Sony’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife arrives on electronic sell-through (i.e. – “priced to buy VOD”) this morning, following a relatively successful theatrical release. The “legacy sequel,” directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and the guy who directed Juno, Young Adult and The Front Runner) and penned by Gil Kenan (the guy who wrote Monster House), opened in November with $44 million before ending up with $122 million in unadjusted domestic grosses. However, it “only” earned $61.3 million overseas, giving it a current $184.7 million worldwide cume. That’s not bad on a Covid curve (+15% puts the domestic cume at $140 million), but it’s still below the $126 million domestic/$229 million global cume of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call from summer 2016. While Afterlife only cost $75 million while Answer the Call cost $144 million, the result arguably shows that not all American pop culture nostalgia translates overseas.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call was, of course, Paul Feig and Katie Dippold’s remake of Ghostbusters, released in summer 2016 amid a ridiculous amount of online handwringing over its gender-swapped cast. You don’t need me to remind you of the outcry and real-world discourse (even then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump chimed in), or how the mere notion of casting four female sketch comedians in a NYC-set paranormal comedy (as opposed to the original which cast four male sketch comedians in same) became essentially proof that online trolls and SEO-driven media could impact the online discourse and thus the media-driven narrative about a given film. However, the film still grossed $126 million from a $46 million debut, which was A) 61% more than Adam Sandler’s likeminded Pixels from the previous summer and B) more than any straight-up feature comedy released that year. Alas, it only earned $100 million overseas.
So, five years later, Ghostbusters: Afterlife gave the fans their own Force Awakens. Starring McKenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard and Paul Rudd, the 30-years-later sequel ignored the 2016 remake (which makes sense, since it’s not set in the same continuity) and offered up a comic coming-of-age adventure that portrayed the events of the first Ghostbusters as a kind of generational pop mythology. I’d argue the movie worked well enough on its own terms (Grace is terrific, Rudd is charming and Coon benefits from the film’s willingness to go raw with family estrangement) to survive a third act fan bait-fest. It worked for Ghostbusters fans and for folks who just wanted a funnier (and present-day) riff on Stranger Things or Super 8. However, even with a “course correction” akin to Incredible Hulk (after Hulk) and Man of Steel (after Superman Returns), Ghostbusters: Afterlife earned just $61 million overseas.
$229 million worldwide for the Kristen Wiig/Melissa McCarthy/Leslie Jones/Kate McKinnon comedy would have been okay on a budget closer to McCarthy’s Spy ($235 million on a $65 million budget in summer 2015) as opposed to Jurassic World. Had the film performed as expected for fantasy franchise flicks, we’d be looking at a $371 million worldwide cume. That’d be at least on par with Batman Begins ($371 million) and Star Trek ($385 million). The Ghostbusters IP is specifically American pop culture, or at least to the extent anyone has fawning “the fantasy saga of my childhood” nostalgia for it. Not unlike Solo ($214 million domestic but just $394 million worldwide), North American moviegoers showed up in respectable numbers while overseas audiences did not. When Sony doubled down on the IP (bringing it Ivan’s son, making a reverential remake of Ghostbusters, emphasizing the iconography, etc.), the overseas grosses, Covid aside, substantially decreased.
Some of that downturn was due to Covid variables (even while Venom 2, James Bond 25 and Halloween Kills were doing just fine worldwide), but Afterlife still grossed 66% of its box office in North America alone. That’s the reverse of a conventional theatrical performance for a fantasy franchise flick. Moreover, it earned 40% less overseas than the last Ghostbusters movie, showing that some of the overseas interest was in the idea of a big-budget sci-fi comedy starring McCarthy and other well-known comic actresses as opposed to fidelity to the IP. Sony applied the right lessons from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (which looked appealing to those with no interest in the brand). Unlike Man of Steel or Incredible Hulk, which made 180-degree course-corrections but on the same budget only to earn about equal grosses, Ghostbusters: Afterlife was made cheaply enough to be a hit with identical results.
That Tom Rothman and friends were smart enough to only spend $75 million on Ghostbusters: Afterlife meant they accounted for, even in non-Covid times, the possibility that audiences outside of North America wouldn’t care about a Ghostbusters legacy sequel any more than they cared about a Han Solo origin story or a LeBron James Space Jam sequel (A New Legacy earned $92 million overseas versus $140 million in 1996 for Space Jam). Ghostbusters grossed $229 million domestic and $53 million overseas in 1984 while Ghostbusters II earned $112 million/$103 million in 1989. Jokes about broadening the international scope aside (“The Spengler kids are going to South Korea!”), the theoretical sequel must not be so expensive that it can’t afford to again be ignored outside of North America. Because the pretty fun Afterlife proved what the pretty funny Answer the Call merely implied: Overseas audiences don’t care about Ghostbusters.