Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Does Lucasfilm Have a Management Problem?

Last week news broke that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from the upcoming Star Wars spinoff movie and director Ron Howard had been hired as a replacement. The termination was unusual, as the Han Solo movie had been in production since February. Allegedly, Lord and Miller conflicted with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who had writing credits on The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens. As seen in their 21 Jump Street films and The LEGO Movie, Lord and Miller have a light, funny, and whimsical style that was not in keeping with the established tone of the Star Wars film series.
The firing of Lord and Miller is the latest in a series of tumultuous relationships between Lucasfilm and its directors. Josh Trank had originally been hired to direct a Star Wars film but he was fired after posting Tweets that disparaged 20th Century Fox following the disastrous reboot of Fantastic Four. The making of Rogue One was also subject to behind the scenes drama. The movie was taken away from filmmaker Gareth Edwards (although he retained director credit) and the movie underwent a massive reshoot that retooled the picture under the supervision of Tony Gilroy.

What’s happening at Lucasfilm parallels similar stories coming out of Marvel, both of which are owned by Disney. Edgar Wright left Ant-Man after years of development because Marvel insisted that Wright (who is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood today) suppress his distinct cinematic style. Before that, Patty Jenkins (who helmed Wonder Woman for DC) quit Thor: The Dark World because she could not make the movie she wanted. Similar drama played out behind the scenes of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 2. In fact, the first half of Jon Favreau’s Chef plays like a confessional about his experience making the Iron Man sequel.

Collaborative ventures always involve some conflict but what we are seeing at Lucasfilm, Marvel, and elsewhere is a shift in creative power prompted by the financial realities of the movie business. As studios become ever more invested in long term franchises in which each installment costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make and its success or failure has consequences for the continued viability of the series, it becomes difficult or impossible to allow filmmakers to innovate. Instead, people like Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm and Kevin Feige at Marvel are most interested in establishing, maintaining and protecting the identity of their brands. That makes sense but it comes at the cost of suppressing creativity and innovation.

This begs the question: why hire filmmakers like Phil Lord and Chris Miller who have a distinct directorial voice? In an excellent piece at Variety, Peter Debruge provides an explanation:
On paper, Lord and Miller’s irreverent sensibility seemed like a perfect match for Han Solo, the franchise’s most sardonic character. One has to assume that it was precisely that take Kathy Kennedy and the Star Wars producers wanted when they hired the duo. But this is where modern critics, columnists and the fan community at large fail to understand a fundamental change that is happening at the blockbuster level in Hollywood: These directors are not being chosen to put their personal stamp on these movies. They are being hired to do the opposite, to suppress their identity and act grateful while the producers make all the key creative decisions.

Want to know why [Colin] Trevorrow was picked to direct Jurassic World when his only previous credit was a nifty little sci-fi indie called Safety Not Guaranteed? It’s because he plays well with others, willing to follow exec producer Steven Spielberg’s lead when necessary. Going in to the assignment, Trevorrow had no experience directing complicated action sequences or overseeing massive-budget special effects. He didn’t need it, because those aspects of the movie were delegated to seasoned heads of department, while Trevorrow focused on what he does best: handling the interpersonal chemistry between the lead characters.
Franchise filmmaking is moving toward a management structure that is more like dramatic television shows. On The Sopranos or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, the producer or showrunner oversees the creative and narrative direction of the series. Directors of individual episodes may have their own input but they are primarily hired as journeymen, a skilled craftsman who will complete a project devised by someone else. And television is thriving under this organizational style so clearly it can work.
In the case of Star Wars, it’s worth noting that the producer-led power structure is exactly how films were made under George Lucas. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were officially directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, respectively, but Lucas devised the story and exerted creative control over the productions. Kershner and Marquand were hired to work with the actors, which Lucas famously had little interest in doing.

