Sony ain’t afraid of no ghost—but the studio is certainly terrified of not having a franchise to call its own.
On Monday, Sony announced it had created a production company, Ghostcorps, tasked with turning Ghostbusters into a full-fledged franchise, with both new films and branding opportunities galore. At the center of Ghostcorps: Ivan Reitman, who directed and produced the two Ghostbusters movies, and star Dan Aykroyd, who co-wrote them with the late Harold Ramis. While Ghostbusters is already being rebooted in summer 2016 with an all-female cast—starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Saturday Night Live stars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones—Monday’s news included plans for a second, male-centric film, likely starring Channing Tatum, who is on board as a producer.
In doing so, Sony is proving that it hasn’t learned any lessons from its last attempt to create its own version of the Marvel/DC/Star Wars Cinematic Universe, as it once again tries to resurrect a shaky franchise. The studio is repeating the same mistakes it made with Spider-Man, when they announced with much fanfare in Dec. 2013 the creation of a “franchise brain trust,” which would enable Sony to alternate Spider-Man sequels with various film spinoffs (including Venom, villain-centric Sinister Six and incredulously, even a possible Spidey-free movie about Peter Parker’s Aunt May). But when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 imploded last summer, it torpedoed all such plans, forcing Sony to re-partner with Marvel, scrap those “franchise brain trust” films, and restart its Spider-Man film franchise again in 2017, for the third time in 15 years. (As part of the Marvel deal, the character will also appear in an upcoming Marvel movie, most likely Captain America: Civil War.)
Monday’s Ghostbusters news sounds alarmingly similar to Sony’s grand Spider-Man plans. “We want to expand the Ghostbusters universe in ways that will include different films, TV shows, merchandise, all things that are part of modern filmed entertainment,” Ivan Reitman told Deadline. “My primary focus will be to build the Ghostbusters into the universe it always promised it might become.”
Despite Reitman’s optimism, Ghostbusters doesn’t seem able to shoulder the weight of those lofty franchise expectations. The 1984 original film, a comedy classic, is universally loved, but its mediocre 1989 sequel… frankly, isn’t. While it spawned two animated TV series (The Real Ghostbusters in the late ’80s; Extreme Ghostbusters in the late ’90s), the film franchise has been dormant ever since. Dan Aykroyd has tried to get a third film off the ground since the ’90s, with at least 22 actors tied to the project at various points.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and Sony lags far behind other studios when it comes to franchises. Spider-Man is now back to square one (with Marvel much more involved than Sony would like) and James Bond is a Sony co-production with MGM. And with the studio in transition after Amy Pascal stepped down Feb. 5—Sony named Tom Rothman its chairman two weeks later—it needs a viable franchise, stat.
That’s much easier said that done. The Marvel, DC and Star Wars worlds boast hundreds of characters and stories that naturally lend themselves to a variety of film and television projects. Popular book series like The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Divergent are series, containing multiple novels of material to draw from (and in most cases, squeeze out more films than actual books). Sony has precious few of these. It does have the rights to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, but US film versions of the final two books seem unlikely after the first movie underperformed, star Rooney Mara said last month.
Instead, it looks like Sony will jump the gun and force its own universe into creation, sidestepping the natural progression of releasing one film, gauging interest, and greenlighting a sequel. Sony is flailing. As revealed in the hacked emails, it was even exploring other ways to revive its dormant franchises, like a Men in Black/21 Jump Street crossover movie.
It’s an approach that could end up doing more harm to Ghostbusters’s future than good. What made the upcoming female version so exciting, which is written and directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat), was its fresh take on the story—who doesn’t want to see these four funny women kicking paranomal butt? But the announcement of another guy-centric Ghostbusters film has already sapped much of that thrill. As noted in Vanity Fair, “The girls aren’t being kicked out of the firehouse. But it sure feels a little crowded for them, even before they’ve moved in.”
The best argument against Sony’s ambitious Ghostbusters plans comes from star Bill Murray himself, who explained why he never agreed to appear in a third movie. “Those guys, Danny and Harold [Ramis], were at the top of their game,” Murray told Variety last fall of the original film. “They were burning nitro at that moment. Unless you have a really clear vision, you’re always trying to recreate that.”
Feig’s vision for next year’s Ghostbusters reboot seems to be exactly what Murray is talking about, but as for the rest of Sony’s plan, the only “clear vision” involved there is dollar signs.