Box-Office Analysis: Why the 'Ghostbusters' Reboot May Haunt Sony

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The big-budget franchise comedy opened to an estimated $46 million in North America, a problematic start for a movie with a net production budget of $144 million.

During box-office press calls on Sunday morning, Sony executives were in full spin mode as they declared Paul Feig's all-female Ghostbusters reboot a triumph, pointing out that the $46 million opening was the biggest launch for a live-action comedy since Pitch Perfect 2 took in $69.2 million in May 2015.

"We are ecstatic with this opening. We have successfully restarted an important brand," Josh Greenstein, president of worldwide marketing and distribution, told The Hollywood Reporter.

But box-office analysts and rival studios are skeptical that Sony has indeed relaunched the storied franchise, considering $46 million is a problematic start for a movie with a net production budget of $144 million (rebates and tax incentives brought it down from $154 million). Ideally, they say, it should have opened to $60 million or more.

Feig's previous female-skewing comedies — including Bridesmaids and The Heat — were extraordinarily successful thanks to incredible multiples, as they held on week after week at the box office. But they cost a fraction of what Ghostbusters did. And they were stand-alone offerings, not a VFX-driven franchise comedy designed to revive a 30-year-old, marquee film series.

When factoring in marketing costs — the price tag for promoting a summer tentpole globally can be upward of $150 million — Ghostbusters may have to earn $375 million to $400 million worldwide to break even for Sony and partner Village Roadshow Pictures. That means it needs to do sizable business overseas, since it could top out in the $130 million range domestically. (Sony insiders counter that the break-even number is $300 million.)

Overseas, the jury is still out. Ghostbusters debuted in only a few major markets this weekend, earning $19.1 million, with first-place finishes in two major English-speaking markets, the U.K. ($6.1 million) and Australia ($3.7 million). Some analysts caution that comedy doesn't travel as well as other genres. And China is not allowing Ghostbusters into the country.

When Tom Rothman replaced Amy Pascal as chief of Sony's movie studio in 2015, he shaved at least $15 million off the Ghostbusters budget, but the risk remained high.

"The more I ponder it, the worse this scenario plays out. Curiosity played a big factor in the $46 million debut and, as such, I doubt it will hold like a typical Feig comedy. In fact, I think it's going to drop big-time when Star Trek Beyond and Ice Age: Collision Course open next week," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock.

"I know Sony is crowing about it being a great opening for a comedy, but the entire Ghostbusters legacy is what's at stake here, and it's not looking good. This was supposed to be a blockbuster," he continues. "Sony definitively did not launch a franchise, and seemingly they might be the only ones that don't know it. I know it's been a tough road for them, and I feel for them."

For the past two years, Sony and Feig have had to ward off criticism from some outspoken male fans who were unhappy with Feig's decision to go with a female cast headed by Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig as the ghoul chasers, who were famously played by Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd in Ivan Reitman's 1984 classic film. (Reitman produced the update alongside Pascal.)

In a recent interview with THR, Rothman insisted the online bashing was "the greatest thing that ever happened. Are you kidding me? We’re in the national debate, thank you. Can we please get some more haters to say stupid things?"

At the same time, Sony made sure to court males in its marketing campaign, creating special promos that aired on ABC during the NBA Finals.

It's impossible to determine whether the naysayers hurt the movie because the opening weekend demographics were inconclusive. Men didn't exactly stay away, but women didn't show up in compensatory numbers either.

In fact, while Ghostbusters didn't play like a chick flick in North America, it didn't perform like an all-audience summer tentpole either. Instead, it landed somewhere in between. Females made up about 56 percent of the audience — versus 75 percent or more for a Pitch Perfect or Bridesmaids — while more than 60 percent of the audience was over the age of 25.

"If foreign grosses don't pick up the slack, this will go down as another big disappointment for Sony, who based their entire summer on this brand," says Bock.

Ghostbusters did earn generally good reviews, but audiences gave it a B+ CinemaScore, instead of a resounding A.

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