Sony’s Ghostbusters Problem

Now that the dust has settled on Ghostbusters, it’s important to look at what led up to the eventual disappointment at the box office and what this ultimately means for Sony. It’s rare for a film to fail for one reason alone and Ghostbusters is no exception and while this article cannot analyse the entire minutia, it can look at the broad factors and attempt the piece together a picture of the failure.

It’s an important caveat that Ghostbusters’ failure is purely at the box office, as the film itself was reviewed, on average, positively. It also sits with a respectable audience appreciation score and is broadly not considered a ‘bad’ movie. With that out of the way, let’s dive into the less positive story that is Ghostbusters’ performance.

A thousand voices cry out

Ghostbusters was controversial as soon as it was announced – a small but very vocal section of the online community immediately bombarded the film with hate-filled remarks and blatant misogyny. This no doubt flustered Sony immensely and certainly presented a major obstacle to building hype. In the echo chamber that is the internet, criticism of the casting choices continued to build and eventually dominated the entire conversation. Sony desperately needed a clear strategy to deal with this to keep control of the film’s image.

Taking on the trolls

Choosing to fight the trolls was an admirable strategy, though hardly one that had a chance of succeeding. In tackling this they failed to heed the first rule of the internet – don’t feed the trolls. Sony essentially inflamed the situation and ensured that the conversation would now be dominated by the voices of this small minority. It was an interesting tack to take – it certainly succeeded in sending different internet communities into pure tribal mode, leading to stirring defences of the film before a single trailer had even released. Ordinarily it would be cynical to suggest that Sony deliberately stoked this fire at the expense of their cast, who actually had to endure this torrent of abuse, in order to build hype for their film, except that’s exactly what they did.

The biggest success to come from this approach was to completely sidestep the conversation around rebooting a beloved classic. This was actually the biggest stumbling block Sony faced when choosing to reboot rather than sequelise and could have, if enough traction was gained, have completely deflated the film’s hype well before it was in production. What this approach didn’t do, however, was build any hype in the mainstream audience. In choosing to fight a minority voice, they ensured that crucial column inches would be focused on this element of the film above all others. What Ghostbusters desperately needed at this stage was an excited and positive press to push the film into general consciousness.

By the numbers

Ghostbusters’ official budget stands at $144 million with an estimated $100 million allocated to the film’s high profile marketing campaigns (a conservative estimate at that – others suggest the figure is closer to $150 million). Sony insiders claim the breakeven number to be $300 million, which would add up if the marketing budget indeed sits at the upper end of the spectrum. Once you factor in distribution and exhibiting costs, the cut cinemas take from the box office (usually around 33% on a sliding scale – the longer a film sits in theatres, the less studios make per ticket sold), the cumulative haul of $194 million looks dire. Sony is looking at a projected loss of $70m-plus: hardly the makings of a staple franchise. While some defending the film have claimed that it could still breakeven, that isn’t the point – no studio wants their film to just breakeven. A film is an investment and the profits are used to fund the next investment – a film that breaks even cannot fund another entry, nor do much of anything beyond making the financial backers feel like they wasted years to end up with the same amount of money as they started with. Ghostbusters breaking even is the same as it flopping – anything short of profit is useless for Sony’s long-term plans.

Let’s be blunt – Ghostbusters was budgeted far higher than it ever should have been. The blame for that sits firmly with Amy Pascal, though current Sony Chairman Tom Rothman can’t be excused. Granted, on taking the reigns at Sony he immediately slashed $15m from the film’s over bloated budget, but this didn’t go nearly far enough and hardly makes up for the losses the film is now facing.

Ghostbusters is, and should have been, a solid $75m movie. At that budget, its performance would have been respectable enough to secure a sequel and change the tone of the conversation.

It’s easy to see why Ghostbusters was granted such a high budget however – it was being helmed by Paul Feig and fronted by Melissa McCarthy, two talents that proved themselves dependable at the box office. Bridesmaids was a slam-dunk that brought in close to 10 times its budget, while The Heat and Spy were also strong performers. It’s not hard to see the thinking behind bringing that team to Ghostbusters, and the expectations that would come with them. The problem with that strategy was the failure to really take on board and analyse the success of those films. These films were relatively low budget and appealed to specific audiences that were clearly targeted through an effective marketing campaign, which allowed them to perform as well as they did. If Sony simply expected Ghostbusters to perform at the same level, the film would have been budgeted accordingly; instead they looked at the return on investment in percentage terms and wrongly settled on the idea that a higher budget would still perform at the same percentage return; what they got was a film that performed, in dollar terms, broadly even with those previous hits.

Confused marketing

If you look at the overall marketing strategy it’s clear that Sony desperately wanted cross-demographic appeal: this is how we ended up with trailers aimed firmly at the female audience, hoping to lure the same crowd that made Bridesmaids a sure-fire hit, with other trailers hyping up the comedy and action, clearly aiming for the young male audience, and a rather ill-advised attempt to appeal to a family audience, something the film was unlikely to ever do given its penchant for adult and gross-out humour. Confusingly, one of the first trailers also made it seem that the upcoming reboot was a sequel to the original, something refuted by star Melissa McCarthy, in an apparent aim to target fans of the beloved original.

