‘Ghostbusters’ (Columbia Pictures)
Has there ever been a more fun idea for a movie than Ocean’s Ocho? A breezy heist film in the tradition of Ocean’s Eleven, it’s set to star (so far) Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and rapper-comedienne Awkwafina. Impossible to resist, right? Except all of a sudden, Ocean’s Ocho is being called “risky” by the Hollywood Reporter. Because of Ghostbusters.
See, Ghostbusters was a reboot of a beloved franchise, with the twist that the main cast was female instead of male. And Ghostbusters fell short of projected box office numbers. So now, Hollywood is reportedly panicking about any remake or movie spinoff involving women. “In the wake of Ghostbusters’ lackluster performance … studios began reevaluating other all-female reboots,” THR reports in another article, headlined “All-Female ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ Spinoff Looking to Avoid ‘Ghostbusters’-Type Backlash.”
Never mind that Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Ocho have nothing else in common, other than the fact that they have women leads and are quasi-remakes (like every other studio tentpole). It goes to show that Hollywood still thinks of female protagonists as a gimmick, and a risky one at that, rather than the natural progression of a movie industry with a largely female audience. If not for that deeply ingrained idea, nobody would be panicking about Ghostbusters’ box office numbers — because “women can’t carry a blockbuster” is absolutely the wrong lesson to take from that film.
For one thing, reports of Ghostbusters’ death have been greatly exaggerated. It didn’t hit the numbers Sony projected, but it actually did pretty well for an ensemble comedy with only a few stars (Kristin Wiig, Chris Hemsworth, and the only person who can still single-handedly open a film, Melissa McCarthy). With a $181 million worldwide take (so far), the film has recouped its production costs and would be considered a modest hit … if it weren’t for the fact that it was really, really expensive. Thanks to its astronomical effects budget, Ghostbusters needed to clear $300 million worldwide for Sony to declare it a hit. And outside the U.S., the movie was always a dicey proposition: Comedies generally don’t do well overseas; the Ghostbusters movies aren’t an internationally beloved franchise, and the film couldn’t even open in the biggest foreign market, China (likely because of the nation’s ban on “supernatural themes” in films). While industry publications are estimating Sony’s loss at $50 million to $75 million, the profits from other revenue streams (including product placement, video games, home video releases, and those reportedly robust toy sales) could still make the franchise a viable property. And for the record, Sony hasn’t officially ruled out a sequel.
Basically, if the movie had been made with director Paul Feig’s usual budget of under $100 million, it would have been an unqualified success. (Ghostbusters had a bigger opening weekend than any of his previous films, including Bridesmaids.) Audiences turned out, even with the noxious online backlash, which weighed down a fun summer blockbuster with unnecessary baggage. But it’s no surprise that Hollywood is so quick to declare the female-led reboot a failed experiment. It has done this before.
You know how Wonder Woman (in theaters next year) will be the first female superhero movie since 2005? That’s because Hollywood execs convinced themselves that nobody likes female heroes. Last year, the Sony email leak uncovered a note from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter to Sony CEO Michael Lynton making a case that female superhero films are box-office poison. Perlmutter’s examples were Catwoman and Elektra, released about a decade earlier, and Supergirl, released more than 30 years ago. All of these films were panned by critics, as were several notable superhero bombs starring men (Green Lantern, anybody?). Still, in the minds of the men who make these decisions, these particular movies failed because they starred women — and the studio heads stood firm in that belief, even as Hunger Games and Divergent proved that women in genre films could dominate the box office.
Just imagine the conversation reversed. Did anyone make a case that Batman v Superman got a lackluster reception because it starred two men? Or that last year’s Sony bomb Pixels torpedoed a beloved property with its all-male ensemble? If anything, in the past year, female protagonists have been a boon at the box office. Look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Finding Dory, Cinderella, Zootopia, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Pitch Perfect 2. Even the specialty box office does better with female-led films, such as these movies from the list of year’s top-10 indie films: The Witch, Love & Friendship, The Lady in the Van, and Hello, My Name Is Doris.
Hollywood has picked up on this to some extent, or the gender-reversed reboot wouldn’t have become a trend in the first place. But the Ghostbusters panic reveals just how tenuous the position of women remains. Thankfully, it appears that Warner Bros. is still confident about Ocean’s Ocho and isn’t bowing to pressure to anchor the all-star female ensemble with a leading man. Hopefully the other female-led reboots in the works (including Disney’s The Rocketeer, Fox’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, MGM’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Imagine Entertainment’s Splash) will also move forward and be judged on their own merits. Because the question of whether a movie with a female protagonist can succeed has already been answered, time and again.