In the online age of instant opinions and inevitable backlash a new “Ghostbusters” film, sans the original cast, was always going to be met with moderate disapproval – another instance of Hollywood’s risk-averse reliance on past success to generate future profit.
Yet such is the nature of outrage culture and gender politics in 2016 that what seemed a fairly cynical reboot of a beloved 80s comedy (nothing new for Hollywood) became the most controversial mainstream film in years.
The initial decision to replace the original “Ghostbusters” with an all-female cast seemed a valid, if ultimately misguided, attempt to attract a new audience to a franchise that historically appealed more to the male demographic. Giving the directing reins to Paul Feig, most famous for his female-driven comedy hits like “Bridesmaids” and “Spy” therefore seemed a logical choice, as did pairing him with regular collaborators like Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy.
But it was a decision that subsumed the film itself, as critics and supporters alike jumped on the gender issue and turned what should have been a straightforward summer comedy into the unwitting focus of an ongoing ideological war.
On one side were the fanboys who somehow maintained that recasting the Ghostbusters as female was a blasphemous affront to the legacy of the original film and on the other, the film’s creators and commentators who decried any reservations or criticisms about the reboot, no matter how minor, as sexist trolling.
Yet over a month after its cinematic release, Sony’s “Ghostbusters” looks likely to go down as a box-office failure and has jeopardised the future of potential sequels that at one stage looked a foregone conclusion.
The film has crept above $US200m worldwide against a budget of approximately $US144m, which won’t be enough to offset its large marketing budget. The studio suggested a return of $US300m would be enough to break even, which looks increasingly unlikely given the film’s modest international earnings and lack of release in China, meaning Sony are looking at losses in the tens of millions.
So as Sony licks their wounds, it seems important to point out that the failure of “Ghostbusters” is a net win for no one – not for the fanboys who derided the film before a single frame had been released and helped the film’s first trailer become one of the most disliked videos in Youtube’s history, racking up over 600,000 thumbs-down votes, and certainly not for the critics and commentators who suggested an all-female reboot was itself a substantial victory in the perceived war against the patriarchy.
Despite the name-calling and accusations of agenda on both sides, the film simply failed to find a big enough audience to meet the studio’s high expectations. According to the Hollywood Reporter, women made up 56 percent of the “Ghostbusters” audience, a marked drop compared to female-driven hits like “Bridesmaids” and “Pitch Perfect”, both of which had females make up over 75 percent of their audience.
Coupled with an advertising campaign that seemingly alienated a substantial portion of the male demographic on which the film would rely if it were to succeed at the box office and it seems “Ghostbusters” fell between two stools – a big-budget blockbuster that couldn’t rise above the perfect storm of backlash and controversy it had courted and created.
The film received positive reviews, not unsurprising given the track record of its director and cast, but a closer look at some of the more praiseworthy critical opinions suggests an undercurrent of point-proving. Positive reviews were often peppered with gleeful proclamations that the film’s competence proved the misogynists wrong. As one Guardian review read, ‘call off the trolls – Paul Feig’s female reboot is a blast,’ again reducing opposition of the film to a matter of sexism.
It doesn’t help that the film’s funniest character is a man – Chris Hemsworth as the group’s air-headed receptionist. Whilst the character is obviously an inversion of the more traditionally-sexist ditzy female receptionist trope, it’s telling that the film extracts most of its laughs from a relatively two-dimensional caricature – a vain simpleton whose bumbling antics drift well beyond the realms of believability.
Yet the film’s box-office returns suggest a disconnect between audiences and critics, certainly not the first time it has happened in the history of Hollywood, but noteworthy given the furore it faced. There was a palpable sense that both sides saw the film’s reception as the chance at a moral victory and moulded their opinions accordingly, as if the success or failure of a mainstream summer comedy could ever vindicate long-held beliefs about gender and identity politics.
A reboot of a light-hearted comedy film should never have been mired in the murky, poisonous world of online gender politics. Unfortunately, such is the nature of outrage culture on both sides of the debate, that the controversy now looks to have been inevitable in hindsight and the box-office failure of “Ghostbusters” looks a cautionary tale in the perils of using cinema as a form of virtue-signalling and political point-scoring.