The marketing strategy failed the address the key question any marketing strategy has to start with – who is this for? Sony seemingly settled on the answer ‘everyone’ and so twisted the film to appear like it would do just that. By pursuing this strategy, Sony was effectively self-harming as they confused the message. It’s hard to see the relationship between the film presented in the marketing efforts and the film presented to audiences in theatres.

This isn’t exactly a new story in Hollywood – trailers are notorious for cherry-picking scenes and presenting what they think the target audience want to see, regardless of the actual film they’re supposedly promoting. But there are very few examples where this strategy pays off. More often than not, it simply alienates audiences who feel duped into watching a different film than the one they were expecting. In the age where word of mouth can sink a film in a weekend, this is increasingly a risky strategy.

If a studio is truly intent on following this strategy however, they have to be confident in the bluff and crucially, have really strong message discipline across the board – especially when it comes to the cast and crew, who will be expected to give interviews prior to release and so present the biggest risk factor.

Message discipline

The mistake Sony made was failing to reign in the cast and Paul Feig. When your studio is in the middle of a marketing campaign, it can only hurt when the key creatives contradict or feel the need to clarify the studio’s efforts. Effective marketing is about clear communication and a unified message – it will absolutely fail if this is lacking. A perfect example of this is in the Hilary Clinton tweet – Sony’s attempt to position itself as a glass-ceiling-smashing tentpole in line with Hilary’s recent (unrelated) comments and the mini hashtag mania that blew up afterwards, only to quickly backtrack and delete the tweet; ordinarily this would be fine, a slight misstep quickly corrected – except nobody thought to keep Paul Feig on message, as he quickly went out and supported the initial tweet and doubled-down on the now-aborted message. The image conjured was a director at odds with his studio’s own marketing.

It was these initial errors that haunted Sony for the rest of the campaign and they proved hard to come back from. By the time Sony realised this and tried to switch to a more traditional method of building hype for an upcoming release, it was too late and their new message was either ignored or drowned out, as the conversation was still dominated by what they set in motion earlier. It would prove to be a fatal blow to Ghostbusters’ box office ambitions. But the story here is less about a single film’s failure and more about what this means for its parent studio.

In need of a hit

The major problem vexing Sony is the distinct lack of dependable franchises in their vault. The biggest hits they’ve had came from Bond, which they’ve lost, and Spider-Man, which underperformed enough to kickstart a Marvel deal that sees Sony effectively cede control of the character.

For most studios, a franchise or two can sustain it through the flops. While franchises get a bad rap in online commentator circles, general audiences clearly don’t agree and a hit or two a year should yield enough profit for a studio to enable them to take a creative risk on a project with potential. A dependable franchise is a studio’s safety net and are, in this current climate, an absolute necessity for a studio to stay in business. It is this fact that provides context for nearly every decision Sony, and most rival studios, have made regarding their blockbuster slates.

The studio is clearly optimistic for Bad Boys 3 but with a reportedly high budget and the long downtime since the last entry, it would be no surprise to see a similar situation to Ghostbusters (the only ace in the sleeve is the star power of Will Smith, though he didn’t exactly help After Earth or Suicide Squad perform). Their other comedies with franchise potential have seemingly been bled dry: the prospect of another Grown Ups isn’t exactly stirring any passions, talk of another solo Jump Street entry is curiously quiet and Men in Black is sitting dormant. Those latter two entries were slated for a crossover film – MIB 23 – but that appears to be dead, according to star Jonah Hill. The Smurfs franchise came and went with little fanfare and seems destined for the direct-to-DVD market after the fourth entry, now a purely animated affair, releases in 2017.

The big surprise for Sony recently was the better-than-expected performance of The Equalizer, which is gearing up for a sequel and has strong franchise potential, being seen internally as a potential replacement for the Bond franchise. There’s also the Columbia-MGM feature The Magnificent Seven, which is tracking strongly, but is unlikely to prove enough of a success to make two studios equally happy. There’s also another instalment of Underworld and Resident Evil slated, two franchises that barely register. One film that is likely causing panic within Sony is the upcoming Jumanji reboot – another big budget comedy remake of a beloved film. Dwayne Johnson is usually a dependable star to have front your movie and Kevin Hart is in high demand. The last film to unite these two stars was Central Intelligence, which performed well for its budget – $200m and counting against a $50m budget. But if Jumanji performs similarly dollar for dollar, it would be a disaster for Sony – especially as Jumanji’s budget is nowhere close to $50m.

Desperate times

Sony has had a rough couple of years – they endured a startling hack that laid bare many confidential and embarrassing emails, a corporate-mandated change of leadership and worst of all, seeing their market share drop into single digits for two years in a row. Make no mistake, Sony is financially in trouble and if the current studio regime is to survive, they need a hit and they need one fast. Tom Rothman so far has been able to point to the slate he inherited and shield himself from too much blame; but as the slate he has developed comes into frame, it’s clear that Sony is still in troubled waters and has learned little.

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