The audience perspective
When the new Ghostbusters movie, directed by Paul Feig and featuring a cast made up of comedy powerhouses Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, was announced, the feedback was immediate and severe. “Fanboys” from all over instantly freaked out at what they felt was the desecration of a movie they loved, though that was tinged with more than a little misogyny as they basically didn’t like a bunch of girls invading the clubhouse they’d been sheltered in for the better part of 30 years.
No one felt that backlash more than Jones, who had the temerity to be both a woman and an African-American. Despite a solid career of being very funny, Jones caught a lot of flack for doing more than the other three to destroy the franchise. It was as if she had announced she’d only take the role if she could be assured all remaining home video editions of the 1984 original be destroyed in front of her. Much of that vitriol was lead or encouraged by alt-right superstar Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter after Jones threatened to quit the social network over the abuse she received. Twitter obviously saw more value in Jones sticking around than Yiannopoulos.
I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart.All this cause I did a movie.You can hate the movie but the shit I got today…wrong
— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) July 19, 2016
The old saying is that there’s no bad publicity. So maybe all of this controversy, which was well-covered in the press right around the time of the movie’s opening, actually helped it’s box-office results?
That’s an interesting theory but the numbers don’t reflect that.
Again, this whole kerfluffle was happening right around the time Ghostbusters was opening in theaters. The first weekend gross was a bit north of $65 million, absolutely respectable for a comedy but a number that was labeled a “disappointment” when attached to a major, effects-heavy franchise launch like this was supposed to be. How much of that total was driven by fans whose curiosity had been piqued by the Twitter affair?
It’s hard to say since that’s a big intangible and there’s no actual data to indicate it played any sizable role in turning people out to the theater. Some may have, but it’s likely they were offset by the masses who boycotted the movie for reasons. And if they did buy tickets then they didn’t tell their friends to do likewise because sales dropped 52% in the second weekend of release.
So what we had was a situation where the audience seemed to be split, with a percentage declaring their intention never to see the movie based solely on their hurt feelings and another percentage either genuinely looking forward to it for any number of reasons – the cast, the franchise, their love of comedies – or at least willing to give it a shot. It’s almost impossible to know without doing a deep dive of social analytics who was or wasn’t influenced by the Twitter backlash against Jones or the movie as a whole, all we can do is look at the box office. That $46 million was the biggest comedy opening in a year and in line with previous movies from Feig, McCarthy and the rest of the talent involved.
Would it have been higher without the hate speech surrounding Jones’ casting? Possibly. Some people who weren’t fans might have been willing to give it a shot regardless, only to feel emboldened by others giving voice to opinions they themselves had but weren’t expressing. By that I mean they may have moved, through the hate speech of others, from the “Maybe” to the “No” column. But how that was balanced out by those moving from “Maybe” to “Yes” in response to the same speech online is also unknown.
The bigger positive effect was, interestingly, likely on Jones’ own career. Not to underplay the horrific and illegal hacking of her website that followed, and which almost certainly was pulled off by Yiannopoulos supporters protesting his Twitter ban, she’s had some great success individually. Most notably, her activity on Twitter during the recent Olympic Games were so amazing and so popular NBC brought her to Rio to do her thing in person. She’s become the internet’s favorite aunt.
The industry perspective
The marketing for “Ghostbusters” started with odds stacked against it. Many people expressed their disapproval towards the spin put on the franchise by bringing in an all-female main cast. The marketing couldn’t avoid referring to the original movies in the hope that they would attract some of the original fans. The problem seems to have been that this was a reboot, and not actually a continuation of the franchise, so it was hard to get Ghostheads on the same page. Not to mention that the “Ghostbusters” reboot had a tough bill: both to be a successful movie and the kickstart of a new franchise. It didn’t manage to accomplish either of those.
Most of the social media marketing for the movie was engulfed, as Chris notes, by discussions on feminism and sexism which didn’t do a great deal of help. Some maintain that this was a deliberate strategy that grossly backfired.
The film’s trailer, launched on March 3, 2016, currently stands at almost 41 million views with more than 1 million downvotes (they far surpass the 293K upvotes). The downpour of discontent started early on and keeps going strong (indicating that Sony can’t expect to make up for their loss with home entertainment).
The film was clearly positioned to target a predominantly female audience, but fell short of its expectation (according to Hollywood Reporter, around 56% of the audience were female). But it was clear this film wouldn’t have any chance to succeed without attracting a male audience. To that effect, the marketing included promos aired during the NBA Finals in the US.
The core elements of the promotional campaign for this film overwhelmingly centred around the female cast. The backlash to that decision which involved not only Leslie Jones, but also director Paul Feig, vocally fighting nay-sayers on Twitter.
— Paul Feig (@paulfeig) September 23, 2015
While the movie’s targeting in terms of demographics was tricky, Sony had a very good idea when it came to genre. They banked on the comedic reputation of Paul Feig and the entire cast. Kristin Wiig and Melissa Mc Carthy had both successfully shown their comedy chops in Feig’s extremely successful “Bridsemaids”, while Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones came SNL-approved.
The film’s opening weekend was the most successful comedy release since “Pitch Perfect 2”, but it’s doubtful that the new “Ghostbusters” provided enough laughs; box office earnings steeply and consistently declined in following weeks.
There were many things that had “Ghostbusters” struggling. But, as many have argued, there was not much its marketing could save and the bad decisions that turned it into a financial flop went back to the project’s origin. Carey Martell did a comprehensive analysis of why Sony execs should have paid attention to Facebook before green-lighting this movie. And there’s agreement, across the board, that the movie went too big and bold with its budget (reportedly $144 millions, with an additional $100 millions in adversing and marketing expenditure).
We also agree that a smaller-scale film could have performed successfully with a niche audience, easily engaged by the feminine spin on the original. The social media buzz might have been quieter without the trolls, but “Ghostbusters” would have stood a better chance to succeed.
Chris Thilk, a freelance writer and content strategist in the Chicago area, writes Movie Marketing Madness, where he dissects Hollywood’s attempt to sell you movies, analysing marketing campaigns for upcoming releases.
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