It’s becoming harder and harder to defend whitewashed casting by claiming that a well-known movie star helps a movie’s chances at the box office. Ghost in the Shell, the live-action remake of the 1995 anime movie of the same name, took home a disappointing $19 million at the domestic box office over its opening weekend. Now, the studio is conceding that the controversy over casting Scarlett Johansson as a character who is Japanese in both name and appearance played a role in the film’s dismal showing.
“We had hopes for better results domestically,” Kyle Davies, Paramount’s domestic distribution chief, told CBC News. “I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews.” Those reviews were certainly not glowing—the film currently holds a measly 45 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and many critics did acknowledge the whitewashing controversy in some way. Ghost in the Shell didn’t do itself any favors by working in a bizarre, apparently self-aware twist ending, which tried to make the racially insensitive casting part of the plot.
As Davies tells it, in casting Johannsson, the studio had to balance between “honoring the source material” (as in, casting a lesser-known Japanese actress to play a Japanese role) and “[making] a movie for a mass audience” (as in, casting a bankable and thus white movie star). “That’s challenging, but clearly the reviews didn’t help.”
It would be disingenuous to suggest that whitewashing was the only factor contributing to Ghost in the Shell’s financial underperformance. But even by Davies’ own admission, the casting played a significant role in tanking the movie’s performance by negatively impacting its reviews and thus jeopardizing its mass appeal. And that flies in the face of one of the most common defenses for whitewashing that there is: a need for bankable white actors to ensure a project’s success. Casting a white actor in an Asian role is no guarantee that the film will be profitable—just look at The Great Wall, which, while technically not an example of whitewashing in the traditional sense, was still marketed as a white savior narrative in North America and then took in only $21 million at the domestic box office.
Paramount openly acknowledging that the whitewashing controversy was a liability to Ghost in the Shell is a good sign. It’s unlikely that Hollywood, which is a business, after all, is ever going to change its ways out of the goodness of its heart. But maybe it will do so to protect its bottom line.