Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why Ghostbusters 2016 Went Bust – Jerry Chandler

(Okay, a bit past its prime as a topic, but this was being written before the Dragon Con coverage on the site started. Besides, from conversations I heard at Dragon Con it’s still a topic of discussion in fandom.)

Why did the Ghostbusters reboot fail? It’s actually an interesting question. It’s actually a question I’m seeing a lot of articles on, and that in and of itself should be seen as a part of the film’s problem. Yes, I understand that there’s a bit of unintentional humor in stating that in an article meant to discuss why the film failed. But there is a reason I cite it as a part of the problem. The focus on agendas over entertainment by so many likely did the film no favors. But that was also only a tiny problem for the film.
Look over the cinematic wasteland that has been the seeming majority of box office releases in between late 2015 and now. There are a lot of films that have failed. Some just plain failed at the box office (Jem and the Holograms failing to make back half of its $5 million budget even after worldwide box office was factored in) while others (Spectre) reportedly failed or almost failed financially even as they succeeded at the box office due to the insanity of the studio system’s money machine. Very few have gotten the post-mortem treatment in as many places that Ghostbusters has though. Again, that may be a component of one of the problems the film faced.

Part of the reason so many people are writing and talking about why the film failed is because the 2016 Ghostbusters stopped being just a movie quite some time before its box office debut. The film, in large part because of the people behind it, had the misfortune of becoming an agenda rather than just a film, of becoming a cause rather than just entertainment. Agenda films don’t always do very well at the box office; especially in recent years.

Now, some people will automatically blame this on the “haters” and “Ghostbros” who attacked the film. I think this charge is overblown and gives the more obnoxious members of that group way too much credit. This is the internet age. This is the age of obnoxious trolls being the biggest jackasses they can be on a number of topics and in a number of places. Besides, not every idiot trolling the net was actually going to skip seeing it.

The best thing to do would have been to largely ignore them or maybe diminish them with humor before ignoring them and moving on. Instead, the people connected to the film damned near seemed to be making the idiot trolls as big as anything else about the movie before its release.

We’re not talking about just fans and social media denizens here. Again, emphasizing it a bit, it was people connected to the film and to the film’s marketing that were making them a big deal. They even filmed a segment for the actual movie where the Ghostbusters are reading the comments of various real online trolls who were attacking the film and let it be known before the film’s release that the segment had been filmed.

They were given even more attention by reviewers who either addressed “haters” and “Ghostbros” or “Ghost Bros” in their headlines and reviews or made the early reviews more agenda oriented than actual review oriented. Some headlines looked like this one.

“Our ‘Ghostbusters’ Review: Girls Rule. Women Are Funny. Get Over It.”

The problem with the many headlines along the lines of this one are twofold.

First, the point it’s making looks ridiculous. It’s also likely annoying and off putting to some by what it seeks to imply. We already knew that women were funny. We’ve been lining up at theaters to make comedies starring funny women big box office successes for decades now. We’ve seen pop culture institutions declare actresses like Sandra Bullock “America’s Sweetheart” and “America’s Darling” over her popularity and largely for her more comedic roles. As just one example of knowing women are funny dating back 36 years now, 9 to 5 was a female lead driven comedy that’s considered a classic. It’s hardly a new idea by any stretch of the imagination that women in film can be funny or that funny women can anchor a film’s success.

Second, it backs the feeling that the film was more about an agenda than being an entertaining night at the movies. That is going to turn off a segment of the audience, and not just the segment that promoters of the film wanted to lump into the “haters” group. Again, the smartest thing to do by the people connected to the film and the people supporting the film would have been to ignore the idiot trolls, stop fighting with them in public and elevating their status, and concentrate on promoting the film as entertainment.

This was also not helped by “fans” declaring that you couldn’t be a good feminist if you didn’t see this movie and support it at the box office. Yes, that was said out there even to the point of such “fans” declaring that it was irrelevant if the movie was good or bad. You just had to spend your money on it at the box office. I saw this on social media and I knew people who said it outside of the internet. Saying that someone isn’t a good person or a “real feminist” for saying something doesn’t look to them like a good film isn’t going to win you or your cause any supporters, and it just might make them bull up and dig in their heels on the matter.

