How Sony has sold its latest attempt to revive an iconic franchise
Whenever I’m talking about the nostalgia industrial complex that’s built up over the last couple decades, Ghostbusters is usually the example I pull out. Sony/Columbia and its various partners have worked hard to sell 1/8th reproductions of Ecto-1, proton pack-shaped USB chargers and other consumer products and high-end collectibles to a largely male audience who still hold the 1984 comedy as the single most important cultural moment of their lives.
As such it wasn’t wholly surprising when that same crowd came out in force to push back on Paul Fieg’s 2016 reboot of the franchise considering he was letting girls in what was *clearly* a boys-only clubhouse.
And it’s not wholly surprising that, five years later, Sony Pictures has taken a 180-degree turn from that previous effort.
That new take, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, comes out this week. The movie stars Carrie Coon as Callie Spengler, daughter of Egon, played in the originals by the late Harold Ramis. Carrie has moved herself and her two kids – Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Fill Wolfhard) – to Oklahoma and a house her father left her years ago. When strange, supernatural things start happening in town it’s up to the remaining members of the Spengler family, along with their new friends and science teacher Chad Grooberson (Paul Rudd) to save the town and the world.
While the 2016 movie had most of the original cast appearing in small cameos as other characters, this time around they are reprising those original roles. So we get Bill Murray as Peter Venkman, Sigourney Weaver as Dana Barret, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore, Annie Potts as Janine Melnitz and Dan Ackroyd as Raymond Stantz.
Having all of them return is indicative of a campaign that is steeped in nostalgia, not for what it can tell us about our present or future but for the comforting blanket of familiarity it offers.
announcement and casting
The news that Reitman would be creating his own Ghostbusters film came out of more or less nowhere in mid-January 2019. At that time a brief teaser was released that didn’t offer any footage from the film but set the tone and made sure everyone knew it was in the works.
The early 2019 announcement included the clarification this film would follow the original movie’s timeline, not that of the 2016 Paul Feig movie, a fact the cast of that film wasn’t thrilled with and many questioned, seeing a missed opportunity to expand that story.
Further complicating matters, Reitman commented in February 2019 that he was planning on “giving the movie back to the fans,” talking about the lengths he was going to in order to cater to those who still hold the original to be a sacred pop culture text. Those comments were interpreted as him validating the criticisms of the 2016 film and telling the men who complained about women being allowed near their beloved franchise that he shared their perspective. He clarified things a short while later, expressing his love of Feig’s film and the actors in it, but the message still hung out there.
An interview with Ackroyd allowed him to talk about how the main reason this film was greenlit over a sequel to the 2016 movie was cost, with this one reportedly sporting a much lower budget than that would have necessitated. Around the same time Murray was in Cannes for another film but said during his press appearances there that he’d be open to another Ghostbusters film if the offer came in.
The focus continued to be on the status of the original cast, as mid-2019 kept bringing various comments and updates from Reitman and others that various members had read the script and were interested or had already committed. Paul Rudd revealed in late June that he had taken on a supporting role in the film, with Ackroyd and Hudson confirming they’d be appearing a couple months later. He spoke briefly about it while promoting other things last year.
Rudd’s casting was announced in June, 2019 via a video of him filming outside the New York firehouse that was the team’s original headquarters.
Wolfhard spoke about the audition process during CinemaCon 2019.
marketing phase one
Vanity Fair got things officially started in December 2019, sharing a batch of first look photos along with comments from Reitman and others.
A supernatural storm brews in the distant sky on the first poster, released shortly after those stills came out. Showing the Ecto-1 speeding through a wheat field toward that storm establishes the connections to the past as well as the setting of the current story.
The first trailer (21.1m YouTube views), released at the same time, starts by establishing the setting of the film. Trevor and his family are relocating to a farmhouse in a small town because they’re broke and it’s the only thing still in their name, left to them by their unnamed grandfather. As strange and spooky things begin happening around them, Phoebe uncovers a secret stash of ghostbusting equipment no one but her teacher Mr. Gooberson recognizes it for what it is. It isn’t long before the kids are using that old equipment as more and more supernatural creatures begin appearing.
Wolfhard commented on the movie while he was promoting other things earlier this year.
While speculation had surrounded his involvement, Murray finally revealed he would return as Dr. Peter Venkman in January. That was part of an extended profile that had him talking about the legacy of the franchise and much more.
Several of the movie’s stars joined the original cast and filmmakers in one of Josh Gad’s conference Zoom calls in mid-June.
An interview with Ackroyd allowed him to make it clear that while Ramis wasn’t in the film his spirit would be well-represented.
Coon appeared on “Kimmel” to promote other projects in January but spoke briefly about this film as well.
Later on Murray spoke about his initial reluctance to come on board for the film and how Reitman won him over.
At the end of March last year, Sony announced it was shifting the movie’s release date by several months as theaters remained closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It got pushed a few more months in October, and then again in January to November.
marketing phase two
With that new November 2021 release date set, the campaign started up once again a few months ago.
A mysterious teaser was released in early April, showing Mr. Gooberson doing some shopping only to come across mini versions of an old foe.
Things really started off in early June on #GhostbustersDay, so-called because 6/8 was the day the original movie was released all the way back in 1984.
Related events included:
- The cast and crew of the movie taking fan questions via Twitter Spaces
- Merchandise promotions from both Reitmans and others
- Lots of new consumer products announcements
- The elder Reitman and Murray discussing whether or not Ghostbusters Day is an official holiday
Reitman Jr. and Sr. were both part of a featurette released in early June that had the two talking about their life long experiences with the franchise as well as how the idea of passing things down from generation to generation is reflected in the story.
