Who you Gonna Call?: Ghostbusters and High Concept Film

Paper by Lauren Fleming.

Growing up, I had always imagined Hollywood as a place where creativity bloomed and nothing was off-limits. Although this is true to a great extent, especially today, there have typically always been a set of conventions which Hollywood filmmakers had to follow if they wanted to consider themselves mainstream. High concept film is one of the many ways in which the industry has utilized infrastructure, narrative frameworks, filmmaking trends, and technological advancements to create films which appeal to mass audiences and are guaranteed to make a profit. ​Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984) serves as an exemplar in the field of high concept. It utilizes narrative simplicity, special effects, and immediate and continual action to create a formulaic viewing experience which is designed for mass audience appeal and the potential for profits beyond its theatrical release. I intend to use a close analysis of the film alongside historical contextualization to study the film’s historical, stylistic, and industry relevance. Through its utilization of popular film trends and its investment in ancillary markets, the filmmakers and Columbia Pictures managed to create a franchise which is still being expanded upon today and whose imagery is continuously used as a cultural referent.

The film industry has depended upon conventions and trends since the moment filmmakers realized they could make cinema into a profit-seeking venture. Some conventions and trends were created for the purpose of an easier and more quality viewing experience for audiences while others were created for a more efficient use of resources. Early on in cinema, filmmakers were faced with the Production Code which attempted to curb “immoral” depictions which would taint American society and its pure values. After television was introduced as a competitor in the entertainment industry, film production and audience attendance sharply declined. This eventually led to studio takeovers by large media corporations who relied heavily on classical film conventions such as continuity (or invisible style) editing, cause-and effect narratives, and clear resolutions, in order to minimize risk and boost profits. By the 1960s, the industry began making exploitation films, which capitalized on popular trends and easy audiences. Exploitation films were often quickly-made, low-budget, science fiction or horror films. They relied upon colorful titles and eye-catching advertising to draw in an audience. Before high concept films found their place as one of the hallmarks of Hollywood Cinema, the industry was hindered by a major slump. The industry was facing a major recession by the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, with losses of over $500 million and a sharp decrease in the number of films produced between 1969 and 1970. This created the perfect environment for young filmmakers to explore the industry. From this, we see the rise of auteur and blockbuster films. Blockbusters of the 1970s tended to be lower-budget films whose profits greatly exceeded their original costs. These blockbusters were usually science-fiction or horror and slasher films like​Jaws(​StevenSpielberg,1975),whosebudgetwas$7millionwhileitsboxofficeprofits amounted to $470 million worldwide. Another example is ​Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), whose budget was $300,000 while its profits at the box office equated to about $70 million worldwide. Blockbusters became a surefire way in which studios could secure profits and minimize risk while at the same time encouraging theatre attendance with seasonal releases.

In addition to the risk-minimizing techniques of the industry, there were also several advancements in technology which revived the industry and created the space for high concept films to develop. The first of these technological advancements is the creation of ancillary markets through home entertainment. The introduction of HBO and VCR into the industry greatly expanded the possibilities for profits for studios. Although Columbia Pictures did not have access to broadcast television, they attempted to diversify by investing in ancillary markets, including “the market for home video” as well as “a pinball game company, five radio stations, and a music publishing company” (Prince, 8). In addition, Columbia Pictures invested in movie theatres. They were able to do so because they were not one of the major studios which had signed the Paramount Decrees in 1948, which would have effectively “force[d them] to divest their theater operations” (Prince, 84). Even though some of the major studios were held up in courts because of the two-decades-old decree, “​Diversification and ​expansion became catchwords of the new Hollywood, as a handful of vertically integrated companies exploited Reagan’s market deregulation to move back into exhibition, which by the early 1980s included the emerging ‘home-box-office market’: pay TV, videocassettes, and network television” (Lewis, 358-359). By investing in these markets, Columbia and other studios created the infrastructure which aided in the formation of high concept projects like the ​Ghostbusters franchise. The second technological advancement was the innovations made in the realm of special effects and later, CGI. For example, in 1976, George Lucas founded Industrial Light and Magic which specialized in special effects, CGI, modeling, and other post-production techniques. The use of special effects and CGI is essential to high concept films. Both the original ​Ghostbusters (1984) and the remake ​Ghostbusters (2016) rely heavily on the use of CGI and special effects for both visual appeal and narrative development.

The original ​Ghostbusters ​was released in 1984. It is a hybrid film which has elements of comedy, horror, and science fiction. It features actors and actresses who were (and arguably, still are) major players in the film and television industry. Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were big in the world of comedy while Sigourney Weaver is known for her work in both the horror and science fiction genres. These are only a few of the names from the cast which were big from the 1970s to the 1990s. The film’s budget was an estimated $30 million while its box office profits worldwide amounted to $295,743,767. It was the top box office film of the year with $127 million in the United States (Prince, 448). Set in New York, the film’s narrative features constant action, in which the ghostbusters are running all over the city trying to capture ghosts. The ghostbusters themselves are all society rejects. Scientists Peter Venkman, Raymond Stantz, and Egon Spengler are all rejects of the scientific community. They get discredited and called crazy by the mayor. They are called upon to save the city and the world. They also need to save Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) from Gozer, a powerful supernatural being. Their adventures are action-packed and full of uncoordinated destruction.

