Ghostbusters might be one of the biggest comedies of the summer but its box office expectations are no laughing matter. When Paul Feig’s reboot of the beloved ’80s franchise arrives in theaters on Friday, it will be dragging the weight of what feels like a dozen proton packs. Can it survive — and thrive — under this magnitude of scrutiny?
Not only is the paranormal action movie the latest big-budget release tasked with saving this summer’s lackluster box office, but Ghostbusters is also essentially charged with trying to save womenkind — at least as it exists in Hollywood — following the sexist outcry against the all-women remake of what has become a dude-bro staple.
For some, the fact Feig (best known for Bridesmaids, as well as hits like Spy and The Heat) had the audacity to reimagine this 1980s classic with four of today’s top female comedians turned Ghostbusters into a polemic lightning rod. Online trolls whined the filmmakers ruined their childhood, and worse. “I would assume there’s a very large crossover of people who are doubtful Ghostbusters will be great and people excited about the Donald Trump candidacy,” Judd Apatow said last month. He may be right — Trump actually did complain about the female-focused remake in a video he posted to Instagram last year — but couching the comedy as political statement only adds to the load this movie must carry.
Ghostbusters is also laden with the pressure of its own creation. The reported $150 million it cost to make Ghostbusters means the PG-13 comedy has to gross at least $400 million worldwide to break even, owing to the 50/50 split with theater chains as well as its marketing costs (the 1984 film earned $295 million on a $30 million production budget, not adjusted for inflation). To put that into perspective, Ghostbusters has to perform as well as The Hangover ($467 million worldwide) or Ted ($549 million worldwide), two raunchy R-rated films that surprised both audiences and Hollywood. Not even the grosses of Neighbors ($270 million worldwide) or 21 Jump Street ($201 million worldwide), two movies that generated enough money to merit sequels, would be good enough for Sony to recoup its cash.
Which isn’t to say a film starring women in the lead roles can’t achieve box office success. In the past year, more huge movies have featured the XX chromosome front-and-center than ever before, and have done quite well in the process: from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Mad Max: Fury Road to the surprise spring hit Zootopia and summer’s Finding Dory. More are coming down the pipeline, too, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story set to debut in December, Wonder Woman out next summer, and Alicia Vikander signing on to reboot Lara Croft for a 2018 release. Still, of the 100 highest grossing global films of all time, only eight had a sole female protagonist. Half of those are the Hunger Games movies. Two are animated. Can Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon crack the list? And if not, what are the consequences?
“If this doesn’t work, we go back and lose our vote,” McCarthy, who has had a string of hits over the last five years, including Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy with Feig, said on set. “I’m talking pre-suffragette.”
She was kidding — but only kind of. It’s as tale as old as busting ghosts: If a movie starring a man doesn’t succeed we blame the movie; if a movie starring a woman doesn’t succeed, we blame the woman. When Charlize Theron’s post-Oscar starring vehicle Aeon Flux bombed at the box office, the sexiest woman alive didn’t headline another big-budget Hollywood film for years. Johnny Depp, on the other hand, starred in a string of box office failures (The Lone Ranger, Mortdecai, Alice Through the Looking Glass) and was still given another Pirates movie. Others think the tide is finally turning and even if Ghostbusters doesn’t turn out to be the juggernaut Sony is hoping for, women will continue to make strides — despite the efforts of online trolls who are now trying to figure out how to overcome the film’s positive reviews. “The truth is there is nothing these guys can do about it,” says one veteran executive. “Women are starring in these beloved male-driven franchises and nothing is going to turn it back.”
Regardless, when Feig, McCarthy, Wiig, Jones, and McKinnon signed on to make Ghostbusters, they didn’t do it to make a statement. They did it to make people laugh. The tense environment under which the movie was made even afforded the filmmakers an opportunity to infuse the film with some sly references to the controversy: from Wiig’s character reading the comment “Ain’t no bitches gonna bust no ghosts” in response to a video the foursome put online to McCarthy’s character reminding her cohorts “You’re not supposed to be reading what crazy people write online.”
“The reason I do comedy and not drama is because I want people to have a great time, to laugh and be happy,” Feig said earlier this year. “It’s great that this has become such a religion for everybody but at the same time these movies exist to make people laugh. It’s what Ivan [Reitman, director of the original Ghostbusters] was trying to do 30 years ago and it’s what we’re trying to do now.”
But the question remains: Will that be enough?