With Spider-man: Homecoming hitting theaters last weekend, there is perhaps one person that watched closer than anyone. With a weekend box office return of over 100 million, Producer Amy Pascal may finally be relaxing, but she still has a lot of her reputation riding on this film’s debut. The average movie goer likely has no idea why, though. Amy Pascal was a name made infamous by last year’s Ghostbusters (2016) film. That movie was plagued with a slew of controversies derived as much from the film production crew as the often immature or offensive public responses. The story has been written about at length, so I will only touch on the few moments relevant to Pascal’s current role as producer. No one can escape their past, however, so we cannot dismiss these things completely.
To understand why this production is so important for Amy Pascal, we have to go back to the start of her Sony Pictures career. Back in 2006, Pascal (already a veteran of the business side of movie making with Columbia pictures) became co-chairperson of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE). Under her high-level oversight, SPE produced many hugely successful movies: the Daniel Craig Bond movies, the Spider-Man movies, and several Academy Award winning films, to name a few. No doubt Pascal was part of the recipe for the success SPE enjoyed under her leadership.
As time rolled on, the rosy picture of Pascal’s abilities started to dim. There were accusations of extravagant salaries for personal assistants, frequent flights on private jets, and Pascal’s own salary was an exorbitant 3 million annually. These issues are reason enough to push her out of the Co-Chairperson position; that’s where Pascal’s story takes a curious turn.
In early December of 2015, just months before Pascal’s contract with SPE was set to expire, there was a massive release of hacked emails. Exposing her to public scrutiny, these emails exposed an over-optimistic Pascal being extremely bullish, estimating record-breaking sales for a slew of films in the Spider-Man franchise. Notes from meetings revealed she repeatedly over-valued the success of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and imagined its sequel would break a billion worldwide sales. A planned Tobey Maguire/Andrew Garfield crossover Spider-Man movie would make, in her estimation, over 2 billion (to date, only 3 films, released years apart, have ever reached that value). Even more shocking was the assumption that the Spider-Man franchise would only need five years to be worth more than the total of all Marvel Studios productions. The timing of these unrealistic expectations and the recent insensitive remarks overshadowed her departure from the company 3 months premature.
Though, there are two other actions revealed from the hacks that make her current decisions the subject of scrutiny. First, the hacks revealed that she had made highly insensitive comments about President Barack Obama. Second, her involvement in several films which she fought to pay women considerably less than both the men and herself was more damaging to her brand. This gave an impression of lining her own pockets at the expense of those under her employ. For a person who stated their major goal as producer has been to improve minority representation in modern film, these leaks in particular indicate she may have ulterior motives. No doubt hoping to repair her name, Pascal founded her own production company upon leaving SPE, and was promptly contracted back with them to do just that. The fact that she was placed back onto the new Spider-Man project shows that the company had high faith in her abilities despite the controversy. She had another, ill-fated project to advance before she could get back to the web-slinger: The aforementioned Ghostbusters movie.
With a production budget of 150 million (a high percentage of which went to the director and leading actress) and a large but undisclosed marketing budget, Ghostbusters had high stakes. The casting, interviews, and trailers all pushed a narrative that the movie was to be a flagship of women-lead action movies, and any criticisms were dismissed as misguided or offensive (even coming from the movie’s star, Melissa McCarthy). When the movie failed to earn all of that back, Pascal’s judgment was called into question again.
Afterward, details about the new Spider-Man production rolled out. Curious casting choices were made that drastically changed the looks (and sometimes the names) of classic characters. The motives for such casting were highlighted by the choice of Tony Revolori to play Flash Thompson (star football player and Peter’s frequent bully) This was the largest departure from the source material, as Tony is significantly shorter than the rest of the cast and not physically intimidating. Not looking like the comics took a backseat to fears he would be less believable as a bully. Many casting choices were hailed by the general public as perfect page-to-screen translations: Michael Keaton (Adrian Toomes), Tom Holland (Peter Parker aka Spider-man) and Jacob Batalon (Peter’s best friend Ned).
The casting could be seen as an appropriate update considering the teenagers are all attending a public school in Queens. Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee seemed extremely confident in the new film’s choice for MJ. Stan Lee’s blessing is as high praise as possible for the geek world. However, with Pascal’s history of speaking up for underrepresented minorities often being coupled with low pay for those actors, the authenticity of her desire for a balanced cast becomes suspect. Were the more questionable casting choices merely due to a complete lack of understanding of the source material? Or worse, is this a heartless attempt to capitalize on a movie going populace that wants to see better representation in their films? Let’s hope none of these are the case with the true motive was for the purpose of making a good and successful movie.
Regardless of the answer, this new movie will prove whether or not Amy Pascal’s slate gets a fresh cleaning. In all likelihood, a success will largely be attributed to Marvel Studios’ cooperative efforts on the film (it stars several actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe). If Amy Pascal is actually exploiting underrepresented minorities for profit, this will unfortunately provide her cover to continue doing so.