“Ghostbusters” fans are glowing like Slimer over news that the 1984 sci-fi comedy is getting a theatrical reissue to mark its 30th anniversary. Ivan Reitman’s enduringly popular film about a team of misfit ghost-catchers will hit more than 700 theaters on Aug. 29, much to the delight of anyone who remembers it the first time around, along with the legions of loyalists who grew up watching it on cable.
But the re-release comes with a tinge of melancholy, and not just because of the recent untimely death of Harold Ramis, who starred in and co-wrote the film with Dan Aykroyd. It’s because “Ghostbusters” represents something that pretty much doesn’t exist in Hollywood anymore: big-budget summer movies conceived and created specifically for the screen. In fact, the 1980s were an apex of this bygone genre. We don’t often think of the decade of Reagan and Rubik’s Cube in terms of culture vanguards, but for high-concept cinema it was a golden age, a time when all producers needed to green light a project was a few bankable stars and a catchy hook.
As Hollywood prepares in the coming weeks to unleash upon the world such cultural gems as “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and “22 Jump Street,” it’s easy to forget that summer popcorn films in the 1980s didn’t automatically mean sequels, superheroes and familiar franchises. Films like “The Goonies,” “Gremlins” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” didn’t rely on pre-existing material to achieve blockbuster status. If there were toys and tie-ins, they came after conception. Today, the reverse is true. The highest-grossing domestic release of 2014 so far is “The Lego Movie,” a well-reviewed and much-talked-about animated effort that critics and audiences seemed to forget was a 100-minute commercial for a toy company.
In contrast, high-concept ‘80s movies worked simply because they could be summed up with a single tagline: What if an out-of-work actor dressed like a woman to land a role on a soap opera? (“Tootsie”) What if a lonely suburban child befriended a stranded alien? (“E.T.”) What if an average high school student went back in time and met his parents as teenagers? (“Back to the Future”) Like these films, “Ghostbusters” came with a storyline so invitingly salable and straightforward it practically writes itself: Three New York City parapsychologists are ejected from Columbia University and subsequently start a ghost-catching business. Strap on your proton packs, and let the mayhem ensue -- and whatever you do, don’t cross the streams.
It’s the kind of mindless summer fare that begs to be made, and yet in today’s tent-pole-obsessed climate, it’s easy to see how it wouldn’t be. Adjusted for inflation, “Ghostbusters” is the highest-grossing comedy in history, but can you remember the last time a movie not based on pre-existing material claimed the top-grossing spot of any given year? Since 2000, it’s happened only once, with James Cameron’s “Avatar” in 2009. (If we’re being fair, last year’s “Frozen” almost qualifies, as it was only loosely inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.) The rest of the last 15 years is a procession of utilitarian sequels and bloated comic book spectacles. When there are exceptions -- like 2012’s “Ted” or this year’s surprise hit comedy “Neighbors” -- they are considered anomalies.
It’s easy lay the blame on greedy Hollywood producers who have willfully eschewed creativity and fresh ideas in lieu of sure bets, but changes in the movie business over the last two decades are the result of a multitude of factors, many of which were inevitable in the face of shifting media habits. For all practical purposes, “Ghostbusters” had the playing field all to itself; video games and cable TV were in their infancy, and there was no Internet. It was a lot easier to convince consumers to leave the house in 1984. Today the average U.S. moviegoer goes to the cinema fewer than six times a year, while producers increasingly aim their tent poles at global audiences for whom plots and character development understandably take a backseat to the universal language of CGI monsters. The natural byproduct of such an environment is the Marvel Entertainment sausage factory that summer cinema has become, a franchise-heavy model that in a lot of ways looks like a return to the superhero serials of the 1930s and ‘40s.
It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s still a cause to mourn. Eighties summer comedies may not be high art, but they mark a period of creative output that will never return to Hollywood, at least not as long as there are untold installments in the “X-Men” canon yearning to be heard. Who you gonna call? Try Wolverine.