Once upon a time, relatively few people outside of studio accounting offices ever knew (or had reason to know) how much money a movie had earned at the box office.
In this case, “once upon a time” means about 20 years ago, give or take. Then along came the Internet, an informational shift that meant a constant stream of news coming out of the industry, rather than broad updates once or twice a week. Movie outlets needed something to report on, and they found it in the box office “horse race” that previously was only ever the concern of studio accountants. The result has been (depending on your point of view) either a dramatic skewing or unskewing of how the world perceives a successful film.
For example, today everyone “knows” that Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was one of the biggest cultural events in Hollywood history: a juggernaut that spawned four hit sequels, spun off a two-decade “DC Animated Universe” of animated television series, kicked off a merchandising empire that has never slowed and set the superhero domination of modern Hollywood in motion. It was a movie that was everywhere, the thing everyone had to see, the conversation everyone wanted to be in on. And even during the last moment in movie history where multi-film franchises weren’t baked into the promise of each new blockbuster, nobody questioned that there’d be a sequel – probably a bunch of them.
And yet The Los Angeles Times reported in 1991 (smack dab in the middle of production for Batman Returns) that Batman was a money loser “not likely to ever show a profit.” From the article:
“As of September, the dark comic-book tale starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman had grossed $253.4 million for Warners. But extraordinary outlays for advertising, publicity and high-priced talent such as Nicholson–as well as the studio’s normal hefty cut–have left the Batcoffers empty.”
This was business as usual for big studio “hits” in that era, granted (the article also cites Rain Man, Dick Tracy, Fatal Attraction and Coming to America as fellow $100 million+ mega hits that ultimately didn’t earn back their money), and the original Batman eventually did muscle its way to an inflation-adjusted modest net profit years later… just in time for Batman & Robin to be declared a franchise-collapsing failure – not because of a respectable if unspectacular box office haul, but because Internet chatter had cast an overwhelmingly negative pall over the discourse.
That all happened recently enough, but it sounds like a complete different world from one where Sony’s remake of Ghostbusters is already having sequel talk deemed unlikely because it “only” earned $182 million worldwide after a month of release (and without the increasingly crucial aid of a release in mainland China). While we’re not yet at the point where box office number-crunching is the sole arbiter of a film’s success, its clear that the way success is perceived has changed dramatically.
To be sure, Ghostbusters 2016 wasn’t a runaway smash – certainly not by the sky-high standards of modern blockbusters where Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice can be called a disappointment for “failing” to earn a billion dollars in just a few months. The film has performed respectably, garnered largely positive reviews and is moving merchandise above expectations. Sequels (entire franchises, in fact) have been greenlit for less profitable films and passed on for bigger hits, so what exactly is happening here – and why do so many people seem to care?
That second part is easier to answer: While the new Ghostbusters probably makes the least amount of reference to the gender of its main characters than almost any other female-lead genre film (see: director Paul Feig’s own Spy, which employs no less than Jason Statham as a character whose main function is telling Melissa McCarthy she has no business being an action hero), the production and release of the film were swept up in the firestorm of 2016 gender-politics sniping that managed to encompass everything from the video games industry to the U.S. Presidential Election. A wave of online hostility assailed the production from the start, turning every aspect of its production and release into a “referendum” on gender-inverted casting and the place of women in comedy.
As a result, despite all the support the film received otherwise (along with largely positive if not overwhelmingly enthusiastic word of mouth from audiences) the pop-culture discourse around Ghostbusters was almost entirely negative, with detractors pouncing on every bad review and box office shortfall and fans made to spend more time defending the film from nitpicks than celebrating whatever they liked about it. To date, the biggest news story to come out of Ghostbusters isn’t the release of the film itself, but a targeted online harassment campaign against actress Leslie Jones. Suffice it to say, absent the kind of undeniable box office success that these days belongs almost exclusively to talking animals and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, those aren’t the kind of jubilant circumstances where a studio wants to start talking sequels.
