Until recently, it was a commonplace in Hollywood that blockbusters centered around female protagonists were a bad idea because while girls and women would pay to see films about the Han Solos and Iron Men of the world, boys and men would not show up for distaff adventures. Just in the last decade, though, that rule has changed: Movies like the Twilight and Hunger Games sagas, Tangled and Frozen could not have done as well as they did by selling tickets exclusively to females, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which turned out to have a female lead, set a new record for North American box office receipts. For three of the last four years, in fact, the no. 1 movie at the North American box office has featured a female protagonist, and the leading blockbuster arriving in the second half of this year, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, also has a lady lead.
To their credit, American males have learned to accept female characters.
But none of those films was accompanied by a sociopolitical message, and that is where we reach the sad saga of the film now widely nicknamed “Lady Ghostbusters.”
This summer’s remake of the 1984 Bill Murray-Dan Aykroyd fantasy comedy limped into theaters bleeding a long trail of bad buzz caused by trailers widely deemed unfunny. After a so-so opening, it quickly died on U.S. screens, managed to get itself banned in China (now the world’s second-largest market) due either to that country’s restrictions on portrayals of supernatural beings or to a perception that it wouldn’t catch on with Chinese viewers, flopped overseas and quickly died out in the U.S. Its distributor, Sony Pictures, cops to a $70 million loss, but that is sugar-coating the matter. With a production cost of $144 million, plus expected worldwide marketing costs of perhaps $80 to $100 million, and given that movie studios only pocket half of the box-office take (the other half going to theater owners), the 2016 Ghostbusters looks set to lose closer to $100 million.
So why is Hollywood doubling down on the idea of girl-power reboots with a spinoff or remake of Ocean’s Eleven starring an all-women lineup including such actresses as Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter and Mindy Kaling? Never mind that neither Kaling nor Rihanna is a movie star, that Hathaway has worn out her welcome with moviegoers and that Blanchett is one of the least funny actresses currently working: feminists are already gearing up to lavish praise on the movie sight unseen, mainly because they sense that boy critics stand ready to deride the film, also sight unseen.
Ocean’s Ocho, as the heist spinoff is to be called, should study the lesson of the new Ghostbusters. There is no special mystery about why the new film flopped: It wasn’t especially funny, and once word of mouth got around, that sank the film. I say that, by the way, as an admirer of its stars Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. (Kate McKinnon shows a lot of spark in support as a wacky scientist, but the less said about the fourth co-star, the tiresome Leslie Jones, the better).
Ghostbusters compounded its problems by selling itself as a female-empowerment story, a feminist ally to the Hillary Clinton campaign and a rebuke to male critics. Female critics seemed to undergo a mass fit of auto-hypnosis, convincing themselves that an obviously mediocre film was brilliant, rarely failing to mention how horrible and misogynist the boys were being when they (accurately) predicted the film wouldn’t work. The film’s print ads played up the hurrah-for-feminism tone of these critics, to its peril. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that the marketing for Ghostbusters grew a bit…shrill. The message became, “Come see our film or you’re a chauvinist pig, dummies!”
Nobody went to see The Hunger Games or Twilight because they were told it would be striking a blow on behalf of women. Men and boys went to these films because they were entertaining. An all-female heist comedy could be a great idea (assuming the brittle, chilly Blanchett were replaced by McCarthy and Rihanna, who was unspeakable in Battleship, were replaced by someone who can act). Repurposing the “Ocean’s” idea, though, makes it look like Hollywood is trying to force a dose of cinematic castor oil down the throats of its “misogynist” doubters.
Audiences don’t want to be taught a lesson. Audiences don’t want to do favors for Hollywood and its progressive agenda. Audiences expect movie studios to deliver quality films to them. Executives blinded by their own desire to shape American tastes to their liking have forgotten the deathless advice of studio mogul Sam Goldwyn: “If you have a message, call Western Union.”