'Ghostbusters': How Sony Plans to Out-Slime the Online Haters

Ghostbusters Illo - S 2016
Illustration by: Thomas Kuhlenbeck

Ghostbusters Illo - S 2016

"They are trying to define the experience," says Sony's domestic marketing chief as vocal (and sexist?) foes of the female reboot face off against a summer tentpole's trailers.

When Sony Pictures' second trailer for its female-fronted Ghostbusters reboot appeared online May 18, fans initially had to find it on Facebook. The studio had switched from YouTube, which hosted the first trailer, in a deliberate effort to combat a cacophony of negative reaction emanating from a very vocal minority online.

With the YouTube trailer, bloggers could embed the player on their sites to congregate negativity on Sony's official YouTube channel, a move akin to spraying toxic green slime all over the studio. As a result, the Ghostbusters teaser was dubbed the most disliked trailer ever — not the kind of buzz Sony or director Paul Feig want just months before the $150 million comedy's July 15 release.

Given the high stakes riding on the franchise reboot starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon, the studio was determined not to let the anti-Ghostbusters contingent mar the movie's perception. "What tends to happen with a beloved property is the fanboy or the fangirl shows up and says, 'How dare you remake this?' " says Sony domestic marketing president Dwight Caines.

But the umbrage taken has been even more pronounced than for the average reboot, and many believe it's because Ghostbusters marks the first major film to get a female-centric redo (plans for others are in the works, from Ocean's Eleven to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Gender politics is rearing its ugly head, some say, with even Donald Trump weighing in last year on Instagram: "Now they're making Ghostbusters with only women. What's going on?!"

To some extent, Sony was expecting negative reaction to the first trailer, which contained very few special effects scenes because they mostly weren't ready. When the studio launched the first footage of Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man, it scored a 65 percent negative rating. For the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, it was 60 percent negative. And Daniel Craig's first James Bond film, Casino Royale, drew a 55 percent negative rating.

But the Ghostbusters phenomenon could be different. A frequent refrain on the YouTube trailer was "Let the disliking begin," creating a sense of inevitable rejection from certain quarters. Others say the resistance isn't sexism — the first trailer just wasn't great. "It could've been all men with the same jokes, and it still would have sucked," said Kevin Smith on his podcast. Regardless, Sony, which now is kicking up its Ghostbusters marketing, wants to head off that buzz. The Facebook trailer has been viewed 7.7 million times and has a 95 percent positive rating (but only 2.7 million fans are following Sony's official movie page, low for a summer tentpole).

The furor surrounding the film has been far more intense than a typical tentpole, beginning with the initial backlash to the concept and casting two years ago, followed by a second-wave attack after the first trailer arrived in March. That criticism sparked rounds of apologies and explanations, generating headlines like "Am I Allowed to Dislike the New Ghostbusters Trailer?" on the Huffington Post. But in recent days, there was an even stronger backlash aimed at the anti-Ghostbusters movement, with fans and Feig questioning if foes are simply sexist. One blogger who declined to speak publicly says he has endured vicious personal attacks as a result of his pan of the trailers.

All the while, Sony has continued to move forward with its marketing push. On May 21, the studio conducted two recruited screenings for general and family audiences. Sony says both screenings played through the roof.

On May 25, the stars will appear on Ellen — their first interview together — on the same episode as Trump's rival Hillary Clinton, part of an effort to leverage the female cast. Though that plan could backfire given how polarizing Clinton is as a presidential candidate, and studios are loath to potentially alienate a significant chunk of moviegoers (the Democratic hopeful has a 54 percent negative rating according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only slightly better than the 58 percent who look unfavorably on Trump).

"The people talking are such a tiny percentage of the people viewing," Caines adds. "The first trailer got 70 million views. The number of people talking: less than 100,000, and they are trying to define the experience." 

This story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.