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Ghostbusters
The new Ghostbusters suit up. (From left: Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones.)
Sony Pictures

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How the all-female Ghostbusters reboot became a lightning rod of controversy

The history of Ghostbusters outrage, from the sequel that never was to the 2016 reboot.

When did Ghostbusters become so exhausting?

The 1984 classic, a sharp and goofy comedy about four guys bustin' slimeball ghosts in New York City, is at the center of a firestorm of controversy. The upcoming July 15 release of a brand new Ghostbusters film — a gender-swapped reboot about four gals bustin’ slimeball ghosts in New York — has inspired seemingly endless debates over its necessity, value, and place in comedy canon.

And in the year and half since the project was first announced in late 2014, those debates have been multiplied by internet outrage, divided by sexism, and raised to the nth power of "here we go again!" hot take fatigue.

Some people are thrilled by the mere thought of a new spin on the original film, especially with Paul Feig (Spy, Freaks and Geeks) behind the camera, former Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold penning the script, and Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig in the spotlight.

Others have called it a cynical cash grab, a shameless attempt to replicate a beloved masterpiece without the original creative team of director Ivan Reitman, co-writer and star Dan Aykroyd, and late co-writer and star Harold Ramis. (It’s worth noting that Aykroyd and Reitman eventually signed on as producers.)

And this back and forth has continued, oscillating between reason and unfounded bullshit, to the point that it’s grown difficult to parse one from the other. Even presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has gotten in on the action, shaking his infamous hands at the heavens in despair. "And now they’re remaking Ghostbusters with all women," Trump bellowed in a "Trump Vlog" video filmed in early 2015. "What’s going on?"

This kind of all-consuming, suffocating, often baffling backlash happens just about every day on the internet, attacking all sorts of (often innocent) targets. But the vitriol surrounding the new Ghostbusters film feels particularly angry and entrenched. Lots of iconic movies have been remade, rebooted, and adapted over the years; what makes this one so controversial, so "special"?

Is the fury rooted in Ghostbusters' nostalgic place in cinematic history, a sexist response to the fact that the reboot stars women in the lead roles, or something else altogether? I set out to investigate — and unearthed decades’ worth of Ghostbusters-related resentment in the process.

Here are the main things to know about why a relatively straightforward comedy reboot has caused so many people so much rage.

The new Ghostbusters movie is a reboot, not a sequel

Director Feig and writer Dippold’s take on Ghostbusters isn’t a sequel to the original 1984 Ghostbusters or its 1989 follow-up, the much-less-adored Ghostbusters II. Instead, it’s an entirely separate reboot, centered on a new group of Ghostbusters who come to the rescue when ghosts threaten to take over 2016 New York City.

Dippold has described this present-day retelling of the original Ghostbusters story as a richer one to write and explore, explaining in March that "to say that ghosts have existed for the past 30 years, it’s just a different world. In the original, it’s so fun when ghosts unleash upon the city, for the first time, that we didn’t want to skip over it."

Per Feig, the new generation of Ghostbusters looks something like this:

  • Wiig is Erin Gilbert, "particle physicist, academic firebrand, spectral warrior."
  • McCarthy is Abby Yates, "paranormal researcher, supernatural scientist, entity trapper."
  • Jones is Patty Tolan, "ghost tracker, municipal historian, metaphysical commando."
  • McKinnon is Jillian Holtzmann, "nuclear engineer, munitions expert, proton wrangler."

Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor) is stepping in as the Ghostbusters’ trusty secretary slash equal-opportunity eye candy.

Several members of the 1984 Ghostbusters cast — including Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Sigourney Weaver — will make cameo appearances. However, since the new film is a reboot that doesn’t take place in the same universe as the original film, they won’t be reprising their original roles.

The original Ghostbusters team supports the 2016 reboot

Aykroyd has been largely encouraging of the reboot since the project was first announced. In 2015, he told Entertainment Weekly that he and Reitman didn’t even think to ask about getting involved in the 2016 reboot because they "all felt that this Paul Feig concept was so strong that we didn’t have to be in it." And while both men had previously pushed for a Ghostbusters III sequel (more on that in a bit), they eventually gave the reboot their blessing, joining it as producers.

In May, after Aykroyd screened the new movie, he tweeted that the cast turned in "brilliant, genuine performances" and that the film has "more scares and laughs" than the original. Speaking to Rolling Stone a week before the movie's July 17 release, Reitman said that while he's "really appreciative" of how protective Ghostbusters fans are around the franchise, that the new female cast is "every bit as delicious and spectacular as the four men in the '84 franchise." To the LA Times, he continued that those who are preemptively wary just "have to see it."

