Ghostbusters and Hollywood Remake Culture

Why did Hollywood remake Ghostbusters?  The long answer: it’s complicated.  The short answer: it’s because we love movies so much.

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Here is the cast of the new Ghostbusters destroying all known copies of the original. You can never, ever watch the 1984 classic again.

An Introduction

Whether it ends up a box office hit or miss, the new Ghostbusters remake is one of the most controversial movies in recent memory. The controversy, though, isn’t based on the movie’s objectionable content. The controversy comes from its mere existence. While there is an undeniable element of sexism in a lot of the criticism (seriously, just search “Ghostbusters + feminism” on YouTube and try not to kill yourself), there is also a general backlash from devoted fans of the original that consider this movie to be one remake too far, and that it treads on a beloved movie that many hold dear in their hearts.

So how did we end up here? To me, the answer is actually quite simple, but the lead up to that answer is a complex story over thirty years in the making.

VHS and the Birth of Home Video

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Welcome to the future.

Video tape technology has existed since the 1950s. The VHS format was born in the 70s, but it didn’t really become mainstream until the 80s. This coincided with the birth and rise of home video rental stores. Mom-and-pop video stores exploded in popularity overnight, and corporate juggernauts like Blockbuster, Movie Gallery, and eventually, Hollywood Video also began establishing themselves as the new normal for family entertainment.

Prior to this era, the ability to watch whatever movie you wanted, whenever you wanted, simply didn’t exist.  Movies played in theaters. Then, if you were lucky, they might be rebroadcast on TV, be it a network’s movie of the week, or perhaps on HBO, or one of the other pay-TV channels that were slowly gaining popularity. Even if a movie was a box office hit, there was no guarantee it would get much airplay, and if it was a flop, it was likely to never see the light of day again.

But home video changed all of that, almost instantaneously. We could rent the classics our parents talked about, or we could rent the cool movies our friends raved about. We could watch them over and over if we wanted to. And we wanted to.

Those of us at the beginning of the home video revolution were able to do something no previous generation could do: we could watch the movies we loved over and over again. With each re-watch, we would find new details we hadn’t see before. We would catch inside jokes that once went over our heads. We would pick up on mistakes and continuity errors we would have never noticed on a single viewing at a movie theater.

In short, we evolved from fans into movie fanatics. With every re-watch of our favorite movies, we were feeding into a positive feedback loop that only made us love them even more. It wasn’t too long before movies once overlooked in theaters found new life and became word-of-mouth hits on home video. Some would achieve cult like status with small, but devoted fan bases that kept their movie right on the edge of mainstream consciousnesses, while others would become such massive home video hits, that the studios would make a theatrical sequel as a result.

Home video opened up a whole new world of entertainment, and Hollywood took notice.

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This movie would not exist without the home video success of the first.

The 1990s Corporate Conglomerate Race

Prior to the 1990s, most movie studios were essentially independent companies that ran themselves, or they were a subsidiary of a slightly bigger company. This may be a somewhat oversimplified description, but from their origin in the early days of the twentieth century up to the 1980s, movies studios operated largely on their own, with little outside interference. They were companies that made movies and run by people who made movies — but all that was about to change.

The 90s was a decade awash with major corporate mergers. Big companies became bigger companies. Those bigger companies merged to become gigantic companies. Corporate giants became titanic conglomerates. And one by one, during the mid-80s through the 90s, each major movie studio was gobbled up, Columbia and Tri-Star most famously, by Sony. Universal was acquired by G.E., Twentieth Century Fox by News Corporation, Paramount by Viacom.

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Remember when they didn’t suck?

Suddenly, the once independently operated movie studios had oversight like never before. No longer big fish in their own pond, they were now one of many cogs in someone else’s machine. There were new expectations from their new corporate overlords and shareholders that had to be met. No longer were they an industry based on creativity and art; now more than ever, they were producers of products, and products needed to be successful.

Let’s not be too cynical, though. Movie studios were always about big business, but now they were bigger than ever, and scrutinized like never before. The biggest changes came in the 90s, after all the dust settled from the merger mayhem. One by one, long time studio executives were getting replaced by outsiders. Studios once run by people who spent their entire careers living, breathing, and making movies were now getting the boot in favor of successful leaders from other industries. Executives who didn’t know the first thing about making movies — but who did know how to make money — were now running the show.