But, again, that likely wasn’t a huge amount of potential audience getting turned away in these groups. The actual, diehard haters who had no intention of seeing the movie because of female leads as well as the people getting turned off by the smell of agenda over entertainment were likely only a small blip when the overall potential audience is looked at. Certainly every bit would have helped given the film’s lesser than desired performance- especially where the crowds that were turned off unnecessarily are concerned -but the major money at the box office is more often than not the casual movie goer and not the hardcore members of fandom. 

Honestly, people I know outside of the bubble of fandom were only barely aware of most of the controversy around the film, or at least were unaware until it became the rallying cry of the people supporting the film. Even then, most of the casual fans I knew could have cared less about the idiocy on display from either side. All they cared about was whether or not the film looked good enough to risk a theatrical experience on that- with the price of tickets, snacks, and drinks -can cost upwards of $50 for a family of three these days. It’s here that the film’s failure was most likely sourced. Ghostbusters likely failed due to the same mundane and, in some cases, foolish reasons that so many other films before and after its release failed.

One thing that Ghostbusters was a victim of was a laughably bad ad campaign. The first trailer released to tease the movie had people who were looking forward to the film’s release- both the all out anticipation and the fingers crossed crowds -wondering if the ad team were inept or even against the film’s success themselves. It was an unappealing jumble of images that failed to hook most people and it included narration that actually confused some people over whether the film was in fact a sequel to the previous two films or the reboot it was originally promoted to be. The fact that a fan cut trailer dropped on YouTube within days of the official teaser’s release and was largely seen as a much better teaser was a bad sign with regards to the ad department’s ability.

Later ads were better, but many were just as bad. This was compounded by things like the sneak peek snippets put out for public consumption. Ideally things like that should have a point to them. At best they should also have something that feels like a beginning, middle, and end point to the scene being shared. The idea is to hook potential viewers. The Ghostbusters ad team put out a sneak peek that was the equivalent of white noise. It looked nice(ish) but said nothing about the film to potential viewers other than it used really pretty CGI.

This has not been unique to Ghostbusters by any stretch of the imagination. It’s an observation that also has nothing to do with gender. One of the biggest complaints before and after the release of John Carter was the abysmally bad ad campaign. Indeed, John Carter even had the same issue with fan cut trailers popping up that did a far better job of selling the film’s merits than any three of the official trailers. 

Simple fact- If you don’t hook the casual audiences at large and convince them to pry open their wallets for an ever more and more expensive night out at the movies, you get a large chunk of your potential audience deciding to take a pass or wait until streaming.

Streaming… That’s another issue all together. I shouldn’t need to go into it here. We’ve all seen enough discussions about how the multiple other ways we can see movies these days factors into the decisions by many to see a film in the theaters or to wait it out. You have to sell a movie as a theatrical must see experience to the casual audiences these days or you get diminished box office in the era of convenient, comfortable home streaming. 

Ghostbusters fought another fight that’s an uphill slog with audiences these days. Crack open a list movies released theatrically in the last ten years. It’s going to be an impressively large list; quite a bit larger than you likely remember it being. One of the things you’ll see is a lot of underperforming to flat out failing films that fall under the following categories- reimaginings, remakes, and reboots.

There’s a seemingly large chunk of the casual movie going audience these days that has a kneejerk dislike or disinterest for films that fall under those categories. Some succeed, but most either just got by at the box office or flat out failed. Plus, we are talking about a film that was building on a franchise consisting of a dearly loved original film (a huge problem when creating a reboot or remake) and a second film that’s seen even by many fans as a huge disappointment.

As far as a case of reading the tea leaves badly might go, this alone might have made it such a case for a remake/reboot. As it was, another hill the film had to climb was being a remake/reboot after years of announcements teasing a possible third film in the franchise with all or more likely just most of the original cast. No, there was no way it was happening. Everything up to and including Bill Murray's now legendary levels of reluctance- so great there was at one point supposedly lawsuit talk over it at Sony -and the death of Harold Ramis absolutely killed the chances of ever seeing such a film.

Still, it was only as far back as December of 2012 that Dan Aykroyd had been saying in interviews that they were working on such a script and hoped to soon move into production. An unfortunate strike against the film that (again) had nothing to do with the cast’s gender was likely being released after so many years of a teased original cast sequel that was still being teased such a relatively short time ago. Fans can be fickle about what they want and when they want it. There were probably a lot of Ghostbusters fans who wanted a new Ghostbusters film, it just wasn’t this Ghostbusters film that they had their hearts set on.

