After vanishing in its opening weekend at the domestic box office to $18.6 million, film finance sources tell Deadline that Paramount/DreamWorks-Reliance’s Ghost In The Shell stands to lose at least $60M, and that’s based off a global B.O. projection of $200M ($50M domestic, $150M international) and combined P&A/production costs of $250M. Some sources even assert that the production cost for Ghost is far north of $110M and more in the $180M range — if that’s the case, Ghost is bleeding in excess of $100M.
Through yesterday, the film has only collected $62M at the worldwide B.O.
Here was an opportunity for two studios to create a new franchise based on a popular manga comic by Shirow Masamune — one which DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg was elated to acquire nearly a decade ago — featuring a popular action star in Lucy and Avengers’ Scarlett Johansson. Now those chances for a series are nil.
The bombing of Ghost In The Shell arrives at an awful time for Paramount in the wake of its $1 billion slate financing deal with Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media going south, coupled with the fact that most of the studio’s 2016 slate outside of Arrival and Fences has tanked. Ghost was originally part of the Shanghai/Huahua deal, with both companies supposedly vested in director Rupert Sanders’ movie alongside DreamWorks and Paramount; each studio maintained 30% exposure. While DreamWorks reportedly stands to lose as much as $20M, Paramount could incur a bigger black eye sans the Chinese funds. Paramount provided no comment.
So what went wrong here? Above and beyond our analysis last weekend, we dug further:
Exorbitant Cost In Relation To Niche IP. In regard to Ghost‘s $100M-plus production cost, one slate financier shouts, “This is the amount of money you spend on a sequel, not an obscure piece of IP that only a few fanboys know about! Maybe you spend $35M or $40M on this and make a stylized art house film.” Another factor driving up Ghost‘s budget: Waiting for Johansson. Though she commited to play lead cyborg Major in January 2015, the Ghost production had to wait until November 2015 to start. Johansson almost dropped out (her reported payday is $10M-$12M) due to scheduling conflicts, but the studios were willing to wait. Whenever a film is delayed, costs incur. Production spaces were held (the pic was largely shot in New Zealand), but it also gave time for Sanders to think on Ghost with the pic entailing a few rewrites.
Corporate Collateral Damage. Sources tell Deadline that Ghost lacked a hands-on executive like ex-co-chairman Rob Moore to see its fate through, and that the suits on the Melrose Lot were too preoccupied by the recent executive changeovers “and scared to make a move on anything,” said one insider close to production. Thus, Ghost In The Shell wasn’t ready until two weeks before its release date due to final VFX.
Flawed Marketing. DreamWorks disagreed with the campaign that Paramount was executing, but at the end of the day it was the latter who was responsible for P&A oversight. In Johansson, Paramount had Lucy and Marvel together, and thus Ghost should have been a slam-dunk to sell. Sources have mentioned that the ad spots failed in being more style over substance; that Ghost should have been sold as a heroic tale given Johansson’s Marvel pedigree versus a dark, revenge tale. The whole sci-fi flash dazzle should give Sony/WB/Alcon’s Blade Runner 2049 and Europa/STX’s Valerian concern in their recent trailers: You need a story to sell well beyond the visual shock and awe.
In the face of the whitewash controversy over Johansson’s casting, it’s been argued that Paramount wasn’t doing enough to quell it, despite a global trailer drop in Tokyo back in November. One social meme that Paramount plowed ahead with to DreamWorks’ dismay was the #IAmMajor, where moviegoers could share a graphic about what makes them unique. The meme blew up in the studios’ face with social media users using it as a form of protest (see below). Social media monitor RelishMix questions whether #IAmMajor had any kind of negative impact as it only charted 480 occurrences compared to #ghostintheshell (65,4K) and #scarlettjohansson (5,8K) which were the biggest drivers.
China & Japan Aren’t Bail-Outs. Both markets open this weekend. Sci-fi doesn’t sell in the Middle Kingdom, and the borderline dystopian take is a further put-off. Japan is a wild card. While there are reports audiences aren’t offended by Johansson’s reverse casting because they’re used to watching western actors, foreign B.O. pundits put a total projection of $45M in that territory. Fate Of The Furious rolls out April 12, and that’s when Ghost‘s legs will truly be sawed off.
Reverse Casting Controversy. While Ghost has been bombarded by protests since the first day of Johansson’s attachment, many distribution executives still believe the whitewash controversy never impacted moviegoers’ ticket-buying decisions. That’s hard for some to swallow as Johansson’s casting speaks to a broader problem in Hollywood when it comes to employing Asian Americans in marquee roles. However, when a studio is mounting a tentpole it wants everyone to see, it needs to be smooth sailing in regards to word of mouth. Any noise against a film only disrupts, and it’s fair to say the protests against Ghost didn’t raise its profile.
Ironically, Screen Engine/ComScore’s PostTrak audience polls show that Asian Americans bought tickets to watch Ghost and even enjoyed the film. They repped 13% of Ghost‘s audience, on par with the demo’s turnout for Arrival (14%, $24M), Passengers (12%, $14.9M opening) and xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage (14%, $20.1M FSS), the latter which featured several Asian stars including Donnie Yen and Wu Yifan. Zero percent gave Ghost a poor rating. Of the Asian Americans who watched Ghost, 93% gave it a good, very good or excellent rating, which isn’t that far from Caucasians, Hispanics (both 97%) and African Americans (94%).
Challenges With Anime & Manga Adaptations. As Warner Bros looks to bring a live action version of the 1988 anime toon Akira to the big screen, is it worth the headache? Perhaps these complex futuristic properties that require big budgets aren’t worth the cost? Paramount reports that Ghost was a tough sell, minting more tickets in cities versus flyover states. With a $100M-plus film, you need every theater to overindex.
Johansson’s casting stemmed from a Hollywood decision to sell this IP beyond the handful of hard-core fans. A bankable star was essential for a film of this size, and the thinking was that Johansson would bring the Marvel fanboys (39% bought tickets because of Johansson, per CinemaScore, a number that’s up there with Jennifer Lawrence’s draw on Passengers). An alternative could have been building Ghost with an Asian actress suitable to the original IP, and even if she was a fresh face, Paramount and DreamWorks could have built a bigger supporting cast with stars around her. Multi-cultural, fresh-face ensemble casts have proven to click at the B.O., (i.e., Furious 7, The Hunger Games, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One), but these are films where the brands are significantly bigger than the stars, and Ghost certainly wasn’t that.
Of Course, Poor Reviews. Paramount argues that the whitewashing controversy fed into reviews and thus was responsible for plummeting its Rotten Tomatoes score from 71% to 45% in a 24-hour period between its Wednesday, March 29 all-media screening and its preview Thursday night. This in turn dinged the pic’s tracking, dropping its opening projections from $25M-$30M to $18.6M. However, most critics didn’t like Ghost because it was cold, boring, thoughtless, and the same old same old next to its futuristic ancestors The Matrix and Blade Runner. Paramount knew they had a lame duck, and held the film from review until two days before it opened, and prevented CinemaCon industry press from watching the pic in advance.