This puts an interesting wrinkle on the hiring of Ron Howard to complete the Han Solo movie. Howard has admitted to turning down the offer to direct the Star Wars prequels, saying that his 1988 feature Willow was his “least personal” film, as he was expected to execute Lucas’ vision in the same way Kershner and Marquand did for Empire and Jedi. Why he said no to the prequels but yes to the spinoff clearly is not an artistic decision on Howard’s part. Howard is a self-described Star Wars fan and making a film in the series may be less daunting since the bar was lowered by The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. It could also be that Howard needs a hit which a Star Wars film is almost assured to be. Rush and Frost/Nixon were terrific but they didn’t make money and Howard hasn’t had a smash since 2006’s The Da Vinci Code.
Although the producer-based power structure has been successful in television, it does not bode well for Star Wars or for Hollywood filmmaking in general. Vince Gilligan and David Chase are creative people whose primary job is telling stories. These show runners were part of the writing staff and they directed episodes. Kathleen Kennedy and others of the Hollywood executive class are not creative people. They don’t write, act, or direct. They are primarily skilled at making deals and managing budgets and schedules. They are necessary for the machinery of Hollywood but their skill sets are not interchangeable with those of creatives.

A few years ago, David Cronenberg caused a minor dustup when he suggested that comic book films were not art. At that time, Cronenberg’s comments were taken as a slam against Christopher Nolan but he was really criticizing the studio power structure. He said:
Anybody who works in the studio system has got twenty studio people sitting on his head at every moment, and they have no respect, and there's no…it doesn't matter how successful you've been. And obviously Nolan has been very successful. He's got a lot of power, relatively speaking. But he doesn't really have power.
Hollywood moviemaking is a synthesis of art and industrial production. But without the artistry these movies just become fast food. I’m not suggesting that the studios should give filmmakers hundreds of millions of dollars and carte blanche to do whatever they want. Good management requires supervision but it also requires trust. At present it appears that Lucasfilm and others have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

The firing of Lord and Miller, the displacement of Gareth Edwards, and the many creative fallouts at Marvel point to a corporate culture within Disney and its subsidiaries that is hostile to creativity and innovation. And if you think Pixar is going to save them, remember that the animation studio just released Cars 3, following Finding Dory, with The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 on the way. But Disney is not alone. The whole studio system is enraptured by tent pole filmmaking and franchise building whether it is Harry Potter and the DC Extended Universe at Warner Bros., Transformers and Star Trek at Paramount, the Fast and the Furious and the Dark Universe at Universal, or Planet of the Apes and X-Men at Fox.

It may seem strange raising alarm about a company and a franchise that has had two billion dollar movies in as many years. My primary concern here is of artistry and entertainment not commerce. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were acceptable fan service but little else. If Lucasfilm remains stuck in its own nostalgia, retelling the same stories of the same characters in the same style, that’s inevitably going to lead to a creative dead end. And although they are making money now, how long will fans keep shelling out ten dollars for a movie ticket or twenty dollars for a Blu-ray disc of the same old thing? Innovation is risky but it is also the only way to keep Star Wars vital and fresh, inspire the next generation of filmmakers and fans, and create the basis for future remakes.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Movies for Father's Day

Here are a few movie suggestions for Father's Day.

Big Fish (2003)
Dir. Tim Burton

One of the best films of director Tim Burton, a son investigates the fanciful tales of his father while the older man struggles with his health. This is a more complex and mature film than the usual Burton fare.

Father of the Bride (1950/1991)
Dir. Vincente Minnelli / Charles Shyer

The original version of Father of the Bride, starring Spencer Tracy, was released in 1950. A well received remake starring Steve Martin was issued in 1991. Both films tell the story of the emotional and financial woes of a father whose daughter is getting married.

Field of Dreams (1989)
Dir. Phil Alden Robinson

An example of a movie apparently about one thing and later revealing itself as about something else, Field of Dreams tells the story of an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) who hears voices telling him to build a baseball diamond in a corn field.

Finding Nemo (2003)
Dir. Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

A Pixar film about Marlin, a widowed clown fish whose only son is captured by an aquarium hobbyist. Marlin sets out with a forgetful blue tang to find his son. A sequel, Finding Dory, was released in 2016.

