Did ‘Ghostbusters’ Open at the Box Office? Or Disappoint?

In Hollywood, a movie either "opens" —scores well at the box office on its opening weekend—or it's a disappointment in relation to cost, one way or the other.
Columbia Pictures

Read the reports on the weekend box office and you might wind up scratching your head about the performance of Sony’s female “Ghostbusters” reboot.

Did it “fail” to unseat “The Secret Life of Pets” in first place? Yes. But opening at number one doesn’t necessarily guarantee a hit.

Was it strong enough to jump-start a long-dormant possible franchise? Sony is weaker in franchise depth than other studios and needed this Amy Pascal-produced flick to thrive. According to distribution chief Rory Bruer, the likelihood of a sequel is strong.

Box office success is measured by cost vs. return, expectations vs. reality, and last year’s record numbers vs. a weak summer 2016. Few summer 2016 releases grabbed more advance attention. During this feast-or-famine season, the mid-range initial “Ghostbusters” performance is far from great, but mainly positive. Word of mouth could drive more attendance.

This is a glass half-full/half-empty story. We don’t know the foreign take yet. “Ghostbusters” is the prototypical summer 2016 non-animated film: risky due to expense, compelling to some audiences, but a mixed bag. And once again, measuring whether it is a success comes down to its $144 million budget plus some $100 million-plus in worldwide marketing costs.

Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters

The budget aside, it’s the biggest live action comedy opening since “22 Jump Street” last summer; the biggest opening of the already successful Melissa McCarthy’s career; the best opening for director Paul Feig, whose hits include “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Spy.” And it’s the best opening weekend this summer for a film neither animated nor Marvel-based, including several films at its cost or higher. Its the third best opening among similar films all year, with only “Batman v Superman” and “The Jungle Book” beating its figures.

And this comes in the face of relentless negative anti-women buzz, marketing miscues and an early badly-received trailer. With the trajectory of the summer, this was positioned to be the latest in a series of obvious flops (“The Huntsman: Winter Warrior,” “Warcraft,” and “The BFG” among them) or seriously under-performing films (“Independence Day: Resurgence”) causing concern in the industry.

Ghostbusters” had to deal with inflated projections for a sequel, even 32 years later. In context, this summer’s original comedy “Central Intelligence” with Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson is a clear success, but it opened to $11 million less. Anyone remember “Neighbors 2”? It opened only half as well. “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” won’t gross its entire run what “Ghostbusters” achieved on its first weekend. No one is calling those studios crazy for making these male-centered comedies, nor did any invoke any ripple of backlash.

The problem is that no comedy franchise of late has risen to the level of “The Hangover” or “Men in Black” films. Comedy has become much more of a niche item. And worse, it is a genre less easy to make for the one-size-fits-all international market (China predictably refused to book it because of the censors’ long-held aversion to ghost stories). So backing it with such a high price-tag was a risk, irrespective of who starred in it.

Rebooting the movie with women—McCarthy is a huge comedy draw— followed the “let’s take the familiar but add something original formula” that has been working of late. This was a brilliant solution to the decades-long stalled remake. Try to imagine a redo with, say, Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill and Kevin Hart, who as talented as they are, would have borne tricky comparisons to Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. At least McCarthy, Kristin Wiig and Leslie Jones start off as sufficiently different to be distinctive and not replicants.

So we have a respectable but not sensational opening number for an entertaining mainstream summer comedy. Two unknown X factors will determine its success: how it holds at home, and how it plays overseas. On the first: McCarthy’s films have mostly played in the 3.5 to 4X multiple totals. At the low end (not guaranteed), that would mean $161 million at home.

So far so good. But foreign is tricky. Only one of McCarthy’s films (Wiig and the others are non-factors overseas) has taken in more foreign than domestic, and most far less, even “The Heat” with movie star Sandra Bullock. On the positive side, so far its limited foreign release in three territories has yielded positive results, with the U.K. and Australia (among the likely more favorable territories) coming in at #1.

Also likely in Sony’s calculations is the “Men in Black” films, which in an era when foreign wasn’t nearly so strong, did better overseas, even with African-American star Will Smith (after his star-making role in “Independence Day,” a world-wide smash far beyond McCarthy’s exposure).,Sony might have done better rebooting the movie as an animated film. That sort of original flavor for a known product might have played.

But again, on its own terms—reviews were largely positive, 60% on Metacritic against 67% for the original— other than budget, this is an idea that had appeal and did better than many other supposed tentpoles this season.

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