The next trailer (2.7m YouTube views) didn’t come out until July 2021. It hits many of the same beats as the first one, showing how Trevor is kind of a loner in a small town where his family has moved into the house his grandfather left them. From there on it’s all building mythology, with Jeanine helping them get settled and hinting that Egon wanted them to come here for a reason. That reason may have something to do with the mysterious happenings in town, which just escalate over time. It ends with Ray picking up the phone in his occult books shop, hinting at his involvement in the story as well.
Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” fame announced in August that he had been on the set of the film and would be offering behind-the-scenes looks at production.
Sony screened the movie in full at CinemaCon in August, giving attendees much more than the usual selection of trailers and clips. Both Reitmans were in attendance to praise the studio and get people excited for the film.
Reitman and the visual effects crew were interviewed about bringing the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man back.
Short teasers like this started coming out at the end of August offering little snippets from the movie.
A second poster was finally released in September that shows Trevor, Phoebe and their friends exiting the Ecto-1 to get a look at a mysterious beam either coming from or reaching up to the gathering clouds.
Both Reitmans and others from the cast appeared at New York Comic-Con in October for a panel about the movie. That panel wound up also including a surprise screening of the movie for those in attendance.
While the sizzle reel released after that panel had fans praising the film (the word “amazing” is frequently invoked), overall reviews were far less positive, with many critics panning it as the worst example of empty nostalgia, with objects from previous films shown for no real reason other than to evoke a SQUEE reaction from people who remember it from the original.
VFX producer Kerry Joseph was interviewed about the process of bringing miniature versions of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to life.
Cinemark released an exclusive poster that simply shows the Ecto-1 speeding down the streets of Summerville.
Reitman was slightly more complimentary toward Feig’s 2016 movie in another interview, saying it opened the doors to additional stories set in the universe of the first films.
The cast and Reitman appeared in a video supporting LGBTQ+ youth on Spirit Day in October. Lots of ghosts and movie branding were part of the Halloween episode of “The Kelly Clarkson Show” with Grace and Hudson stopping by as well.
MovieClips got an exclusive clip at the beginning of November showing Mr. Gooberson helping the kids revive one of the old ghost traps Egon left behind.
Reitman was interviewed by the PlayStation Blog team about taking on the franchise and what he hoped audiences would get out of it. PlayStation also debuted a new clip of Mr. Gooberson encountering a Terror Dog – the big supernatural bear that chased Louis Tully out of his apartment – and more.
An exclusive IMAX poster shows someone sitting in the gunner chair of the Ecto-1 as they blast a spook or specter in the sky.
The final trailer (3.2m YouTube views), released just last week, only runs a minute but includes a lot of elements from throughout the campaign, including Phoebe trying to revive her grandfather’s legacy, plenty of antics from the Mini-Pufts and, at the end, the biggest tease to date that the original Ghostbusters are back in action.
Rudd made the talk show rounds to not only promote the movie but also accept his status as the newest Sexiest Man Alive according to People Magazine.
A poster for ScreenX shows the Ecto-1 making crop circles in someone’s field. D-Box put out a commercial promoting the more visceral experience audiences will have seeing it in that format. The Dolby Cinemas poster shows the Ecto-1 racing toward trouble.
A premiere red carpet event was held just days ago in New York City with the cast and crew all in attendance.
Murray, Hudson and Ackroyd appeared together on “The Tonight Show” to talk about reuniting for the sequel after so many years.
Costar Logan Kimchi hosted a featurette introducing audiences to the rest of the movie’s cast.
An interview with Coon had her talking about the way the movie depicts science, the family-centric nature of the story and more.
With a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 66% and projections estimating an opening weekend take of $30 million or less (the 2016 movie – considered to have flopped hard – brought in $46 million) it seems that demand for a direct sequel isn’t as high as those who hold the rights might be hoping.
If that comes to pass it could indicate that pure, single-malt nostalgia is powerful enough to sell high end replicas of 30 year old toys but not enough to actually generate interest in *anything* new for that property.
Such a statement would be a powerful rebuke to those who jumped on the narrative, even free from any misogyny, that the 2016 movie failed because it deviated too far from the norm.
About the marketing campaign for this movie specifically there are a few themes that are apparent:
Mini-Pufts as Minions: Let’s remember that the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the first movie isn’t a comedic element in and of itself. It’s a harbinger of death, with the Ghostbusters reacting comedically to its appearance. But here, they are treated like any sort of recent cute, animated creation. As such they form one of the centerpieces of the campaign.
The Ecto-1 as Ark of the Covenant: The central element on all the posters is the converted ambulance that has been pulled out of the garage and fixed up for a new generation. That makes sense, but it also betrays a lack of faith in the new characters, whose faces aren’t even seen on those posters because so much real estate is devoted to a car.
Recreating the Past: More than anything, the campaign is about including as many easter eggs referencing the original as possible. Just scan the movie’s Twitter feed and you’ll see multiple retweets of others who have pointed out similarities – sometimes shot for shot – between the first movie and what’s seen in the new one’s trailers.
All of that isn’t to say that the campaign isn’t good. It is. But it also relies almost exclusively on creating a sense of nostalgia in an audience that may only be interested in watching the original instead of exploring any new territory lest it tarnish their long-held opinions.