Think back on the last 10-15 years. Can you name one legitimately great franchise movie with a budget of $100 million or more that did not earn a profit? Edge of Tomorrow is the closest I can think of: A $178 million movie that made only $100 million in the United States, but only because its A-list star Tom Cruise is not well liked here (the film nevertheless made $350 million worldwide and spawned a sequel). (The Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas might fall into this category, except it wasn’t universally beloved, it was 3-hours long, and it wasn’t a franchise).
The reality is: If you build it, and put the money into it, and if it is good, they will come. That’s why the argument to cast Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell is frustrating. The debate has been very chicken-and-egg, and even among those who dislike the whitewashing, there’s a concession that the film wouldn’t get made without an A-list star.
But creating stars is exactly what franchises do so well. Daisy Ridley was unknown before The Force Awakens and John Boyega was relatively unknown outside of the few who had seen Attack the Block. They’re huge stars now. In fact, the original Star Wars trilogy launched the blockbuster career of Harrison Ford.
Before she was cast in Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence was known for her Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, a movie with a box-office of less than $7 million. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston were practically unknown in the United States before Thor. Chris Pratt was a supporting actor on a low-rated sitcom before he was cast in Guardians of the Galaxy. Kristen Stewart was unheard of before Twilight. The careers of the entire kid cast of the Harry Potter films were launched by that franchise.
You don’t need an A-list star to launch a franchise. You need a franchise to launch an A-list star. If you put enough money into any movie, people are going to show up on opening weekend. If it’s a good movie, people will continue to show up after opening weekend. Ghost in the Shell could’ve been the perfect opportunity to launch the career of a relatively unknown, kick-ass Asian actress using the property — and a massive marketing budget — to generate interest in her rather than using a white actress to generate interest in the property.
Oh, you say! But Ghost in the Shell isn’t a well-known property. Neither was Iron Man, and it resurrected the dead career of Robert Downey, Jr. Neither was Mark Millar’s The Secret Services until The Kingsmen came out and helped to launch the burgeoning career of Taron Egerton.
I also don’t know much about Doctor Strange, but I do know that I’ll see it because it’s a Marvel movie, and like most movie fans, I watch them all. Tilda Swinton doesn’t persuade me one way or another, but it would’ve been an incredible opportunity to sell me on a new actress in a role I’ve never heard of in a movie I know nothing about other than it’s from Marvel.
I understand why you might cast Scarlett Johansson in a $5 million indie project with no marketing budget. It’s the only way the movie is going to get any press. But Ghost in the Shell or Doctor Strange? Those are two properties with built-in worldwide audiences. As long as you don’t cast someone who audiences actively dislike, those movies are going to be huge, no matter what … unless they suck. And if they suck, Johansson can only offset the losses by so much. But if they are great, they could’ve launched the A-list career of a new Asian star and the next time a property like Ghost in the Shell came along, we could no longer argue that there are no A-list Asian stars.