The Godfather (1974) 
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

The gangster movie classic is really the story of a family business--as well as the family identity--and its passage from one generation to the next.

He Named Me Malala (2015)
Dir. Davis Guggenheim

A documentary about Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin. Malala was shot in the head by Taliban militants for attending school. She survived the attack and became an international voice in support of women's rights. 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

The third Indiana Jones film is the best sequel in the series. Key to the movie's success is the father-son relationship between Henry and Indiana, played by Sean Connery and Harrison Ford.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
Dir. Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious and inter-generational story of two families intertwined by crime and moral compromise with an emphasis on the relationships between fathers and sons.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Dir. Gabriele Muccino

Real life father and son Will and Jaden Smith play Christopher Gardener and his son. Gardener was living on the streets with his son and they struggled to put their lives back together.

The Stepfather (1987)
Dir. Robert Mulligan

Terry O'Quinn stars in the title role as a psychopath who is determined to have the perfect family. When he is inevitably disappointed, O'Quinn's character murders his family, changes his identity, and stars over again. The Stepfather is one of the most subversive and underappreciated horror pictures of the Reagan era.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Movies for Memorial Day

In observance of Memorial Day, here are some viewing suggestions.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Dir. William Wyler

Three World War II veterans return home and have trouble adjusting to civilian life. Each man faces a personal crisis and struggles to pick up his relationships. In many respects, The Best Years of Our Lives was ahead of its time with its nuanced take on the lasting effects of war.

Patton (1970)
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner

Patton was a biographical picture about General George Patton, focusing on his campaigns in North Africa and Europe during World War II. Patton was a colorful and controversial figure and the film explores his complicated legacy with intelligence and nuance. The movie opens with a speech that has become one of the most iconic moments in American film.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Adapted from Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Willard, a soldier who is sent on a classified mission to assassinate a US army colonel who has gone insane deep within the south east Asian jungle. In the course of his journey, Willard confronts his own doubts about the war and the film descends into the roots of human violence.

Top Gun (1986)
Dir. Tony Scott

One of the most popular military films—both among the general movie-going public and among military recruiters—was 1986’s Top Gun. One of the essential titles of the 1980s, Top Gun was a huge hit that established Tom Cruise as a movie star. This story of elite fighter pilots was also extraordinarily successful as a recruitment film and many young filmgoers enlisted in the United States Air Force following its release.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick is not necessarily renowned for his humor but if you are tuned into Kubrick’s mordant sense of the absurd, Full Metal Jacket is one of the funniest war films ever made. Set in the Vietnam era, the first half of the movie takes place at the Parris Island Marine Corp training camp and the second half occurs amid the 1968 Tet Offensive. Kubrick’s vision of humanity is sardonic and bleak and Full Metal Jacket makes an interesting companion piece to Dr. Strangelove.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan was widely praised at the time of its release for the opening sequence that re-creates the D-Day invasion at Normandy. This movie redefined the visual style of the war film and the gritty handheld cinematography and the intense violence of the D-Day scene have been frequently imitated.

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Dir. Terrence Malick

Released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was an adaptation of James Jones’ novel. Malick’s movies are less stories and more cinematic poems and The Thin Red Line is a mediation on combat, meaning, and mortality set during the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. The Thin Red Line got lost in the hoopla over Saving Private Ryan but it’s a beautifully made movie.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
Dir. Ridley Scott

Following the lead of Saving Private Ryan, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down applied the same gritty style to a dramatic retelling of the 1993 firefight between American soldiers and Somalian militants. The movie is an intense and bloody affair and at the time of its release it was controversial with detractors arguing that it dehumanized Somalians and simplified a complex situation.

Restrepo (2010)
Dir. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington

One of the finest films about the Afghanistan conflict and modern combat, Restrepo is a documentary that was filmed among the soldiers of Second Platoon, Battle Company during their fifteen-month deployment in the Korengal Valley. The movie brings the viewer into the daily life of soldiers in the field while also documenting the strategy of that time.