But not everyone from the original cast is quite as excited. Original Ghostbusters actor Rick Moranis turned down the opportunity to make a cameo in the reboot, saying he didn’t want to do "one day of shooting on something [he] did 30 years ago."

And when Hudson was first asked to comment on the idea of an all-female Ghostbusters, back in 2014, his response was the verbal equivalent of a wrinkled nose (with bonus leer!):

If it has nothing to do with the other two movies, and it's all female, then why are you calling it Ghostbusters? I love females. I hope that if they go that way at least they'll be funny, and if they're not funny at least hopefully it'll be sexy.

By early 2016, though, Hudson changed his tune, agreeing to appear in the new movie and admitting that not only was the script funny but that the film’s leading "females" were "extraordinarily funny and there’s a great chemistry with them."

Of course, the biggest endorsement might be the fact that Murray is involved in any capacity whatsoever. The comedian — who in recent years has essentially built a whole new career out of his "just woke up from a nap and, ugh, what do you want?" vibe — was once famously opposed to participating in any sequels after Ghostbusters II.

But even if he considered the prospect of another sequel to be a "nightmare," he ultimately decided to participate in the 2016 version, explaining the reason he reconsidered during a visit to Jimmy Kimmel Live: "It was only because I knew these girls are funny."

Murray’s change of heart was pretty huge, given the level of disdain he’d previously expressed for the idea of ever returning to the Ghostbusters universe. And that brings us to one of the most important — albeit not totally intuitive — wrinkles of this entire story.

The disdain for a Ghostbusters reboot of any kind stems from the fact that Ghostbusters III never happened

The long and fraught history of a sequel that never quite came to be is a large part of why many Ghostbusters die-hards were quick to question the idea of a reboot.

While Ghostbusters II didn’t earn nearly as much critical acclaim in 1989 as the original Ghostbusters did in 1984, it certainly didn’t snuff out all further interest in seeing Venkman, Spengler, Stantz, and Zeddmore continue to bust floating masses of paranormal ooze.

So after the sequel, rumors of a Ghostbusters III almost immediately began to circulate, although an entire decade came and went before they ever blossomed into anything concrete. Indeed, there weren’t any real updates until 2002, when IGN claimed to have acquired a 1999 draft of Ghostbusters 3: Hellbent, penned by original Ghostbusters writers Aykroyd and Ramis.

It was the first solid indication that more Ghostbusters might actually, for real, be coming, and it kicked off open season for Ghostbusters speculation. Aykroyd, Ramis, and Reitman did their part to stoke fans’ excitement, giving hints about where they wanted the story to go and expressing their hope that it would see the light of day.

The notable exception was Murray, who told anyone who asked that he wasn't and never would be interested in such a project. His dismissal complicated Hellbent‘s prospects so severely that, as Ramis revealed in 2005, the team had written a new version of the movie without him. Alas, it too got lost in development.

Finally, after years of false starts and unfulfilled dreams, Ghostbusters: The Video Game — written by Aykroyd and Ramis, and voiced by the original Ghostbusters — came out in 2009. The game's story picked up a couple of years after the events of Ghostbusters II, and Aykroyd freely admitted that it was pretty much what the third movie would have been, if not better:

Now that I’ve seen the video game and watched it progress, my rap now to people is: "This is essentially the third movie." And it’s better than the third movie because it lasts longer and there’s more development of the characters. The guys have done a great job putting story layers in there that I can begin to embellish and work with. And I tell people this: "If you have an appetite for the third movie, then the video game is it."

Still, efforts to revitalize the franchise persisted. Shortly after the video game was released, franchise owner Sony hired The Office writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg to write another version of Ghostbusters III in which the original Ghostbusters would educate a younger generation in all things slime.

Murray, still insisting he would never commit to such a project, dismissed the idea as a cash grab. "[It’s the] studio that really wants this thing," he told GQ in 2009. "It's a franchise, and they made a whole lot of money on Ghostbusters."

Though Aykroyd teased yet another version of a Ghostbusters sequel in 2013 — one that apparently would have brought back the original cast, but in more minor roles — Ramis's death in 2014 effectively ended that possibility for good. Reitman told Deadline after Ramis's funeral that his friend and colleague's passing crystallized his sense that if any future Ghostbusters film did come to fruition, he’d prefer to produce rather than direct.

