Which gets us to the situation of the recent Ghostbusters film. How do you pull off retelling a joke that was told decades ago? Can you franchise it in advance for the silver screen? So far the answer is looking like "no".
Immediately upon the opening of Ghostbusters in mid-July, top Sony executives boldly declared a sequel to Paul Feig's all-female reboot of Ivan Reitman's 1984 classic was a given. "While nothing has been officially announced yet, there's no doubt in my mind it will happen," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony.
That was the studio's last public mention of a sequel. As of Aug. 7, Ghostbusters had earned just under $180 million at the global box office, including $117 million domestic. The film still hasn't opened in a few markets, including France, Japan and Mexico, but box-office experts say it will have trouble getting to $225 million despite a hefty net production budget of $144 million plus a big marketing spend. The studio has said break-even would be $300 million.
Nearly a month after its release, “Ghostbusters,” has brought in just $180 million worldwide. And with a total take projected to end up at something like $240 million, the reimagining of the 1984 favorite will not come close to making back its large production and marketing budgets. Sources familiar with the film’s finances say that it’s likely to end up losing about $75 million, with Sony’s financial hit coming closer to about $50 million, because of its co-financing arrangement with Village Roadshow.
So for those who took the release of the film to praise the film for being a decent reboot over against the hate-o-rade of the man-o-sphere trolls ... well, it remains to be seen if the film breaks even. In an era in which film critics have complained about peak reboot and franchises they don't want to have to cover (i.e. superheroes), it's as if the one unique thing the Ghostbusters franchise seemed to have going for it was the girlpower thing. Except that as franchises go there's a problem with counting the money before you get it, especially when the production is expensive.
Here's the bad news: This movie cost $144 million after tax incentives and rebates. It had a P&A (promotional and advertising) spend rumored to be over $100 million. That puts the total amount Sony sunk into this movie in the $250 million range, which is ... a lot for a comedy. Like: a lot. Box Office Mojo is predicting a total domestic run in the $135–$145 million range, which would barely be enough to earn back its production budget. And unlike similar openers from last year, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Hotel Transylvania 2, Sony can't rely on overseas audiences to significantly boost that number.
In hindsight, it seems absurd: Why would Sony spend superhero money on a comedy? Feig's track record is impressive, but it's impressive because he tends to make sensibly budgeted movies that deliver a significant return on investment: Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy cost $32.5 million, $43 million, and $65 million, respectably.
The answer resides in the Sony leak. Hundreds of emails leaked in early 2015 were related to the reboot of Ghostbusters. But the most interesting of them all — more interesting than their attempts to hire Christopher Lord and Phil Miller to do Ghostbusters 3; more interesting than the efforts to balance power between Ivan Reitman and Paul Feig; more interesting than the dozens of actors, writers, and directors who tried to get themselves attached to Ghostbusters — is one Amy Pascal, then co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, sent to Michael De Luca, then Sony's president of production, that frames everything in a much more understandable, if not entirely defensible, light: They were hoping Ghostbusters would be the basis of a Marvel-like universe for Sony.
The orginal film did not have to live up to advance expectations of being a cinematic franchise. Now perhaps someone at Jezebel already has a thinkpiece about how, once again, women have to live up to an unrealistic expectation men never have to deal with and that the financial frustrations of the new Ghostbusters franchise embody this patriarchal norm.
But are we absolutely sure that the Ghostbusters would-be franchise has to bear the weight of the expectations of girl power? Or was the selling point the all female-led cast as a quartet of women who aren't named Milla or Kate? Have film critics praised the girl power motif in the Resident Evil franchise or the Underworld franchise or have the tropes of waif-fu weighed against those cinematic juggernauts? I'm not saying the Underworld movies are, like, great movies--I went out to see Love & Friendship because I was hoping Beckinsale would shift gears and leave vampires alone for a bit and go back to stuff like Jane Austen because she's great at that type of thing. Beckinsale's going to be in a fifth Underworld film in 2017 and Jovovich's going to be in the supposedly finale chapter of the Resident Evil franchise in 2017, too. That's five and six movies respectively spanning more than a decade. Are they good movies? Eh ... but then we could ask what we mean by a good movie with respect to what under other circumstances could be called a studio's cynical reboot of a decades old franchise.
