See what's on at The Drum

How Sony’s marketing nearly destroyed the Ghostbusters

There are right ways to market a movie or event and then there is the Sony way.

Although during this article I talk about the movie industry, something I know a little about from working on marketing of some previous films, I will also discuss the modern landscape of growth hacking an event, community - or any market. The principles are the same. Unfortunately for the Sony marketing department they are using an old playbook which the rest of us threw out years ago.

Perhaps the odds were stacked against Sony from the start. Perhaps the movie studio had finally stumbled across the one reboot that people cared enough about to reject the new format.

One thing we do know, if Ghostbusters (2016) does become a billion dollar franchise it will not be the result of the creative and marketing teams.

Death by email

The development hell of Ghostbusters has been well documented from Bill Murray’s hatred of the original sequel because of studio interference to unfilmable scripts. But it was a leaked email that started the downward descent to arrive at where we are today.

On the 7th September 2014 Paul Feig (director of Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters) wrote a 700 word email to, then Sony Studio head, Amy Pascal.

And while some of the original story ideas from the email may not have made it to the screen (“ghosts of evil beings from other parts of the universe - yes, ghost aliens!”) the potential of a “billion dollar idea” felt to many like cynically cashing in on nostalgia. The email was posted on Wikileaks and was one of the many email exchanges that revealed to the public what really happens behind the scenes of Hollywood.

Don’t cross the streams!

Sony is currently chasing their own billion dollar franchise. Let’s put that into context. While they own arguably one of the most successful franchises of all time, James Bond, they also want to increase this portfolio of big hitters. Afterall, Skyfall was their only film to gross over a billion dollars ($1.1bn) and the sequel, Spectre underwhelmed expectations with, only, $880m at the box office. Critically, the Bond franchise is limited to an older demographic, most problematically not children wanting Bond on everything from school bags to plasters.

In contrast the new kids on the block, Marvel, are laying waste to box office records faster than a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in New York. The Avengers ($1.5bn), Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4bn), Iron Man 3 ($1.2bn), Captain America: Civil War ($1.1bn). Even Deadpool, a little known superhero movie with a minimal production budget of $58m grossed over $780m.

Expectations of box office returns have never been higher. For example, Batman Vs Superman grossing $871m was considered unsuccessful by Warner Brothers who had hopes of a billion dollar busting blockbuster.

Build It And They Won’t Come

The fundamental principle in modern marketing, that Sony have missed, is that communities need to feel engaged, continually, and actually own the movie - not have the end product marketed to them. The game has changed. People support what they create.

The Fightback Begins...And It Gets Ugly

Sony’s old fashioned and dated approach to marketing Ghostbusters started badly and quickly got worse. Launching the Ghostbusters trailer on their own youtube channel Sony seemed surprised at the hatred directed at the trailer, seemingly unaware of what was happening

(The trailer is currently the 9th most disliked in YouTube history ).

Downvoting, sexist, racist comments and pure hatred. The comments section quickly descended into the portal of hell where internet trolls dwell.

If the new Ghostbusters is a reboot, the tone and focus of the new film could not be more different to the original. Viewed side by side the differences are obvious. The original was focused on the occult, a story arc that is designed to present scares with characters introduced through the trailer. In other words, story first, characters second. While the new trailer positions the four central characters first then a story is confusingly wrapped around them. There are many reasons why this may have been edited, when trying to reach a new audience building off the back of the star power of the leads is a logical strategy.

Is this simply a case of a relationship breakdown on a psychological level between two parties, Sony and the Ghostbusters fans? In 2006, relationship psychologists Duck and Rollie published a paper that set out some of the causes of relationship breakdowns and how they can manifest. “The first phase of this model begins when one of the partners becomes distressed with the relationship. This realisation is the first step in the eventual breakdown of the relationship. This leads to an intrapsychic process characterised by a brooding focus on the relationship, during this process, nothing is said to the partner, although the dissatisfied partner may express their dissatisfaction in other ways, like a personal diary entry.”

The relationship that Sony, and many marketers, try to nurture is a strong, positive emotional attachment (love) that can be used to leverage more ticket sales, products sold and services rendered. However, it doesn't take a paranormal scientists to join the dots and see that this breakdown has obvious crossovers with personal relationships. Once this is identified and psychologically empathised with a stronger relationship can be formed.

