Kyle Davies, Paramount’s domestic distribution chief, had this to say about Ghost in the Shell, which white-washed its lead role and failed at the box office: “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 honoring the source material and [making] a movie for a mass audience.”
This quote is everything that is wrong with the people (mostly white guys,) running Hollywood. 1) First off, calling the fans of this long-running franchise “fanboys” — this reflects the demographically incorrect belief that the fans for SFF and in particular for Japanese manga/anime are mainly young white males, and that those white males are interested in the material only for the sexy babes, so you have to have a sexy actress. In actuality, the majority of western fans for manga and much of anime tend to be young women and female teens and have been for over twenty years. There is a huge number of Asians and non-whites in the West who are big anime fans. And white male fans are actually usually more interested in the action sequences, noir violence and special effects than they are in sexy women. Paramount literally had no idea who their audiences was, in the East or the West. They cared nothing for the source material that was giving them that audience. They engaged in rampant sexism on a feminist-positive franchise, and it helped tanked their film.
2) The belief that the source material — Japanese Asian anime/manga — could not have “mass appeal” in the West if fully honored. Anime/manga has been huge in the West, a mainstream phenomena particularly with young people for well over thirty years. Some of the biggest global franchises, including merchandising and fashion, are from anime and manga. And yet, because most of it is created from East Asia, and because Hollywood is convinced the global and particularly U.S. audiences are rabid bigots, Hollywood continues to pretend, ignoring actual statistical numbers, that “Asian” material cannot sell unless you place a white, preferably American or American-sounding actor at the center.
Only with a white lead does Hollywood believe a film has “mass appeal.” It is a fairy tale based on the fact that working with a white actor, particularly a male one, boosts the social status of executives in the industry and their financial backers. It’s a drug they don’t easily give up, and instead blame the audience — the “masses” are bigots and must be cosseted to supposedly lower the risk. And yet, no matter how many flops this idea currently produces, they refuse to change the bigoted narrative. No matter how many movies do really well without white leads or white-washing, they refuse to change the bigoted narrative. It’s not about money, but fear of power shifts and an inability to believe that all white people don’t want only stories of whiteness, whatever the cultural source material, and a belief that non-white audiences are small and niche and unimportant. Because that’s the world they were taught and think should stay in place, even if it’s not real.
Dr. Strange from Marvel succeeded but benefited from only white-washing a supporting character and mainly from being part of the Marvel-Avengers franchise that places puzzle clues to the bigger overall story in each of its movies, encouraging people to keep up with all of them. But most big action movies don’t have those incentives. The Last Airbender, Gods of Egypt, etc. have not fared well.
Kyle Davies is a clueless, mediocre, incompetent white guy who if not for systemic institutionalized bigotry, would be out of a job for that quote alone. Throwing up one’s hands and murmuring that they were forced to make changes to white-wash is a lie. It’s always been a lie, and most of the time now, it’s going to fail. And that goes as well for the folks at Marvel who played the same game recently about their comic books. They’ve been strategic in their roll-outs, but individual films can still start failing if they don’t get a lot smarter.
This thinking is dinosaur thinking. It’s poor marketing and stagnated vision. If you are in any kind of industry, and you start spouting this same kind of drivel about mass or mainstream appeal of products, by which you mean supposed white people appeal, you’re wearing your prejudices on your sleeve and no amount of hand waving is going to spare you. So stop acting so surprised or pretending to be exasperated when you get angry push-back. We know what “mass appeal” means — and there’s nothing appealing to the masses in it.