War Machine (2017)
Dir. David Michod

Playing as a mashup of the feature film Patton and the television show Veep, this film is a sometimes absurd take on the war in Afghanistan. Based on the book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings, War Machine is a fictionalized tale of the commanding general and his frustrated efforts to win the war.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The 'Star Wars' Revolution

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars and so it seems like an appropriate time to revisit a series of commentaries that I wrote to coincide with the release of The Force Awakens. Here is the piece most directly relevant to the original film:

The Star Wars Revolution
Star Wars has been such a dominating presence in cinema for the last thirty-eight years that it is difficult to imagine American movies and pop culture without it. But it’s worth understanding where Star Wars came from to fully understand what it has become.

The original Star Wars was released in the midst of the New Hollywood movement, which remains the greatest period of American film. Spanning from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, the New Hollywood movement gave rise to filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, and Stanley Kubrick who made movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Coming Home, The French Connection, and A Clockwork Orange. These movies upended filmmaking conventions, redrew the boundaries of censorship, told stories of moral complexity, and dealt with difficult subject matter.

Two things happened at this time that made the New Hollywood movement possible. The first was the destabilization of American society. Watergate, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and insurgent social movements like second wave feminism and gay liberation shook up American society. At the same time the American film industry was going through its own structural change. The major studios were in financial trouble and the old standards of musicals and historical epics were no longer making bank. The studios went from standalone companies to divisions of much larger conglomerates. The new corporate owners didn’t know much about movies but they were interested in reaching the youth market and so they turned to young filmmakers. Under the old Hollywood studio system the average feature film director was in his mid-forties but now twenty year olds were given license to make what they wanted in the hope that it would regain the public’s interest in the movies. These young filmmakers produced motion pictures that reflected their own view of the world.

It’s in this environment that Star Wars was made and the movie was in its own way revolutionary. Writer and director George Lucas was operating within the studio system while alienated from it. He and his contemporaries were among the first graduates of film schools and Lucas saw himself as an outsider who would make experimental movies. His first two features, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, didn’t resemble traditional narrative filmmaking and Warner Bros. and Universal reedited them before release, angering Lucas and prompting him to assert more control over his films and properties. Star Wars was more conventionally narrative than those pictures but it was even more experimental in its style and technique. The rapid editing and technological innovations revealed new methods of producing visual effects and ultimately new ways of making movies altogether.

The story of Star Wars was also revolutionary or perhaps more accurately it was counter-revolutionary. The film spoke to the youth of the time as it depicted a galactic civil war in which young people figuratively (and later literally) rebelled against their fathers. But Star Wars rejected the ambiguity of the New Hollywood movement in favor of the optimism and moral absolutism of an earlier era. The youth of the 1970s saw their struggles against the establishment in the Rebel assault on the Death Star but their parents would have recognized Darth Vader’s headgear as a synthesis of the Nazi helmet and the SS Totenkopf symbol, giving the conflict a different point of reference. This mix of mainstream and revolutionary elements is a large part of what made Star Wars a hit and made it both a part of and apart from the New Hollywood movement.

Star Wars is also a revolutionary film in the way that it altered the trajectory of the film industry. The enormous box office of Star Wars recalibrated Hollywood’s barometer of financial success and so the picture is often credited—or blamed—with ending the New Hollywood era. But that’s not altogether true. Like any business owner, the executives running Hollywood studios were always interested in making products that would generate the most revenue. By the late 1970s the audience was exhausted with downbeat stories and the success of Jaws and Rocky had already begun to shift Hollywood’s tone. Following Star Wars, the subsequent box office failure of somber films like Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate and the success of upbeat pictures like Grease and Superman: The Movie completed the redirection of the industry toward escapist fare.

It’s become a cliché to say that Star Wars changed the American film industry. But that is so often said because it’s true. Star Wars was as important a cinematic milestone as Citizen Kane and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and like Orson Welles' and Walt Disney’s movies, the style and techniques of George Lucas’ original space opera have been so embedded in mainstream films that contemporary audiences can’t see what was so special about them. We’ve been living in the era of Star Wars for nearly forty years and what began as a youthful cinematic rebellion has become an empire in its own right. Now that we are on the cusp of a new era of Star Wars films, it is time for audiences, critics, and filmmakers to reevaluate what that means.

