Weekends with two major openings that aren’t targeted to the same audience typically boost box office business – as we just saw Memorial Day weekend. There was, however, a time when studios didn’t always avoid going head-to-head with the wrong films.
The classic example of what not to do occurred on June 8, 1984, when Columbia opened Ivan Reitman’s action fantasy GHOSTBUSTERS and Warner Bros. launched Joe Dante’s action fantasy GREMLINS. Both were going to play best to younger males. Both studios wanted to kick off that weekend because in those days early June was when most schools had just closed for the summer, so younger males were now able to see movies all week long.
GHOSTBUSTERS looked the strongest. Reitman had already directed hit comedies like MEATBALLS (1979 – $43M) & STRIPES (1981 – $85M). His new film had big star power – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd & Sigourney Weaver.
GREMLINS’ Joe Dante hadn’t directed any big hits yet but had gotten lots of attention with his werewolf film THE HOWLING (1981 – $18M). Stars Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates & Hoyt Axton weren’t as well-known as GHOSTBUSTERS’ star trio. GREMLINS did have some significant star power behind the camera in executive producer Steven Spielberg, whose INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM had just opened Memorial Day weekend to $42.3M and would do $333M worldwide. Despite industry speculation that one title might move, both studios stayed the course. Neither picture opened as well as it might have done with more compatible competition. GHOSTBUSTERS did $13.6M at 1,339 theatres ($10,140 per) while GREMLINS did $12.5M at 1,511 theatres
($8,280 per). Hollywood handicappers knew who’d be the winner from their per theatre averages.
In 1984, GHOSTBUSTERS grossed $220.9M domestic vs. $144.4M for GREMLINS. Those were very good numbers for the time, but both films would likely have done even better if they hadn’t started by splitting their target demo. Both spawned blah sequels. GREMLINS 2 (1990) did $41.5M domestic. A GREMLINS 3 project is now in development at WB/Legendary/Amblin. GHOSTBUSTERS 2 (1989) did $112.5M domestic and a female-driven GHOSTBUSTERS reboot (2016) grossed $128.4M domestic.
This Nov. 11 the reboot GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE opens via Sony, directed by Ivan’s son Jason Reitman (UP IN THE AIR) with Murray, Aykroyd & Weaver returning. Happily, as of now, it’s the only action fantasy opening that day.