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Was ‘Ghostbusters’ Too Big to Succeed?

Paul Feig and Co. made a fun movie and a ton of money — so why do we keep calling ‘Ghostbusters’ a failure?

Aaron Dana
Aaron Dana

Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters has been in the world less than a month, and yet the movie already has its obituary.

Last week, The Hollywood Reporter ran a straightforward news story — except it was capped off by the two most damning words in the modern movie industry’s particular substrain of English: “Ghostbusters Heading for $70M-Plus Loss, Sequel Unlikely.” A movie that brought in nearly $194 million in global box office sales, enough to build an entire modern art museum and still have cash left over for a lifetime supply of beluga, nonetheless failed to earn enough for round two, and thus failed to justify itself under the rubric of the modern blockbuster.

Lost in all the punditry — the discussion over whether Ghostbusters flopped or who’s going to movie jail — was this idea: If it’s possible to read failure into a record-breaking opening for a star who was already one of the most dependable box office draws of our time, then something might be … a little off.

Ghostbusters is categorically different from the comedies that have defined the recent careers of Feig’s longtime muses, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. When Bridesmaids hit theaters in 2011, Wiig was an SNL alum in her first-ever film lead, McCarthy was a title character in a brand-new Chuck Lorre multicam, and Feig hadn’t directed a feature since Unaccompanied Minors failed to earn back its (modest) budget in 2006. You know how the story goes: Bridesmaids brought in nearly 10 times its production costs, multiple stars were born, and both follow-ups and knockoffs sprung up in abundance.

After The Heat, Spy, and McCarthy’s own string of megahits, Ghostbusters looked like as much like a noble experiment as good business. Could Feig, McCarthy, and their collaborators use five years of hard-won capital to prove — because it had to be proven, not assumed — that an all-female cast could carry a potentially multibillion-dollar franchise as well as a middleweight standalone? And if the crew found a studio executive willing to go to bat for them, regardless of her email etiquette, shouldn’t they swallow the potential risk and try? It’s the reasoning Feig himself offered for signing onto the project, telling Vulture, “The thing I care about most is the industry looking for an excuse to say, ‘See, a tentpole can’t be carried by female leads’ … And if this doesn’t work, I will probably have to go back to movie jail.”

Viewed through another lens, though, that last sentence represents something more troubling than a filmmaker injecting some extra drama into the narrative of his own movie. It starts with what, exactly, Feig meant by that “if.” The stakes of Ghostbusters were, of course, artificially inflated by the virtual maggot colony that descended on its IMDB page and the Twitter feeds of its stars. But even without the mass trolling, which forced the critical conversation into the realm of advocacy as much as evaluation, the definition, i.e. the dollar amount, of what does and doesn’t “work” was already staggeringly skewed.

Ghostbusters cost nearly $150 million to produce, more than Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy combined — and more than double what the 1984 original cost, even adjusting for inflation. Worse yet, that dollar amount doesn’t really show in the final product. When it does, in the CGI-goo-filled final battle, it feels like a distraction from the comic chemistry that audiences were paying to see, the very thing that led them to remember the original so fondly in the first place. It’s certainly more key to its enduring appeal than the special effects.

And in 2016, movies aren’t just made, they’re marketed — aggressively, extensively, and above all, expensively. Bizarre NBA Finals ads don’t come cheap. In fact, folded in with the rest of Sony’s eight-beers-deep-frat-bro aggressive promotional campaign, they run at about $100 million. To simply break even, Ghostbusters would have had to make $300 million. To justify the sequels that Sony was banking on, that the cast has already reportedly signed on for, and fans of the nascent group’s potential and/or Dr. Jillian Holtzmann hoped for, Feig estimated the movie would have had to make half a billion dollars. Half a billion!

Which is how we arrive at the split narrative that has plagued the Ghostbusters box office from the start. A $46 million opening weekend was the best Feig and McCarthy have ever had, for either their solo projects or their collaborations — yet still a disappointment for Sony. Like everything else involving Ghostbusters, it became a Rorschach test, leaving critics and internet commenters to read triumph or failure into it as they pleased.

Since Iron Man kicked off the modern franchise era in 2008, we’ve steadily cultivated a rarefied class of movie that can’t escape the shadow of earning less than a billion dollars. Or, in Ghostbusters case, fails to justify the sequels the studio was already planning before anyone had shot a single frame. That Ghostbusters is part of this high-risk, high-reward investment complex isn’t surprising — novelty and progressive casting choices aside, it is, at the end of the day, an ’80s reboot. But it papers over the fact that Feig and his cast had already pioneered a more sustainable — and more creatively fertile and risk-friendly — model for the contemporary studio movie.

At New York’s Athena Film Festival earlier this year, Feig talked about the nerve-racking process of waiting for the weekend box office to come in for his latest movie, knowing that if it failed to break a certain threshold, both his career and those of his stars’ would go right back on ice. Sounds familiar, I know. But he was talking about Bridesmaids, not Ghostbusters — and the glass ceiling he needed to break wasn’t the $60 million Sony was hoping for. It was $20 million, and Bridesmaids blew past it easily.

Feig’s recent hot streak earned positive press on its feminist bent alone, but he’s also engaged in a bigger, and maybe even more radical, projects. He’s made movies not just starring women, and often written by them, but movies with premises that weren’t piggybacking on yesteryear’s intellectual property. Instead, his movies became their own grassroots successes, and at the midlevel budget that’s been lost in the widening gap between shoestring indies and massive tentpoles (when it hasn’t simply migrated to television). The Heat, for instance, actually does have a sequel in the works. Unlike Ghostbusters, it earned one on its own merits, rather than running up so large a budget as to require one down the road. And unlike Ghostbusters, The Heat wouldn’t have been considered a face-plant if it hadn’t generated a follow-up.

I don’t think Ghostbusters will actually land Feig back in movie jail. (If it does, he’ll be in the most exclusive jail on earth: the Can’t Make Nine-Figure Blockbusters Anymore Club.) I’m even optimistic it won’t put an end to major properties led by women and people of color for the foreseeable future, though that prospect even entering into conversations about the movie is frustrating enough. (Money talks, and Star Wars money talks the loudest.) But I’m still saddened by the distance between the future that Bridesmaids, or even the first Ghostbusters, seemed to predict and what actually came to pass. For filmmakers not named Paul Feig, it’s still difficult to get midbudget, adult-targeted, non-IP-based movies green-lit — or even just midbudget, as the difference between the two Ghostbusters price tags attests. And for filmmakers who are named Paul Feig, success by one set of standards earned promotion to another, dramatically higher set far less suited to his strengths — even though 1984’s Ghostbusters has more in common (funny people, doing funny things) with say, Bridesmaids, than with the blockbuster reboot he wound up directing.

Ghostbusters feels like the result of Hollywood learning the wrong lessons from success. Hopefully, it can learn the right lesson from failure: The franchises studios can’t stop remaking were made as original properties, not born as three-movie marketing behemoths. We’ve forgotten how Ghostbusters became Ghostbusters.