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‘Ghostbusters’ Marketing Challenges: How Sony Is Selling All-Female Reboot

In a summer where studio tentpoles have been underperforming at the box office, Sony Pictures is facing hurdles with how to sell its female-driven reboot of “Ghostbusters” to the masses.

The studio is trying to build up excitement for the picture by fanning nostalgia from the original 1984 classic. At the same time, the advertising campaign has downplayed the novelty of a summer action blockbuster anchored by women, in the hopes that a large percentage of tickets are sold to men, according to sources with knowledge of internal discussions.

A conceit that was once cheered in the blogosophere, the project — which stars Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, as well as beloved “SNL” players Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones — has more recently been tainted with questionable buzz. Part of that has come from the studio’s decision to delay press screenings of the movie, which opens on July 15, until last night. And unfortunately, much of the chatter about the reboot has been eclipsed by backlash from fan boys griping about women taking over the roles originated by Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis.

Sony declined to comment for this story.

Early tracking indicates that “Ghostbusters” could open in the $40 million range domestically, making it the biggest debut for a live-action comedy since last year’s “Pitch Perfect 2.” But the Sony movie’s sizable budget — a studio source says the figure is $144 million after rebates, while another source puts the before-rebate number at around $180 million — means that it will need strong multiples to turn a profit. Director Paul Feig and McCarthy’s three previous summer collaborations (2011’s “Bridesmaids,” 2013’s “The Heat” and 2015’s “Spy”) had staying power at the multiplex beyond their opening weekends, but they were carried by stellar reviews. On the other hand, the reviews for “Ghostbusters” could be more mixed.

The movie will also need to perform well overseas, where audiences might not be as familiar with the “Ghostbusters” brand. The 1984 original film has grossed a staggering $295 million in theaters, but only $53 million came from foreign territories.

In a meeting with vendors six weeks ago, executives at the studio seemed concerned that “Ghostbusters” wouldn’t sell enough tickets. According to a source in attendance at one meeting, a studio employee even floated the idea of marketing “Ghostbusters” — an action comedy — as a horror movie. That suggestion was promptly shot down by a senior-ranking Sony executive.

The posters and billboards have tried to maximize the excitement of the “Ghostbusters” world to a new generation. Sources say that director Feig has been disappointed by the reactions to early trailers, which don’t seem to have enough zingers. The director had criticized Universal for the first trailer of “Bridesmaids,” but the studio corrected with funnier spots for the 2011 comedy, which went on to gross $288 million worldwide.

The campaign behind “Ghostbusters” hasn’t been as clear. Last December, Sony released a series of black-and-white posters to kick off the movie’s launch. Weirdly enough, these prints featured partial chin shots of the new female ensemble along with their weapons. These promos, which were meant to create a sense of mystery about the new movie, actually made it hard to figure out the identity of the Ghostbusters — you couldn’t even see McCarthy’s hair or eyes in them.

Then there have been the odd tie-in advertising campaigns, which feature men instead of women and appear as if they’re promoting a completely different movie. A spot from Papa John’s pizza features owner John H. Schnatter wearing the Ghostbusters uniform. A NBA spot has Kobe Bryant suiting up. And a Progressive ad features yet another man as a Ghostbuster, going into battle against the company’s pitch woman Flo (who portrays a ghost). That’s led some to speculate that the studio — and its backers — have been shy to fully embrace the themes of girl power behind the new “Ghostbusters” (a la campaigns for “The Hungers Games” or “Twilight”).

But one advertiser pushed back against that notion. “For the last eight years, Progressive has featured one of the most recognizable women in the country as our brand icon,” said Progressive spokesperson Jeff Sibel. “We thought the most prominent role in our ad was that of a ghost who gets the better of her usual male sidekick.”

James Rainey contributed to this story. 

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