Needless to say, Ghostbusters is one of the biggest question marks of the 2016 summer movie season. While reviews have been mainly positive (it currently boasts a 75% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and the film is Fandango's “top pre-selling live-action comedy of the year to date,” box office experts are generally wary of making opening-weekend predictions for a film that has been the subject of negative buzz and become a cultural lightning rod since it was first announced in 2014.
“These films are usually 100% dependent on word-of-mouth, and [with] Ghostbusters, you really can't tell what word-of-mouth is legitimate, and what is coming from internet trolls trying to start a fire,” said Box Office Media analyst Daniel Loria, referencing the misogyny-driven outrage around the reboot's all-woman main cast.
“I have to be very careful of my instincts [on] Ghostbusters, because I think it's really hard to know,” echoed The Numbers founder Bruce Nash, who added: “I certainly don't see it as being the disaster that perhaps people were fearing or predicting a few months ago.”
So what number would count as a non-disaster for a film like Ghostbusters, which not only comes saddled with a ton of negative pre-release controversy (including general distaste for that much-derided first trailer) but a production budget in the $150 million range? “I think anything over like $40 million is probably a success for them,” said Nash, who predicted (warily, and with some hedging) a $50 million opening for the Paul Feig-directed reboot.
One thing all four analysts I spoke with can agree on is this: the misogynistic trolls that down-voted the first Ghostbusters trailer to a new YouTube record are a very small, albeit very vocal, minority of moviegoers. The rest of us? We'll use the same considerations we use for every other movie when it comes to deciding whether or not to see it. Said Nash: “I think that all of that discussion may be a distraction from the the actual potential of the film itself.”
“I consider the misogyny aspect similar to the white noise about Mad Max: Fury Road last year from those He-Man, Woman-Hating Paleo Diet folks,” said Box Office Prophets founder David Mumpower. “It's a story the media is mentioning, but I doubt it plays a factor in virtually anybody's decision to see the movie.”
Meanwhile, opinion seems split on what impact — if any — those positive reviews will have on opening weekend box office. While Box Office Guru founder Gitesh Pandya believes the solid Rotten Tomatoes average is a “good sign” and Nash characterizes them as “helpful,” Mumpower is somewhat less convinced: “My instinct is to say that I doubt it helps since failure is the norm when the trailers take this sort of beating. Ghostbusters is trying to behave as the exception to a longstanding rule in Hollywood. Movies that consumers mock mercilessly prior to release almost universally fail.”
What Mumpower references here is word of mouth, a major driver of box office that will likely be make-or-break for Ghostbusters' long-term commercial prospects.
“It's really going to depend on if people like it, and are they going to come back on that second weekend,” said Loria. “Even with our tracking [Loria and his team predict an opening in the $50 million range and a final domestic gross of $127 million], you may have a surprise by Friday/Saturday when social media starts picking up and [people are] really excited about it. [Then] we might have a hit.”
Of all the analysts I spoke with, Mumpower was the least bullish on the film's commercial potential, pointing to tracking that has had the film opening in “the mid-$40s to low $50s for about six weeks now” despite a major marketing push by the studio. “Sony's done everything they can with regards to tie-ins and promos to boost awareness for the film,” he said. “Because of that, I see its current tracking as the rejection already occurring. With this sort of market penetration, it should possess much larger Want to See numbers.” [Note: I spoke with Mumpower before the above-referenced Fandango report came out.]
Whatever the final outcome, that lackluster first trailer could, like the film”s resident spirits, come back to haunt the movie when it finally rolls into theaters.
“The real problem here is the one Sony's faced all along. That first trailer was a mind-boggling cinematic atrocity, and I say that as one of Melissa McCarthy's most loyal fans going all the way back to Go and the Gilmore Girls pilot,” said Mumpower. “Sony's done what they can to put out the fires, but once the perception of stink of failure leaks out, consumers generally form snap judgments that they hold to the bitter end.”
“I think as I was saying, the problem with the trailer is…it didn't really feel enough like a Ghostbusters movie and they didn't really tie it in enough,” echoed Loria. “And I think that that was really what set it on the wrong path initially.”
Ultimately, the biggest barrier for Ghostbusters could be the fact that it”s a comedy – a genre that allows less room for error than other genres. “You can maybe get away with a lackluster action film, or a horror movie that doesn't deliver, but a comedy that doesn't perform well early on, makes for trouble,” said Loria, who later added: “Comedies are very, very specific and you don't have the overseas market that you can count on to basically make your money back. They're harder to export, they don't play as well, and domestic audiences really expect to be entertained, otherwise they won't be there right along with you.”
Bottom line: Ghostbusters will live and die not on the backlash from a few bad apples against the all-woman cast, but on whether or not it”s actually funny. Imagine that.