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How ‘Ghostbusters’ Gave Birth to the Modern Blockbuster

The 1984 comedy set the comedy/horror/sci-fi/kitchen sink template (and business model) for today’s would-be tentpole hits

Ghostbusters Bill Murray Dan Aykroyd Harold Ramis Anniversary

Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd in the original 1984 'Ghostbusters' — the movie that set the template for the modern blockbuster.

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How time flies when you’re getting slimed. Ghostbusters turns 32 today, and the titanic influence of this nostalgia totem was obvious even before the upcoming all-female reboot prompted mass fanboy conniptions and the gnashing of Cheetos-stained teeth. To some fans, the attachment is so strong that any discussion of fandom’s golden calf takes leave of basic logic. But the legacy of this 1984 juggernaut extends far beyond legions of nostalgic, anonymous misogynists on the Web. Steven Spielberg may have singlehandedly invented the modern blockbuster with Jaws, but nine years later, Ivan Reitman was the one who tweaked the designs to produce laughs along with thrilled gasps. Along the way, he picked up nearly $300 million, spawned a cottage industry of merch rivaling Star Wars, and helped Bill Murray grow from a bankable Saturday Night Live graduate to, well, Bill Murray. Ghostbusters, for better or for worse, is everywhere, and has been since the movie’s smart-ass heroes first crossed streams.

Originally conceived by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as a vehicle for themselves, the project began life as a tale of time-traveling paranormal investigators using magic wands to capture ghosts. (The original title: the close-but-no-cigar Ghostmashers.) When the latter’s untimely death derailed the fledgling idea, Aykroyd and co-writer/costar Harold Ramis starting recrafting the movie as more of an ensemble piece. Everyone adhered to their proscribed type: Ramis owned the nerd schtick as brains-of-the-outfit Egon Spengler; Aykroyd imbued Ray Stantz with his trademark full-throated enthusiasm; the straight-man character, eventually played by Ernie Hudson, held down the fort; and then there was Bill Murray, who took the wiseass persona he’d crafted from SNL, Meatballs and Stripes and blew him it up to StayPuff Marshmellow-size. The rest is highly quotable history.

Even with 30-plus years of hindsight to benefit from, it’s still hard to tell whether Ghostbusters is a summer tentpole movie that happens to boast four excellent comic performances, or a comedy with loftier aspirations than the usual star vehicle. And therein lies the key to its lasting legacy: Now, the approach of “pick a genre, but funny” has proven functional a dozen times over. The action-comedy cross-breed has matured into a cash crop of the annual blockbuster harvest, and no superhero script is complete without at least trace amounts of levity. Reitman excelled at keeping the sci-fi and the humor in balance with one another, and the struggle to replicate that success may have filled Hollywood graveyards. (R.I.P, R.I.P.D.) But he 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?

And (arguably) even more influentially, Ghostbusters refined the art of cultivating its public profile aggressively after the public anointed it a full-fledged hit. Yes, Star Wars already demonstrated there was gold in them there toystore hills, but Reitman & co.’s hit proved the concept of turning your movie into its own brand-name entity was not a one-off fluke if you had the right ingredients — or even better, an iconic logo you could slap onto everything from breakfast cereals to bedspreads. T-shirts and action figures were a given; the themed Vegas slot machine, less so. And the 1986 animated series was at the vanguard of a spin-off tsunami, helping to establish a new status quo where multiverses and big-box retail marketing blitzes are the norm. Now, every potential franchise dreams of endless profitability and forever-fandom hosannas — and Ghostbusters helped lay down the foundation for that business model.

With a staying power seldom seen outside of the superhero world, four New Yorkers working a side gig capturing sloppy specters ascended to the uppermost echelon of pop-culture posterity. The excitement with which thirtysomethings greeted the news that the Ecto Cooler flavor of Hi-C juice would return attests to the nature of this particular brand as a public institution — Ghostbusters Inc. — rather than a mere movie. Like it or not, every hopeful studio tentpole now dreams of having the cultural cachet to earn a much-hyped remake a few decades after the fact. (With any luck, they’ll all be able to do so, preferably with all-lady cast.) And so much is that is due to an earworm of a theme song, a circle-with-a-slash covering a startled looking ghost, and four guys who were willing to take a sliming for all of us. Nice shooting, Tex.

The latest ‘Ghostbusters’ trailer finds the all-female paranormal hunters fending off “mass hysteria” in New York City. Watch here.

In This Article: Ghostbusters

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