The live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson has been under fire since the actress was cast for whitewashing a character from a Japanese manga, and the criticism has skewed press coverage of the movie to the negative. It seems like every outlet on the planet, including traditional media outlets like newspapers, has run at least one article about the topic. The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, USA Today, and dozens of other outlets have published stories about the controversy in the last week alone, with "whitewashing" in the headline. Could this negative publicity have an effect on the movie's box office?
Historically, conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that social media furor tends not to have an affect on the box office of major releases, or at least, there's yet to be any concrete evidence that it has one. Doctor Strange, for instance, released just last year, made almost $700 million dollars despite casting a white woman in a role traditionally held by an Asian man, a topic which was covered widely on the internet. After all, the main reason Hollywood whitewashes films in the first place is because they think it will cause the film to make more money, not less. But could Ghost in the Shell be the first movie to change Hollywood's mind?
The movie is just hitting theaters this weekend, the numbers aren't in yet, and there are a lot of other factors that could affect the movie's performance. It's going up against the third week of Disney's juggernaut Beauty and the Beast, as well as the opening of another animated family film, Boss Baby, though those films are most likely to directly compete with each other. The release schedule has been known for some time, and the success of Beauty and the Beast isn't a surprise, but even still, early projections for Ghost in the Shell as recently as two months ago predicted that the film could see a $40 million or higher opening weekend. Now, the movie is projected to open at just $25 million by most industry insiders and analysts, including websites like Variety, Box Office Mojo, and BoxOffice.com. Could it be a general negative perception of the film, spurred on by a zeitgeist that's fed up with Hollywood whitewashing, driving those numbers downward?
A $25 million opening could place Ghost in the Shell in third place behind both Beauty and the Beast and Boss Baby, which would be disappointing for Paramount. Worse, the movie could fail to make back its $110 million pre-advertising budget at the domestic box office, though global earnings could save the film from total disaster. Of course, projections could be wrong and the film could also surprise everyone and win the weekend, though that's probably unlikely at this late stage. In all likelihood, this attempted blockbuster featuring major star Scarlett Johansson adapting a cult favorite geek property in a climate that loves adaptations of cult favorite geek properties will seriously underperform amidst widespread, highly visible complaints about whitewashing. It's worth considering at least the possibility that we've reached a turning point where this sort of thing does have a real and measurable effect on earnings, which would also mean we've reached a point where Hollywood has motivation to listen to those complaints.
It may be some time before the type of data required to prove a claim like that is available, but when looking back, the release, and subsequent failure of Ghost in the Shell this weekend could turn out to be a pivotal moment in film history.
Or, it could be just another bomb. Only time will tell.
This will probably require multiple updates throughout the weekend, so stay tuned to Bleeding Cool for all your box office and virtually unprovable claim needs.