For further commentary on the past, present, and future of Star Wars, click here.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Movies for Mother's Day

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured music from Mother’s Day related films. Here is a recap of the movies discussed on the program as well as some additional titles.

20th Century Women (2016)
Set in the late 1970s, a teenage boy comes of age under the guidance of his mother and two other women. The film features a terrific central cast including Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Lucas Jade Zumann.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
A recently widowed mother takes her son on the road in pursuit of a singing career. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore features a terrific performance by Ellen Burstyn in the kind of substantive female role that is still all too rare in mainstream motion pictures.

I Remember Mama (1948)
Adapted from the stage play (which was based a novel by Kathryn Forbes), I Remember Mama tells the story of a Norwegian family immigrating to San Francisco in the early twentieth century.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Based on the novel by Amy Tan, four Chinese-American women explore their family histories and their relationships with their mothers through a series of flashbacks.

Kill Bill (2003/2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part ode to kung-fu movies does not initially start as a tale about motherhood but this theme emerges over the course of the film. Kill Bill is a revenge story that morphs into a rescue and creates an unexpected emotional payoff in the ending.

Mildred Pierce (1941 & 2011)
James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce tells the story of a working mother who divorces her husband and struggles to raise her difficult daughter. The book was adapted twice, first in 1941 starring Joan Crawford and again in 2011 in a miniseries for HBO that starred Kate Winslet.

Mommie Dearest (1981)
Mommie Dearest was based on the memoir by Christina Crawford which alleged that her mother, screen legend Joan Crawford, was an abusive and erratic train wreck. The film was a commercial success but it was also regarded as an artistic disaster. In the years since, Mommie Dearest has become a cult classic.

Philomena (2013)
A dramatization of the nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith which documented a woman’s search for the son she was forced to put up for adoption while she was living in an Irish convent. Philomena was named one of the ten best movies of 2013 on Sounds of Cinema.

Tallulah (2016)
Ellen Page plays a vagrant young woman who comes across a neglectful high society mother and her toddler. The young woman absconds with the child and takes shelter at the home of her mother’s boyfriend, claiming the child is her own. The film is a thoughtful examination of womanhood and motherhood built around a complex ethical conflict.

Terms of Endearment (1983)
James L. Brooks scored a commercial and critical hit with 1983’s Terms of Endearment. The film takes place over three decades and explores the relationship between a mother and daughter played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

89.7 KMSU FM Spring Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its spring pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or simply believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

This pledge drive has a fundraising goal of $30,000 this spring. The money primarily goes to maintaining KMSU equipment so that we can keep the station and its diverse slate of programs on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact KMSU's programs have on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, April 23rd, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Whitewashing the Shell

Having reviewed the live action version of Ghost in the Shell on its cinematic merits (find the review here), I want to move on to the controversy around the film. Ghost in the Shell is based on a Japanese comic book and when it was announced that white Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson would be cast in the lead role, social media, cultural commentators, and activist groups expressed disappointment and outrage. The moviemakers were accused of whitewashing, which is the casting of white actors as characters of color, either by changing the race of the character or by using makeup effects to transform a Caucasian actor to appear non-white.

Whitewashing is not a new phenomenon nor is it unusual. Early movies commonly featured white actors in black face. During the studio era, many great movies featured white actors in nonwhite roles such as Alec Guinness as an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia and Mickey Rooney as an Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The practice continued well after that with 1983’s Scarface starring Al Pacino as a Cuban American and 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings featuring an all-white cast playing Middle Eastern characters. For many years, this practice was simply taken for granted and even rewarded with actress Linda Hunt receiving an Academy Award for her performance as a Chinese man in The Year of Living Dangerously.

