeared in 1989, and the various animated films, TV adaptations and videogames it spawned. But Ghost failed to reach out to a wider audience.

"I think in the end we did an OK job with the fan base, many of them came out," says Megan Colligan, Paramount president of worldwide distribution and marketing. "But this movie wasn't allowed to just be a movie."

The casting controversy that erupted in 2014 set the stage. When Johansson — who'd proven herself an action star in the Avengers movie as well as her solo turn in 2014's Lucy, which bowed to $43.9 million — was cast, there was an immediate outcry because an Asian or Asian-American actress hadn't been cast to play a character who was Japanese in the original, even if her identity involves a brain implanted in a cyborg's body. While groups like the Media Action Network for Asian Americans were among the first to object, others took up the cause: A Care2 petition authored by Julie Rodriguez, calling for the part to be recast, attracted more than 100,000 signatures.

Not everyone objected. Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division of Kodansha, the manga's publisher, told The Hollywood Reporter, "Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place." He added, "This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world." Mamoru Oshii, director of the original 1995 Japanese animated film, also endorsed the choice.

But Guy Aoki, MANAA founding president, responded, "Many in Japan have been so brainwashed by Western culture that they've developed an inferiority complex about their own. They assume that in order for an American film to be successful, it has to star a white actor. Tell that to Zhang Yimou, who spent $150 million directing The Great Wall starring Matt Damon only to see it flop worldwide and receive terrible reviews. He's not going to make his money back."

As the movie approached its release, Paramount hoped to move beyond the controversy and attract a larger audience for the film. The studio staged a big event in Japan to launch the trailer in November; it booked a Ghost spot during the Super Bowl preshow (watch the ad, above); and it created a stunt where it appeared to hack into the season finale of Mr. Robot by airing five-second ads which approximated the "glitches" that Johansson's character experiences in the film. Says Colligan, "We did a lot to try to capture a relatively complex idea," the fact that the main character has both a robotic body and a hacked brain.

While there was no hiding Johansson's casting, the studio also attempted to convince longtime fans that the movie would be true to the original manga. "I don't think that group is large, but it's a rabid, complex audience to deal with," says Colligan. "With every TV spot, every trailer, you have to be thinking of those fans. But even if you convince them, that's not enough to open the movie."

The initial casting controversy never quite died down, though. "What Hollywood needs to understand," Aoki tells THR, "this is not like when Hollywood announces Michael Keaton is the new Batman or Daniel Craig is the new Bond. There was a big uproar, but the actors were able to turn them around with their approaches to the roles. But you can't change the ethnicity of an actor, and when a white actor is cast in a role that should have gone to an Asian or Asian-American, it's not just Asian-Americans who have a vested interest who are upset, but other fair-minded people as well as fans of the original anime. You can't get away with casting a white actor and think people will eventually warm up. There was a lot of social media talk, after the Super Bowl ad, for example, and a lot of it was negative. People whose first impression was, 'I love Scarlett Johansson, she kicks ass,' may have started looking at it and thinking, 'Maybe I shouldn't support this.'"

Some recent films, like Marvel's Doctor Strange, have faced similar whitewashing controversies and withstood them, but that would not be the case with Ghost. "We got caught up in the controversy," says Colligan. "But while there was some percentage of the audience that was affected by the controversy, I don't think it was a large percentage. But I think it affected the way critics saw the movie."

And critics weren't inclined to give the film a free pass. Paramount could tell by the Google searches it was monitoring that in the final week before the film opened, potential moviegoers were checking out reviews before making a decision in higher than usual numbers.

Initially, the film's Rotten Tomatoes score rose as high as 71 percent positive reviews, based on the first enthusiastic fanboy reactions and critiques from Europe. But as the week progressed and more reviews poured in, the movie's score began to plummet, eventually falling to 42 percent. Ghost's tracking, which initially suggested the film might open in the high-$20 million range, and maybe even cross over into low-$30 million territory, hit a wall.

"It was very Rotten Tomatoes-sensitive. Lots of people were seeking out information about the film," says Colligan. "And we got hit pretty hard by the print journalists."

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