Shortly thereafter, it came out that Feig was in talks to lead an all-female reboot.

Making the new film a full "reboot" that would essentially serve as another origin story for the Ghostbusters — and therefore be completely unrelated to the original film — struck some fans as particularly unfair, given that Ghostbusters III had been in the cards, in one form or another, for such a long time.

So for a lot of people, no matter how good or bad a brand new Ghostbusters story might be, the mere fact of it existing when Ghostbusters III does not is reason enough to refuse to give the reboot a chance.

The fact that Ghostbusters became a franchise sparked accusations that the 2016 reboot is nothing more than a "cash grab"

If you chase Ghostbusters outrage around the internet for long enough, you’ll inevitably find references to the 2014 Sony email hacks. One of the leaked emails was from Feig to Amy Pascal, then the chair of Sony’s movie division, and it detailed Feig’s proposed plot for the new Ghostbusters — which included the villain "recruit[ing] the ghosts of evil beings from other parts of the universe," or, as Feig enthusiastically put it, "yes, ghost aliens!"

As you might expect, the hackles of Ghostbusters purists were certainly raised at "ghost aliens." But the phrase that most often gets pulled out of Feig’s email and cited as particularly damning is the director calling the ghost aliens twist a potential "billion dollar idea."

And, sure, from a business perspective, a whole lot of Sony’s interest in making more Ghostbusters — as would be the case with any other film studio and any other movie — has to do with its potential windfall. Between the first two movies, an animated TV series, video games, and endless amounts of merchandise, Ghostbusters has been a cash cow since the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (TM) first stomped his way through Manhattan. You could slap the Ghosbusters logo on just about anything and watch it fly off the shelves.

Feig hasn’t been shy about the fact that Sony is eyeing the new movie as the launchpad for a potentially huge new franchise. But why should he be? As he explained to the New York Times on June 21, that line of thinking is pretty much par for the course in the entertainment industry:

I understand, if somebody was remaking "The Godfather," I would be like, "Wait a minute." But when everybody’s like, "It’s a cash grab"? Everything ever made in Hollywood since the beginning of time is a cash grab. That’s why the original "Ghostbusters" existed. It wasn’t an altruistic thing. Studios make movies to make money, and filmmakers try to make something that will entertain an audience while trying to make money for the studio.

He’s got a point. Of course Sony wants to make money off the new Ghostbusters; that doesn’t mean the movie will automatically be a disaster.

In any case, it seems as though Sony has no problem with the backlash, as long as the movie remains in the news. Tom Rothman, the current chair of Sony’s motion picture division, told the Hollywood Reporter on June 23 that all the hullabaloo is "the greatest thing that ever happened" for the movie. "We’re in the national debate, thank you," Rothman said. "Can we please get some more haters to say stupid things?"

For those "haters" who feel like they have legitimate reasons to be wary of this reboot, that kind of response almost adds more fuel to the fire. In fact, many of the replies to Aykroyd’s aforementioned positive review of the new movie expressed more suspicion than relief, with some people telling the creator of Ghostbusters himself that they could no longer trust his opinion.

Look, I get it: Being protective of a franchise you love is a natural instinct. I once loved the Harry Potter books to a probably unhealthy degree, and hated the movies so much that I could rant about all the reasons they offended me so for hours (why wouldn’t they let Ron be funny instead of a mopey jerk?!) without taking a breath.

But the level to which some Ghostbusters fans have expressed their resentment over the new movie is so aggressively over the top that whatever love was there hardly matters anymore.

Ghostbusters resentment might precede the 2016 version, but the all-female reboot kicked it into high gear

As you’ve likely already realized, the history of Ghostbusters is far longer and more storied than it might seem on a random weekend afternoon when you catch Zuul possessing Sigourney Weaver while browsing cable.

But as with anything that lives and dies online, the backlash against the reboot is largely the work of an incredibly vocal minority, one that has pretty much drowned out any and all attempts at reason and frequently trades in personal attacks, trolling, sexism, and hate speech.

Here’s just one egregious and stomach-turning example: Comedian Patton Oswalt recently tweeted some snark about a video "review" of the new Ghostbusters, a six-minute rant in which Cinemassacre’s James Rolfe explains why he’ll never see the movie to his 2 million subscribers. In response, Oswalt received an immediate flood of hate from furious Twitter users, who lashed out by reminding him of his wife’s recent death for no apparent reason other than to make him hurt.