But public perception is only one part of the game. There’s also the business side, and that’s a lot more complicated – especially where the continuously-troubled Sony Pictures is concerned and the elaborate high-risk financial gymnastics perpetuated by the franchise era. Sony wants to be in the cinematic universe business even more so than every other studio in Hollywood, and while they’re angling to right the mess that got made of Spider-Man through a partnership with Marvel, having a property to call exclusively their own would be ideal (it doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume to have your biggest series require the oversight of a “rival” studio). That’s why the studio is chasing questionably-viable properties like Masters of The Universe, and aggressively pursued a revival of the long-dormant Ghostbusters brand for several years, switching gears from a sequel to a remake following the passing of star/co-creator Harold Ramis.
From the start, Sony’s ambitions were about more than sequels. Original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman has been placed in charge of a production company under the banner of “Ghost Corps” aimed exclusively at expanding the ‘Busters brand, with an animated feature in early development and a cartoon series currently titled “Ecto Force” scheduled for 2018. That there will be more Ghostbusters isn’t much of a question; there’s no such thing as a brand with life in it that Hollywood won’t exploit in some form (lest we forget, next up from Sony is The Emoji Movie), and as long as there’s a t-shirt to be sold bearing the logo there will be some iteration of Ghostbusters in development. The question is whether it will continue with the remake cast.
The fact of the matter is, while box office numbers do indeed matter more than ever in perception of what films are and aren’t successful, popular perception still matters. The difference between today and when Batman was able to be a global game-changer despite running a deficit is that the discourse has moved from the public square to the Internet, where perception has long been skewed by the interests of entertainment-reporting outlets (and the prominent voices they employ) who got to digital-prominence first and shaped the narrative of what came after.
Simply stated, if one were to gauge the state of mass-market appeal when it comes to Hollywood’s blockbuster scene exclusively by what’s covered by Internet “conversation-drivers” (and arguably too much of studios’ media-engagement is based on exactly that), you’d come away with the perception that every genre film released between Star Wars and The Matrix beloved by the Generation X “film geeks” who founded the post-Aint-It-Cool-News interest film press was a generational classic guaranteed to pull Avengers numbers in remade, rebooted or revived form.
The web is littered with declarations that every semi-noteworthy 80s (and now 90s) genre entry from minor successes like The Goonies to outright bombs like Tron are goldmines waiting to happen if properly rebooted, remade or revisited, and sometimes it works out: Rocky came back to life (for a second time) with Creed and Fury Road introduced a whole new generation to the thoroughly moribund Mad Max franchise. But other properties haven’t been as lucky: Tron Legacy earned only modest returns, while remakes trading on the supposed notoriety of Robocop and Total Recall bombed outright. Two attempts have been made to revive the Terminator franchise, and both the dramatically-reimagined Salvation and the wall-to-wall nostalgia-fest Genysis were widely ignored by audiences.
In at least one notorious example, Universal Pictures bet big on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World when the Edgar Wright-directed comic book adaptation earned largely the same rapturous reception from San Diego Comic-Con crowds that had greeted the original Iron Man; only for the box office to bear out that the film’s combination of Gen-X video game nostalgia and Millennial romantic angst didn’t connect with the mainstream the way Tony Stark’s exploits did. Right now, it’s looking like the new Ghostbusters is falling somewhere near the middle of that spectrum – not a gigantic hit, but not a failure either. And while some have argued that a less controversial movie (i.e. one with an all-male or mixed-gender team) would have been a guaranteed big hit, the built-in value of the Ghostbusters name in 2o16 may have been over-estimated from the start.
While the original Ghostbusters is rightly regarded as a comedy classic, the idea of the property as a “franchise” has largely been built on the unexpectedly long-lived popularity of the Real Ghostbusters animated series and toy line with a generation of ’80s film buffs. And while nostalgic fans may relish the idea of Ghostbusters as an enduring franchise on the level of Star Wars, prior to this remake the property had all but vanished from the mainstream pop-landscape, its last significant appearance being a decently-received video game spin-off in 2009 (and the unsuccessful Extreme Ghostbusters animated reboot a decade before that.)
What comes next for Ghostbusters will depend on a number of factors, including the eagerness of the studio to back the property and the commitments of the remake cast to return for future sequels. Decades of fan support (egged on by an ever-optimistic creator in Dan Aykroyd) convinced Hollywood that the world was waiting for the return of Ghostbusters – but whether or not that was ever truly the case has yet to be determined.