High concept films work beyond their initial theatrical release in order to keep generating profits. For many high concept films, ​Ghostbusters included, home video, soundtracks, cross-promotions, and merchandising, all contribute to the film’s success. Another means of expanding the franchise is through sequels and remakes. ​Ghostbusters II ​(Ivan Reitman, 1989) featured the same cast, used an almost-identical narrative, had a similar budget ($37,000,000), and earned similar profits at the box office worldwide ($215,394,738). These two films are not the only ones in the franchise. The remake of ​Ghostbusters ​(Paul Feig, 2016), was also produced by Columbia Pictures. Its budget was an estimated $144 million while its box office profits worldwide amounted to $229,147,509 (IMDB). The newest version of ​Ghostbusters follows much of the same rules set up by the previous two. Although the new ghostbusters are all women, they are popular comedians and actresses in today’s mainstream film and television industry, including Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The filmmaker does, however, build upon the knowledge, codes, and fandom of the previous films by including cameos of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson, as well as the revival of the iconic characters of the Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The 2016 film relies upon the same high concept techniques of its predecessors. The film is set in New York and features a tight-knit group of four paranormal investigators, three of whom have been rejected from the scientific community. They sport proton packs, wear coveralls, and drive a decked-out hearse. Despite the mayor’s best efforts to label them as crazy, they are called-upon to save the city and the world from complete destruction when the ghostly dimension threatens to spill into our worldly one. Simultaneously, they have to save Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) from being possessed by Rowan.

In the original ​Ghostbusters (1984), the film opens inconspicuously upon the New York Public Library. The score is similar to other horror and science fiction scores of the era. The librarian moves to put the books away. As she moves through the shelves, the books behind her move from one stack to another, seemingly by themselves. The lighting is somewhat low-key and the shots are tightly framed with the bookshelves providing a feeling of entrapment. She does not see the books moving, but she looks back as if she feels a presence or sensed the movement. She disregards it and then walks past a wall of library catalog cabinets. As she passes them, the drawers open one by one and the paper cards begin flying everywhere. She slowly turns around and screams at the sight and runs away. She runs through the rows and rows of book stacks. She is stopped by something in front of her, just off-screen. She screams in fright. The screen cuts to the opening credits and the iconic theme song.

The 2016 remake opens up in a similar way to the original. The film begins at the historic Aldrich Mansion in the middle of New York City. Like the New York Public Library, it is visibly old. It’s classical score gives the film an early feeling of pending horror. A group is being guided through a tour of the mansion. The tour guide tells a haunting story about the daughter of the mansion’s original owner, paving the way for a potential ghost sighting. At the end of the story. a candlestick crashes to the ground, unnerving the guests, but we later learn that it was a gimmick set up by the guide. The tour guide ends the tour and the film cuts to later that evening. As the tour guide locks up the building for the night, we hear a faint creaking. The tour guide investigates, only to find that the doorknob of the sealed door leading to the basement, is turning. It stops for a second only to have the door begin banging and shaking and a woman behind it begins screaming. He runs but finds that the front door is locked and the doorknob is searing hot to the touch. All of his exits are blocked so he runs to the basement whose door is magically open. Once he realizes his grave mistake, it’s too late and the door slams shut, locking him inside. The cracks in the basement floor glow green and begin to bubble and billow steam. The stairs break beneath him as he tries to make his escape. The floor bubbles with a familiar green goo, incredibly similar to the green goo of the original film. A blue ghost rises from the goo, but we do not see its face. He is hanging from the doorway and is unable to escape. We only see the tour guide’s reaction to the ghost as it approaches him from off-screen. The scene cuts and the familiar theme song plays. This sequence is incredibly similar to the opening sequence of the original​ Ghostbusters.W​are introduced to the world of the paranormal and get a glimpse at thelevel of CGI and special effects being used for the film. The action is immediate and familiar.

Not only is the narrative simplistic and formulaic, the characters are nearly identical from the original to the remake. They are easily translatable from one film to another. For example, “[Bill] Murray’s character, Dr. Venkman, is low to begin with, a crackpot researcher who begins the first film by getting fired from Columbia University and the second, by hosting the cheesy talk show ​World of the Psychic​” (Feil, 53). In the remake, Kristen Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, is a researcher of theoretical particle physics who gets fired from her professorship at Columbia University. She has nothing better to do, so she joins Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) on their quest to capture the paranormal and prove to everyone that they are not frauds. Shortly after we are introduced to Patty Tolan (or Winston Zeddemore in the original), played by Leslie Jones, who has no scientific background but actually has an incredible reservoir of seemingly endless random knowledge about New York City, which actually comes in handy in the most desperate moments of the film.

As a cultural object, ​Ghostbusters (1984) carries codes which are identifiable to a general audience. The 2016 remake utilizes these codes to reaffirm its place in popular culture as well as within the franchise. By employing objects like costuming, the theme song, and cameos of the original cast, ​Ghostbusters (2016) plays upon the recent trend of nostalgia-style films in order to bring in original audiences and long-term fans. The film also attempts to stay relevant by making the protagonists women. In recruiting new audiences to the film with female protagonists, the filmmakers also manage to alienate some of their original, more male-oriented audiences. This contrast between relevance and nostalgia are heavily contrasted throughout the film. Despite adding a feminist lens to the film, the rest of the remake remains formulaic and identifiable as a means of guaranteeing profits and audience numbers, thus placing it comfortably within the high concept blueprint.

Works Cited
Feil, Ken. ​Dying for a Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination. W​ esleyan University Press, 2006.
Lewis, Jon. ​American Film: A History. 2​ d ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. Parker Jr., Ray. “Ghostbusters.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fe93CLbHjxQ
Prince, Stephen. ​A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989​.
History of the American Cinema,​ vol. 10. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000.
Shone, Tom. ​Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer.
Free Press, 2004.
Wyatt, Justin. ​High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood.​ ​Texas Film Studies Series.​ University of Texas Press, 1994.

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