And one very basic rule of running a profitable business is this: look at what worked in the past and try to repeat it.

DVDs and the Rise of Nostalgia Culture

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Welcome, again, to the future.

Released in the late 90s, DVDs slowly gained momentum before exploding in popularity between 1999 and 2000. One of the biggest drivers of DVD adoption was the introduction of new TV technology like plasma, LCD, and flat-screen CRTs, all of which were needed for the mainstream introduction of HDTV.

Once considered an extravagant luxury strictly in the domain of the rich, the home theater was now an affordable reality. At the center of that reality were new HDTVs that were bigger and better looking than anything we had ever seen. And DVDs were ready and waiting to provide entertainment worthy of these new, sparkling, crystal-clear displays.

One of the biggest things DVD had going for it was an intangible “cool factor.” VHS tapes were nice, but they weren’t cool. DVDs were cool. You wanted to own DVDs. You wanted a library of DVDs. And while we bought up new movies at record paces, one of the biggest game changers came with the re-release of older movies on the new format. Those old movies that we watched over and over again on VHS suddenly had new life. They were remastered in widescreen, and looked better than ever. For many, watching a pristine, beautifully restored classic from our youth was almost like seeing it again for the first time. The anamorphic picture let us see things we never saw before. Progressive scan images on our new, big, wide-screen TVs let us see intricate details we could have never noticed on an interlaced VHS tape.

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It stands for “digital versatile disc!”

Soon, it became an event every time a well loved classic received a deluxe, remastered DVD. Those kids in the 80s, who watched VHS movies so many times that they literally wore out the tape, were now old enough to have jobs with plenty of disposable income. They went out and bought new editions of familiar classics. They relived their childhood favorites through HD rose-tinted glasses, and once again created that same positive feedback loop they first discovered so many years ago.

Only now, we a had much better way to communicate to others about the movies we loved.

The Internet and the Fanboy

The final piece of our puzzle just so happens to be the greatest invention of all time. But the internet you’re familiar with today was much different in the mid-90s, when it first cracked mainstream culture. There was no Google or Wikipedia. It was mostly bare-bones corporate websites, poorly updated news outlets, a handful of rudimentary shopping sites, and fan sites. Lots and lots of fan sites.

There was no social media. There was barely any concept of interactivity. Websites were static pages thrown together with a little HTML knowledge with maybe an email address posted at the bottom. Search engines were unreliable, so it took word of mouth for websites to spread. Sometimes a group of fan sites would band together and form what was called a “web ring.” Ask your older brother if this term doesn’t sound familiar.

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Things were different back then. The web was a dark and scary place.

But gradually, some fan sites separated themselves from the rest and became the go-to destination for movie fans. Places like Ain’t It Cool News and Joblo became hubs that drew in fans like gravity — people looking for others like themselves. For many, this was the first time they were able to share their movie passion with like-minded people. As message boards and online forums became more sophisticated, fans were able to communicate and discuss and argue in a way that was never possible before. Online friendships were forged under user names based on our favorite movies. Handles like FreddyKrugar420, John Woo Fan, Scarface82, Evil Dead Ash, and WatershipDownSyndrome began flooding the anonymous internet as we devoured movie news and speculation and the latest rumors and gossip of various upcoming productions.

We had greater access to movies that at any point in history. IMDB became a godsend for movie fans, and the echo chamber of like-minded movie fans reached deafening heights. It wasn’t long before the media started to notice. Soon, the online opinions of simple, anonymous movie fans actually mattered. The online reaction to the title reveal of Star Wars Episode I made headlines. The viral marketing for The Blair Witch Project revolutionized how movies were promoted. Movie websites started to be the ones breaking major news instead of traditional entertainment magazines and TV shows. Patrick Stewart was cast as Professor X almost by the sheer will of comic book fans alone. It was a brave new world, populated mostly by those young adults whose passion for movies was first born in those early days of VHS so many years ago.

The fanboy was born.

We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

So here we are.  If you’re looking for a TL;DR explanation for who is responsible for all the remakes, the answer is simply, us. We are the ones responsible.