If Ghostbusters got a reboot with an all-male cast would press reception have been as adulatory or would the cynicism about peak reboot characteristic of other responses to other franchises have been the same? The possibility of the franchise continuing in the form of animated shows might be the best thing for the franchise. It's possible for a film franchise with some terrible lows to spawn a surprisingly solid animated series, the Bay-formers franchise is still pretty lame but the Transformers Prime series is, if you've ever been into the Transformers, one of the greatest iterations of the show in terms of cartoons. It's worth it just for Steve Blum's Starscream, even if they didn't manage to snag Peter Cullen (as usual) for Optimus Prime and bring back the inimitable Frank Welker to reprise his role as Megatron. But then cartoons directly targeted to kids are off the table for people--which might be a whole separate category of thought. In the midst of all the complaints from mainstream critics about superheroes and franchises I can't remember seeing anyone complain that the live action DC cinematic universe has none of the charms that you can find in Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's fifteen year run spanning Batman: the animated series through Justice League Unlimited.
And let's suppose for the moment that Ghostbusters does fine and that live-action sequel does get greenlit. There's nowhere to go but up for raising the stakes. The stakes can't be less than the whole city and maybe whether or not the team will keep working together and eventually all space-time as we know it has to be at stake. As we've been seeing in the superhero genre when everything is at stake we know that, in the end, nothing is at stake. The Dark Knight became a highwater mark for the superhero film not just because the Joker presented a personal challenge to Batman but also because in a genre where the hero traditionally gets to have his cake and eat it, too, Batman failed to save either Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent, we know by now that if Harvey Dent had just died that Batman's failure would have been less than it was after Dent decided to embrace the label of Two-Face and go on a personal vendetta against not just the criminals of Gotham but also the police. To see the more conventional big screen version you can go back and watch Batman Forever for how the genre more conventionally plays out, or Raimi's first Spiderman film. If the studio really wanted Ghostbusters to be the basis for a reboot with endless franchise potential the problem of having the stakes be city-wide from jump hasn't done them any favors.
The case that some of these franchises work better as TV can be made on the premise that in a television series you have time to slowly raise the stakes as larger but less easily seen threats can take shape. For instance, whereas Batman may be forced to always deal with the level of Gotham city in a film in a TV show it could be at the level of the impact one corrupt corporate shark will have on a neighborhood. The fact that films tend to raise the stakes to all or nothing has been one of the problems in the superhero franchise that Ghostbusters would fall prey to even if we got another film. In a television format there could be any number of freak-of-the-week cases with a through-line of some larger threat, but who says that larger threat has to be a ghost? It could be the problem of funding and fiscal viability, a kind of jokey meta-commentary on the challenges of keeping a decades old franchise in operation.
But it seems as though movie reviewers who are eager to have something besides superheroes and the studio execs have foisted expectations on a film that the genera populace has not agreed to bestow upon it. Even if you could make a case that the Ghostbusters reboot has to be better at every level than The Suicide Squad (and if you want a little goofy chart about the gap between audience and critic reception of supehero films ... ) you can lead the movie-going horse to water but you can't make them drink.
Perhaps there's a middle ground to stake out, like Richard Brody's comment that on the one hand "this" cast and director that wasn't making "this" uninspired and tepid remake could have made a much better movie if a studio weren't pre-committed to franchise the daylights in advance out of the thing.
But then what if we're thinking about this all wrong. Superhero stories are, in the end, always about fights and there are dozens of variables involved in any given fight, right? Let's turn this around, every comedic film is in some sense a vastly expanded joke. To franchise Ghostbusters, or any comparable comedy, you either have to assume there's more than one central joke guiding the narrative possibilities of these characters ... or to put it another way, you have to accept the premise that the same joke can be just as funny told in ever-so-slightly varied ways without changing the fundamental nature of the joke.
How did that play out the first time around for Ghostbusters? It doesn't seem like the second film was quite as funny or fun. By contrast, how many Die Hard movies have we gotten? Or consider that Kate and Milla may only in 2017 theoretically put their respective action franchises to rest (if that?). It's not that women can't headline action movies. Kate and Milla have handily proven over the last ten years they can do it. But it's arguably easier to create that franchise magic if you're not banking on it and insisting on it in advance and, perhaps most crucially of all, spending as if that franchise success is already a foregone conclusion.