Ghost in the Shell was released in the midst of a broader debate about representation and identity politics. Today’s viewers have greater awareness and sensitivity about racial representation and activists who have campaigned on this issue for many years have suddenly found themselves making inroads into the mainstream. Newspapers and websites have run article after article about the absence of people of color in movies and television while hashtags like #oscarssowhite trend on social media. What was taken for granted is now falling out of favor and controversies have erupted around movies such as 2015’s Aloha, 2016’s Doctor Strange, and 2017’s The Great Wall.

It’s worth understanding why studios do this. In response to the furor surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Hollywood filmmaker Max Landis, who wrote Chronicle and directed American Ultra, took to his Youtube account to give an inside perspective. In short, whitewashing has to be understood as a business decision rather than an artistic choice. Here is what Landis had to say:

Max Landis experienced some blowback from his online statement but understanding why something happens is different from excusing it. However, blaming the lack of representation of people of color on “the culture”—whatever that might mean—or on the Hollywood “system” obfuscates the responsibility studio executives, casting directors, filmmakers, and movie stars have in perpetuating the whitewashing phenomenon. And the box office failure of Ghost in the Shell pokes a multi-million dollar hole in the institutional reasoning that Landis points to, in which bankable actors are supposed to ensure box office success.

But not all whitewashing is necessarily equal and that’s where it’s worth connecting the issue to Ghost in the Shell. Although it’s based on a Japanese comic book, the character played by Scarlett Johansson was not specifically designated as Asian in the source material. This is a peculiar feature of manga. As Emily Yoshida explains in an article on Verge, Japanese comics and animation have historically created characters that were of an ambiguous ethnicity. However, Yoshida also points out that the source material of Ghost in the Shell was a product of a particular time and place and its story reflects Japan’s economic and cultural zeitgeist in the late 1980s and early 90s.

The whitewashing claims against Ghost in the Shell are further complicated by the nature of the story. Johansson’s character is a cyborg, a living brain inside of a mechanical body (the “ghost” inside of the “shell,” per the title) and it’s debatable as to whether our notions of race even apply in this instance. In that respect, the filmmakers of Ghost in the Shell squandered a prime opportunity. At one point, the film reveals that the brain of Johansson’s character was originally in an Asian woman. Had the filmmakers handled this right, they could have adapted Ghost in the Shell in a way that would have added a fascinating layer to the story’s exploration of identity and flipped the controversy on its head while updating the story for a twenty-first century audience whose economies and cultures are intertwined. But it’s clear that director Rupert Sanders didn’t see Ghost in the Shell as anything more than another sci-fi shoot-’em-up property and he treated it as such.

The variables around Ghost in the Shell don’t make it a very good example of Hollywood whitewashing although there are plenty of more egregious examples. Ultimately, this isn’t really about one film or another. The underlying problem is the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood films. According to 2010 census data, Asians make up 4.8 percent of the United States’ population but, according to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Asian actors are only one percent of leading roles in Hollywood films. Were Asians and other ethnic minorities adequately represented in Hollywood, it probably wouldn’t matter who was cast in Ghost in the Shell.

It’s unclear how much the whitewashing controversy may have hurt Ghost in the Shell at the box office. As Deadline pointed out, the film’s distributors made a series of mistakes in marketing Ghost in the Shell, some of which had nothing to do with race at all and others that played right into the hands of the film’s detractors. The controversy certainly didn’t help but Ghost in the Shell was also a mediocre movie that few people will remember in a year’s time.

But it is clear that a threshold has been crossed. The audience is getting more diverse, as are its tastes, and if the American film industry wants to survive in the global marketplace it must keep up with the rest of the culture. Hollywood studios are slow to evolve but they do follow the bottom line. The box office failure of whitewashed movies and the success of features with diverse casts are priming Hollywood for a paradigm shift. What that new order will look like and how ethnic minorities might fare under it is uncertain. But the current model is unsustainable and in the not too distant future we’ll look back on Hollywood whitewashing with the same mix of embarrassment and confusion that today’s viewers look at a minstrel show.