The studio money game was also a large factor in its failure. The film had a budget of $144 million. It didn’t look like all of that money made it to the screen. This felt like a movie that could have been made for less and still been as good. Still, factoring in the overseas take and even taking into account the percentage of the totals that went to other pockets; the film’s total worldwide take of $225 million should have been at least a small success even if it failed to recover its budget at the domestic box office.

Except you’re now fighting the idiocies of studio math and budgeting. According to the film’s own director, Ghostbusters was going to have to make $500 million to be profitable. Why? In part because that number we all see as box office totals doesn’t all go to the studio. In larger part because the studio spent a small mint on the advertising budget: a cost separate from the film’s announced budget.

That’s a studio practice that’s damaged more films than just Ghostbusters of late. Batman v. Superman made around $872 million worldwide on a $250 million budget. Looks like a mega winner, right? Thing is, the studio spent so much additional money on ad campaigns and other aspects of the total hype machine that the film actually underperformed. At the time of this writing, Batman v. Superman is on course to earn the studios less money after box office, Blu-Ray and DVD, and merchandising is factored in than Man of Steel did despite earning around $200 million more at the box office.

Spectre suffered the same fate. It was in its budget and box office numbers similar to Batman v. Superman. It was also similar in the fact that extra money spent on it ate up much of its box office earnings. Depending on the source for the number, it was said that Spectre had to earn anywhere from $650 to $750 million at the box office just to break even. It topped out at around $880 million. It earned its money back, but the studio- as it did with Batman v. Superman -spent its money in anticipation of returns greater than $1 billion worldwide. As foolish at it seems to sane minds that a studio would take even films like those and spend like they expected them to easily break and exceed $1 billion at the box office, the same can be said of setting up Ghostbusters to have to make $500+ million at the box office to be a success.

Look at the top fifteen films Ghostbusters shared box office space with on its opening weekend. Out of those films, The Legend of Tarzan, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, The Purge: Election Year, Central Intelligence, The Infiltrator, The BFG, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Shallows, Sultan, The Conjuring 2, Now You See Me 2, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople all made roughly the same domestic box office gross or much less with some even raking in less worldwide. That's twelve of the other films in the top fifteen films the weekend it came out making about the same or a less, and being saved in some cases only by having much smaller film and ad budgets. In the meantime, due to many of the same issues that hurt Ghostbusters,films like Star Trek Beyond and Jason Bourne struggle even now to be the hugely profitable hits desired for and by their studios despite worldwide box office takes of $318 million and $390 million.

Taking a film that was a continuation of a franchise where the second film performed roughly $100 million under the original film and setting it up so that it had to earn more than $500 million at the box office would have been foolish enough. Doing so in an era when few films but the tent pole wonders and the occasional family hit like Finding Dory perform close to that was beyond foolish. This was a film that should have been more modestly budgeted and, taking a page from Deadpool’s forced creativity due to lower ad budgets, made to think up a better ad campaign for less money.

Why did Ghostbusters go bust? Despite the desire of the troll crowd to declare credit for its failure and the desire of the agenda crowd to blame haters and an anti-woman sentiment by audiences, it failed largely for the same reason that most of the films released every year fail. The reasons range from the mundane to the idiotic, and those reasons' overall effect far outweighed what little impact either of those sides had in killing off its box office. It was fighting the stigma of being a remake or reboot, and it did that under what was likely the worst timing for fans who were still nursing the sting of the more or less recent loss of a hyped original cast third film. It suffered from an excruciatingly bad ad campaign. It was the victim of an idiotic studio money system.

Ghostbusters went bust for the same reasons that so many other films fail. It wasn’t helped by the faction of haters, the equally bad faction of supporters, or the cast and crew that seemingly deciding to hype those factions and the controversy around them almost more than they seemed to want to hype the film’s actual quality. But the lion’s share of the damage to the film’s success was in all likelihood done without their help. The Hollywood studio system is doing a fine job on its own of hurting itself. Its bad choices, idiotic spending habits, and inability to figure out how to properly market most films these days is leaving theaters with more flops than smashes. Year after year now for quite a few years we’ve seen articles discussing the fact that Hollywood is facing a more and more precarious situation with regards to the ratio of box office failures and profitable films.

Really, likely nothing more to it than that. 

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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