When English actor Ed Skrein stepped aside so that Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim could play the role of Ben Daimio in the upcoming Hellboy reboot, the response was typical Hollywood. He was immediately lauded by those who earlier savaged the idea that a white man would play the role of a “mixed Asian character.” The move sated the appetite of those seeking “justice,” and production of the film continued without the baggage that sunk Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell. Lost in the accusations of those shouting “whitewash” (the casting of white actors in non-white roles) was any serious thought given to the financial liabilities of making a movie. One does not have to agree with the move of casting a white man in the role of a minority character, but one does have to acknowledge the primary motivation behind such a move. Movies are expensive, unimaginably so, and those who put up the money will do anything to insure a return on their investment.
The fuel of the Hollywood engine is the movie star. Since the time of Chaplin, Harlow, and Flynn, those who headline the film have remained the most reliable variable in determining the film’s financial success. One does not have to delve much deeper than that to see the strategy of casting set in place: keep hiring the biggest name you can until the money runs out. Or at least that has been the strategy. It is hard to calculate the effect of social media on the film industry – the changes it has wrought thus far may only be the foreshock of the massive tremor. One thing is certain, however; previous operating models are being made obsolete. What will the effects of this be? In the case of Hellboy we can hazard a guess: an online campaign that would threaten to hold the production of the movie hostage if demands for “correct” casting weren’t met.
What’s wrong with that? one might ask. Hollywood has a history of excluding minorities from production and the casting of white actors in the few non-white roles there are is an egregious act of racism. And they would be right. Hollywood has an undeniable history of exclusion. Women and minorities have long bore the brunt of inequities in production. It is a serious problem that needs addressing but in order for that we must have the proper footing. We do not live in 1930s Hollywood. Casting decisions today are based on insuring profit not skin pigmentation. That there is a dearth of A-list minority movie stars is a serious issue – but it is one best addressed by the market place not industry quotas. The blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians will do more to change systemic exclusion than a hundred online campaigns calling for boycotts and sensitivity training.
Do any of us want to live in a world in which motivations are assumed before explanation? Do any of us want to work in an industry in which righteousness is demanded by those whose appetite for “justice” can never be satisfied? That Hellboy producer Christa Campbell was shamed for her response (in a now deleted tweet explaining her motivation in the hiring of Skrein) “Someone comes and does a great audition to get the role. Stop projecting your own shit on to us. We are all one.” should give us pause. How can we make movies in this environment?
That there is much to change about the industry is undeniable. That social media will be at the vanguard of this change should give us all concern. We must get the fundamentals right. The desire for box office success, nothing else, is driving the ship. If the casting of a dog insured financial success Hollywood films would look like doggy daycare.