– by Joseph Jammer Medina

The CBC has a story up about executives at Paramount responding to the weak box office results of the new Scarlett Johansson movie Ghost In The Shell. Based on the insanely popular manga series, the film stars Scarlett as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg counter-terrorisim operative.

The main controversy the film faced was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the main character. Fans of the series argued that her casting was another case of Hollywood white washing, taking a character that should have gone to a minority actor and filling it with a white actor. The studio would argue that the actress in this case, Scarlett Johansson, is a much more bankable star and had the ability to get the film seen by many more people. Making a movie that would placate just the hardcore fans of the series would not make this a potential franchise. Kyle Davies from Paramount Pictures had this to say.

“We had hopes for better results domestically. I think the conversation regarding casting impacted the reviews,” said Kyle Davies, domestic distribution chief for Paramount.

“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.”

Making the assumption that people avoided a movie based only on the bad publicity is wrong. That’s not to say it wasn’t a factor, but that fails to take into account the fact that folks may simply have not been interested in seeing a movie that visually was not too far off the source material, casting not withstanding. Anime and manga are extremely popular yet in America it’s not something that has hit the mainstream just yet. You either have folks that will really love the material or folks that can’t stand it. Add to that the fact that manga and anime have different rhythms for story telling that mainstream American audiences aren’t up to speed with and frankly, I feel you have a movie that was going to be a hard sell no matter who starred in it.

But let’s talk about the casting a bit. Was it right for the studio to cast a white woman and not take the time to find an Asian woman to fill the role? As mentioned in the article, Rob Chan, President of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans in the US, admitted that while casting an Asian in the Major role would have been a riskier move for the studio, he pointed out that…

“Asian actors needs roles like this if they’re going to become box office stars.”

Frankly, it’s a Catch 22. I would be the first to agree that Hollywood is behind the times when it comes to casting their movies. I think of a Chris Rock quote I remember from an interview he gave years ago.

“David Spade is a friend of mine. I think David Spade is a very funny man. But if I were as funny as David Spade, I would be unemployed.”

Minority actors have to be head and shoulders above their caucasian counter parts if they want to be considered for a role in Hollywood. That is a fact. Yet when Hollywood does try to go outside the box for casting, such as when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in the horrendous Josh Trank disaster Fantastic Four, people were up in arms that he was cast in a traditionally white role. (For my money, he was one of the few bright spots of that horrible film. He seemed to be the only one that actually understood the source material.)

People have their own preconceived notions as to how they want the characters they love to look. If Hollywood steps too far outside the box, people will react with a vengeance. It happened to Daniel Craig when he took on the role of James Bond in Casino Royale. He didn’t have black hair like Bond in the novels did. There were petitions to boycott the movie or to have him removedfrom the cast. Yet once people actually took the time to see the end results, they appreciated the effort he put into the role. No, he didn’t LOOK like the description Ian Fleming originally gave the character. But man, at the end of Casino Royale, he WAS James Bond.

When it comes to Ghost In The Shell, I get why Paramount cast Scarlett Johansson. People ARE more likely to give an unknown property the time of day if a known actor is associated with the project. Yet in this case, I do feel that the character in Ghost In The Shell is so identified with Asian culture that more effort should have been done to find an Asian lead for the film. That’s just my two cents. Take it for what you will. To me, it would be comparable if Jason Statham were cast as Luke Cage. (Though perversely, I’d still pay to see that.) Some characters are identified by their race which is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet some I feel, like Johnny Storm, are fair game for a shake up.

So what do you think? Is Paramount using the controversy to hide behind the fact that they made a bad film? Do you think they should have made more of an effort to cast the main character with an Asian actor? What does Hollywood need to do to open the doors for more minority actors to get starring roles in big movies? Sound off in the comments below.

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Joseph Jammer Medina is an author, podcaster, and editor-in-chief of LRM. A graduate of Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Television, Jammer's always had a craving for stories. From movies, television, and web content to books, anime, and manga, he's always been something of a story junkie.