Surely you’ve heard the phrase “vote with your dollar.” Well, we have voted. Over and over again. And if the box office proves anything, it’s that we love remakes. But it’s not just that: remakes are only part of a family that includes reboots, sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and adaptations. It’s all just movies based on previous material, because the safest bet is to go with what is familiar.

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The biggest movie of all time is the seventh part of a forty year old franchise.

Remember those executives who took over the movie studios in the 90s? They figured it out. They realized that making new movies based on material we were already comfortable with was likely to be a hit. At first, they gave us lots of movies based on modern best-selling books (Forrest Gump, The Firm), then came features based on long-dead TV shows (Mission Impossible, The Fugitive). Sequels to dormant franchises came next (Lethal Weapon 4, Die Hard 4), and then the remakes started…

But that’s not entirely true. You see, the remake has always been here. Some of your favorite movies are probably remakes and you didn’t even realize it. The Wizard of Oz.  The Thing. True Lies.

And then when things got stale, the remake’s evil twin brother emerged: the reboot. Casino Royale, Batman Begins, Man of Steel, Transformers, Star Trek, Rise of the Planet of the Apes — all box office smashes. One of the most anticipated movies of 2017 is the second reboot of Spider-Man…

Why shouldn’t there be a Ghostbusters remake? If past performance is any indication, it’s obvious that we love this stuff. Sure, for every hit, there’s a miss, but no one goes into the movie business expecting to miss. You shoot for the moon and if you miss, at least you’ve aimed for the stars. And the easiest target of all is our own nostalgia.

Article by contributor WatershipDownSyndrome.

11 thoughts on “Ghostbusters and Hollywood Remake Culture

  1. A good article for sure, but I do have to nitpick the ending.

    “And if the box office proves anything, it’s that we love remakes. ”

    Feel free to throw some hard facts at me, but I thought the vast majority of reboots/remakes do extremely poorly. Yes there are massive franchises that weather it – Star Trek, Casino Royale or Rise of the Planet of the Apes for example, and all of those still at least acknowledged the original canon as existing – but most full remakes I thought did terribly at the box office. That’s why we’re not seeing the next part of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or a sequel to the new Nightmare On Elm Street.

    1. That’s exactly my point. No one pays attention to the misses. Everyone thinks they are going to make the next Casino Royale or Star Trek. Most horror reboots are actually successful due to their low budget nature. Why they didn’t continue with Nightmare or Friday the 13this anyone’s guess, because those were actually fairly successful.

    2. The second and third book of Girl/Dragon Tattoo are fucking terrible. I don’t think Fincher or anyone else involved had any intention of ever doing them.

  2. I didn’t want a Psycho remake.
    I didn’t want a Friday the 13th remake.
    I didn’t want a Nightmare on Elm Street remake.
    I didn’t want an Assault on Precinct 13 remake.
    I didn’t want a Fog remake.
    I didn’t want a Halloween remake.
    I didn’t want a Total Recall remake.
    I didn’t want a Robocop remake.
    I don’t want a Ghostbusters remake.

    I barely watch new movies at all any more.

  3. Your thesis seems to be that studios taking fewer and fewer risks on fresh, untested, unproven ideas is ultimately the fault of everyone who loves film? Because we live in a market economy??

    1. Like I said, it’s complicated. There is no one ultimate answer, but the simplistic version is, yes, we love things that we are already comfortable with. Netflix’s entire streaming service is based on that concept.

  4. The amount of money they have to pour into a blockbuster now, in both making and marketing the thing, means that they can’t take a punt on new ideas, they need surefire hits that will make the money back.

    As Mark Kermode says in his book (I think the Good, the Bad and the Multiplex), a movie isn’t a success financially until it makes back double its budget. So Batman v Superman with a $250m budget needs to get at least $500m for it to be successful (even though DC probably looked at Marvel’s billions and thought they would get that).

    So if you’re dropping even $100m on a film, you need it to make $200m. As this article says, you have no guarantee that an untested franchise will make money, so the studio goes back to what it knows: remake, reboot, spin off etc,

    The numbers above might be wildly wrong, but the point Kermode makes is in his book

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