After the Campaign

After the Campaign: Ghostbusters

I never understood the push back to the trailers for Ghostbusters. I’m not even talking about the Men’s Rights Advocates who saw a remake of the movie featuring women in the starring roles as opposed to men as part of some social justice warrior conspiracy and so aggressively downvoted the trailer on YouTube. I’m talking about the legitimate, fair-minded critics who watched the trailer and saw a mess in the making. By contrast I saw the potential for the movie to be funny in its own way and where the performances really make the movie. Yes, there were far more special effects than in the original and the tone did look a lot different, but I never saw the train wreck others did.

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To a great extent the responses to those trailers went on to frame the narrative of the movie all the way through the reviews that have come out in the last two weeks as critics have faulted it for various things, even while saying the movie is still a moderate success overall. It’s one of the clearest cases of marketing influencing the eventual reviews of a movie I’ve seen in recent years.

If we’re really looking at how the marketing gelled with or contrasted from the finished film, though, we have to take a look at what was actually promised and what was delivered.

The marketing campaign sold the audience a fairly funny time with a group of talented ladies telling a sci-fi story with some familiar and some new story elements, all under the direction of someone who has a pretty firm handle on how to put together an ensemble comedy. And that’s more or less what the movie wound up being.

To recap: Erin (Kristen Wiig) is trying to take the next step at Columbia University and receive tenure in the physics department. But when a confluence of events brings back up her long-disavowed past as a believer in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena that track is derailed. So she teams up with her old friend Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) to investigate and eventually capture and study ghosts, which are popping up with increased frequency around New York City. Eventually joining them is Patty (Leslie Jones), a savvy New Yorker who helps them out and provides some much-needed heart to the team. They eventually find out what’s causing the ghost invasion and clean up the town.

A lot of that is presented in the campaign. We get the broad strokes of the team coming together and that they eventually face off against a whole host of spectral baddies that need to be taken down with blasters of all sizes, gloves that knock ghosts out and more. There are moments of setup, both for the characters and the story, and lots of special effects.

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That seems to have been what drove most of the complaints, that the special effects looked like they were taking over from the comedy. And they are dis-proportionally on display in the trailers, making up less than 20% of the actual movie but showing up in close to 50% of the trailers. That’s not unexpected, though, and is likely a result of a studio not knowing how to sell a comedy in the summer and so, with a lot of SFX shots available, defaulting in that direction since that’s how most all other big franchise movies are being sold.

The over-reliance on special effects in the trailers means other aspects of the movie are pushed to the side. That includes the premise of how Erin and Abby reunite in the first place, or even the fact that they need to reunite. Instead the campaign shows Abby and Erin – and Holtzman – as being together from the start and deciding at the outset to investigate the paranormal.

Also missing is the actual conflict that drives the story. Without spoiling the movie wholly, it’s not just about chasing ghosts, it’s about chasing the root cause of the ghost infestation that’s overrunning New York. That is a very different thing and changes the stakes for the story in a big way.

Many critics have complained that the new movie misses the “cleaning up the town” sequence from the original, where the team starts to gel and become a success as they chase down ghost after ghost. And while that’s true, it’s because more time is spent on the gadgets themselves and I think that gets to the gender politics of the two version. The first movie takes the team from their initial outing in the hotel ballroom and, via 80s montage, shows them gracing newspapers, appearing on Larry King and being so overworked they’re exhausted at the end of each shift. The new version ditches that and instead focuses on Holtzman equipping the team with all kinds of cool gadgets, from the traditional looking proton packs to handy little blasters to grenades to a wood chipper type device.

So in 1984 the story was about a bunch of hyper-competent guys who we don’t need to see failing and having problems on the road to success. The 2016 version is about hyper-competent women who are inventing things, who are having fun with science and physics and then using that in a world to counter the public perception that they’re not to be taken seriously.

That’s pretty amazing. It’s essentially the greatest “girls in STEM” public service announcement that could have been created. It’s not about how guys are just going to be automatically good and successful despite their being a little nerdy and socially awkward. It’s about how girls might be nerdy and socially awkward but they can still have friends who love them (Holtzman’s speech at the end is amazing) and if they work hard they can create amazing things.

There’s none of that in the marketing, of course. That would be a lot to push into a 2:30 trailer or even three. So what’s sold is a moderately funny sci-fi action movie. What the movie delivers, though, is a very funny story about how awesome women can be that uses ghost busting as the hook on which to hang that message.

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