By the time 1984 came around, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis were, in their own ways, some of the biggest comedy names around. Murray, of course, had starred in Meatball’s, Caddyshack and Stripes. The latter also features Ramis, who’d made his name on “SCTV” as well as as the director of Caddyshack and the first Vacation movie. Ackroyd was a breakout from the first “Saturday Night Live” troupe and had made the jump to the big screen in The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and more. For them all to come together in Ghostbusters was the assembling of what we would now call a dream team of comedic talent, especially when you consider that Ackroyd and Ramis had as many, if not more, behind-the-scenes credits as they did acting gigs.
So why turn our eyes backward to how this now-seminal comedy was sold to the public back at the end of the first Reagan administration? Not only is there a new Ghostbusters movies – a reboot that cast four women in the roles of New York paranormal investigators and eradicators – but two days ago, June 8th, was what Sony declared to be Ghostbusters Day, the day to mark the original’s release to theaters 32 years ago. So why not take that occasion, along with my genuine excitement to see the new version coming out in just a few weeks, to revisit a movie I’ve watched countless times on cable, VHS, DVD and in theaters.
First a simple statement: I *am* really excited about the new movie. This isn’t me taking the piss out of that or in any way wanting to relegate that to second-class status. I think it’s going to be great. Its existence won’t ruin my childhood anymore than the Star Wars Prequels or anything else did. It’s possible to enjoy lots of things. And the “I’m just generally against remakes or reboots” crowd is the same one that lined up on opening day for Batman Begins in 2005 and more. There’s nothing that makes me think they’re anything other than misogynist crybabys who are hiding behind convenient excuses that don’t pass the laugh test. Moving on…
We all know the iconic teaser poster that became more or less the face of the franchise, right? There are variations on it floating around and it’s hard to pin down what the official, widely-released one was but they all focus around the image of the white ghost with the strike-through overlaid on it, as if this is a no ghosts zone. That accompanies the copy “Coming to save the world this summer.” So it’s clearly a movie about some sort of ghost-hunting group, though it’s light on other details that would have been appealing to the audience like the names of the cast involved. Instead this is just a teaser that’s light on actual value proposition but high on promise and mystery.
The theatrical poster makes all that much more clear. It’s focused around showing Murray, Ramis and Ackroyd in full costume with proton throwers at the ready as they glare up at a green glowing sky with worry and determination on their faces. “They’re here to save the world,” we’re told at the top while at the bottom we get not only the names of the three leads but also much of the supporting cast (with the notable exception of Ernie Hudson), though Ramis’ name is subjugated to below the title in deference to Sigourney Weaver, who is one of the big three above-the-title names.
That poster really showed off the three big draws and, despite the images themselves presenting something fairly serious, clearly signalled to the audience that it was going to be a comedy. But it’s also worth mentioning that in 1984 it’s kind of surprising this didn’t get more of an artistic one-sheet design. This was smack dab in the middle of the heyday of Drew Struzan and other poster designers and so it’s kind of odd that we don’t have a poster showing painted renderings of the three (or four) Ghostbusters with Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in the background and a Gatekeeper-possessed Dana draped seductively over a building parapet. You can say that the marketers didn’t want to include spoilers, but that’s kind of betrayed by the trailer.
So let’s talk about the trailer, shall we? Because the construction of it is so in the face of everything that seems to be standard practice these days that it’s a bit shocking. It starts out with shots from the famous opening library scene but otherwise immediately acts like the Ghostbusters are already in action and well known. There’s nothing here that focuses on introducing the team or showing them assemble or any other table-setting in terms of the story. Instead it’s all about the Ghostbusters quipping and taking on the specters they encounter, including a few shots from the climactic confrontation with Zuul, though not with Stay Puft.
Most modern trailers would spend most of the runtime introducing us to all these characters and show us how they came together to form a ghost-busting team. Instead here they…just are. That’s an interesting take for a new movie and one that would make more sense from a marketing perspective for the second or third movie in a series.
So between the trailers and the posters there’s a common theme of trusting the audience to fill in some of the blanks. These stars = this kind of movie, even if the rest of the poster or whatever doesn’t support that. Similarly, the dialogue and situations in the trailer show it to be a comedy and provide a basic idea of the plot – that the team will have to deal with some very big threats – without needing to underline to the audience that this is how they came together and why. This flies in the face of the modern marketing wisdom about origin stories, where as much of the origin itself needs to be shown while whatever the central conflict is takes a backseat.