Lurking In The Shadows

Sony were into crisis management mode. The internet was flooded with hate for this movie. To their credit, one fan recut the new Ghostbusters trailer and added the original theme music we all know. Sony saw how well this was received and adapted it’s later trailers to reflect the use of the old and the new. But this one smart move couldn’t stop the trickle becoming a flood to a tidal wave of hatred.

As fast as Sony tried to push a new marketing message the internet rejected it. Forgetting the network effect that every online influencer has an army of loyal subscribers and fans who trust that influencer. So every opportunity Sony took to shut down an influencer, rightly or wrongly, the number of the influencers that took their place grew.

And like Raymond Stantz creating the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Sony had created their own army of detractors. Consider this, you have your own YouTube channel and suddenly Sony is attacking you. And you have a voice as loud as Sony. Can Goliath still win against David?

From Bad To Worse And Worse Again

Realising that Sony were losing the online war their social media creatives roared into action like a hoarse mouse. Dan Aykroyd, the heart and soul of the original Ghostbusters tweeted:

"As originator of the original: Saw test screening of new movie. Apart from brilliant, genuine performances from the cast both female and male, it has more laughs and more scarce than the first 2 films plus Bill Murray is in it! As one of millions of man-fans and Ray Stantz, I'm paying to see that and bringing all my friends!"

For many this tweet sounded too corporate, too much like more Sony attempting to manipulate a message rather than a genuine endorsement. For the first time Dan Aykroyd was dragged into the quagmire and as a result his tweet was questioned and attacked. Conspiracy theories flew around - was Dan Aykroyd being forced to say this in the same way Sony were threatening to sue Bill Murray in more leaked emails?

The Slimer In The Room

Finally Sony have picked up the proton pack and went after the trolls and detractors themselves. The obligatory press tour with the cast on chat show after chat show, saying how funny and incredible everyone is it appeared that things started to get back on track. But the sexism debate kept being brought up. “Are you sexist if you don’t like the Ghostbusters trailer?”. And while the sexist comments by anonymous trolls are truly abhorrent, sweeping generalisations of any detractors which includes disenchanted communities who are also vocal in their opposition shows how far the relationship has broken down.

So Ghostbusters is now positioned as an example of progressive, forward thinking, female empowering, movie blockbusting cinematic magic. At least Sony have found the angle for their marketing, but in a final twist Sony throw themselves under the spectral locomotive with the release of some new artwork.

Empire provide a cover with Kristen Wiig hidden behind the comedy ghost, Slimer and bizarrely, Total Film have two covers: one featuring the female cast stood behind Chris Hemsworth, who plays a supporting role, or a “greenprint” of a proton pack.

The Final Nail In The Coffin

The most important date for any film is the opening weekend. The measure of this is how well the film has been marketed and how much hunger it has created in the movie going public. The subsequent weeks then rely on word of mouth and quality of the movie will keep people coming back for repeat viewings.

The rebooted Ghostbusters opened this weekend to the tune of $46m. Perhaps tellingly it wasn't even the number one at the US box office that weekend.

While it is almost impossible to compare like for like it is worth noting that the original Ghostbusters was made (adjusted for inflation over the last 32 years), for $70m and made the equivalent of $684m.

A more recent comparable to put this into perspective is Deadpool took $47m in one day.

All Hope May Not Be Lost

The new Ghostbusters film has a lot going for it. Paul Feig is a seasoned comedy director with a string of hits under his belt. Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are incredibly talented in their own right. On screen it could be cinematic magic. Positive word of mouth and outstanding reviews can still save the film.

But Sony has stacked the odds against them. Old fashioned and outdated marketing campaigns such as this point to too much money and not enough applied psychology or creativity.

For a film that cost an estimated $154m to produce and with a typical film marketing budget usually doubling this figure, Sony are praying that their customer acquisition costs add up to a franchise that will last for a number of years.

The After Credits Tease

But like all good movie villains who you think are dead at the end but then come back, Sony are not finished with reboots. On the slate for development (and marketing) over the next 3 years are: Bad Boys 3 & 4, The Magnificent Seven (rebooted), Jumanji (rebooted), Spiderman (rebooted for the third time in 14 years) and Blade Runner 2.

For the sake of those films we can only hope that Sony will appoint a new marketing department and creative team in the wake of the Ghostbusters debacle or perhaps they will also be rebooted.

Ross Kingsland is chairman at IMG and managing partner at Gravy. He tweets @RossKingsland1

By continuing to use The Drum, I accept the use of cookies as per The Drum's privacy policy