When comedian and podcaster Griffin Newman asked Twitter user @Coke_Metzger why he took the time to Photoshop Oswalt’s late wife onto a picture of Ghostbusters’ Slimer and then tweet it at her grieving widower, another person entirely leaped to @Coke_Metzger’s defense, saying that "Patton was looking for trouble."

And then this:

A "culture war," all in the name of defending the misadventures of New York’s premier bumbling paranormal exterminators to the literal death.

If you ever need a terrifying entry for a 2016 time capsule, these tweets would be a solid pick.

Feig and his Ghostbusters cast have not been shy about expressing their disappointment and anger over the preemptive opposition to their movie. And last September, after fielding rage in his Twitter mentions for months, Feig let loose:

Notably, that last tweet was directed at a man whose entire Twitter account is devoted to tearing down the new Ghostbusters — a response that wasn’t even possible in the franchise’s early years, when social media didn't exist and you couldn't fire off insults at a director you didn't agree with simply by clicking "tweet."

If you’re an unhappy Ghostbusters fan reading this, this is probably the point where you’re dying to point out that not everyone who’s concerned about the reboot is resorting to hate-filled Twitter attacks. And that’s true! Some of the pushback is rooted in the real creative frustration many fans felt when the first trailer premiered and failed to impress with its clunky exposition and obvious jokes.

But that first trailer also set a record for the most dislikes ever received by a YouTube video, due to a concentrated fan base effort stemming from comments like these:

Like it or not, gross behavior like this is what gets the attention, because gross behavior like this is what can make reading things on the internet feel like sifting through garbage.

And as you may have noticed, some of these examples incorporate some pretty sexist bullshit. For however many tossed-off, relatively harmless "ugh"-type comments a Ghostbusters-related tweet or video might inspire, there’s also plenty of bile about "PC culture" dictating a pointless gender swap and innumerable vicious insults about the actresses’ physical appearances.

Even worse, the obviously sexist comments about the reboot don’t actually represent the breadth of comments and tweets about the reboot that are born from sexism. It’s not always as simple as someone screaming about bitches or men saying they deserve on-demand sandwiches.

Sometimes — as the Guardian discovered earlier this year, when it analyzed millions of the comments on its articles — sexism crops up in a disproportionate abundance around projects by women or that heavily feature women. The simple fact that women are present and involved is enough to make some people mad, even if they don’t explicitly say so.

So while I’m sure that a Ghostbusters reboot starring men other than the original cast would have still pissed off fans — as did Sony’s brief attempt to create noise around a Channing Tatum–led male counterpoint to the all-female movie — I’m just as confident that the backlash cycle wouldn’t have been quite as pointed, intense, and ugly if the film didn’t star women.

People love Ghostbusters for a reason — but the preemptive backlash to the reboot reveals the uglier side of passion

For many, the original 1984 Ghostbusters represents the best that a comedy can possibly be. It stars sharp-as-shit comedians and brims with witty wordplay. It delivers cheesy special effects for kids while sneaking in a ghost blow job for their parents. It blends laughs with action in a way that, when the movie was released three decades ago, no one had ever really done before. As Charles Bramesco writes at Rolling Stone:

[Ghostbusters] essentially kickstarted a genre that delivered everything to everyone — a steroidal blockbuster mash-up of everything playing at your local multiplex in a single package. You want horror, sci-fi, comedy, thrills, spills, chills, and romance (sort of), all in one fell swoop? Who ya gonna call?

It makes sense that people got attached to Ghostbusters in all its goofy glory. It also makes sense that movie studios saw the film’s incredible critical and financial success as an opportunity to build a franchise, with all its attendant spinoffs, games, and branded cereal. And finally, it makes sense that some people might get upset about a favorite story of theirs becoming a brand.

The the reboot isn't great, which is too bad. It's also not terrible. But that's not the point. The point is that there was no way of knowing as much until it actually hit theaters; the fact that so many people freaked out simply because it exists is astonishing.

And no matter how many logical concerns someone might have about a beloved element of their childhood getting a makeover, if they’re making Twitter accounts for the sole purpose of harassing a movie's director, orchestrating mass insult campaigns, and berating anyone who disagrees, they’re not defending a movie. They’re launching an attack, with no regard for the potential casualties.

In the case of Ghostbusters, the potential casualties include the very franchise these angry fans say they love.

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