Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bill Murray and Ghostbusters (2016)

Alright, I've made this post numerous times in the comment threads on various facebook statuses all summer, and finally I thought, "I should probably just write a brief article that I can just link to instead of typing it out over and over again."

In case you haven't heard, there's a new Ghostbusters movie opening in the US on July 15th, co-written by Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. To promote it, several core cast members of the original Ghostbusters -- Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts -- joined the new cast on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to talk about the movie.

When asked about his long-standing reluctance to participate in a new Ghostbusters movie, Murray first praised the cast, then offered a pretty positive personal opinion about the finished film:

"When you see the film, and you'll delight in the film, it sort of rumbles along in the beginning, and you go, 'Oh God, are they going to pull this thing off?' And they, believe me, no, I feel like a stepfather to the whole thing, you know? But there is just no quit in these girls. I've worked with Melissa before, and a little bit with Kris, and a little bit...but this is a tough movie to pull off, because it's a big concept, there's a lot on the plate, there's a lot of expectation, and Danny and I, and Annie, and Ernie were just screaming, cheering, like we were at a sporting event, at the end of it."

Shortly before Ghostbusters (2016) went into production, Sony was, of course, hit by a disastrous hacking scandal that caused thousands of internal emails sent to and from various executives, producers, directors, and actors to be leaked to the internet. Among them was an email about the question of taking legal action against Bill Murray over a new Ghostbusters movie. Although I'm not super happy about linking to an email obtained illegally, it is part of the foundation that this article is based on, so here it is.

Although there are four emails in the chain, the important one is the first one, written by David Steinberg, head of Sony's legal department: "In order to more fully evaluate our position if Bill Murray again declines to engage on 'Ghostbusters', AG requested that we identify 'aggressive' litigation counsel with whom we can consult to evaluate our alternatives and strategize."

Those who have been against the Ghostbusters remake from the beginning are citing this email as evidence that Sony essentially sued Murray into not only appearing in Ghostbusters (2016), but also endorsing it.

UPDATE (6/27/2016): A redditor asserted that I hadn't properly locaded all of the emails, so I went back to the database, and just to be sure, searched "Bill Murray" without Steinberg's name. It returned 12 pages of emails, most of which were news stories from RSS feeds (as well as several relating to Murray's participation in Cameron Crowe's Aloha). I found exactly two more emails that were mildly relevant: one of the lawyers, saying "thanks for thinking of me," (which openly indicates there would be further correspondence if Sony decided to take any legal action), and a forwarding of a quote by Murray praising the "female Ghostbusters" concept from Tom Rothman to Amy Pascal, with no further commentary provided by Rothman.

First of all, the email in question doesn't even support this line of thinking -- it's an email discussing the possibility of hiring a lawyer, although nothing ever comes of it. A search of the Wikileaks database for any other emails Steinberg wrote about Ghostbusters or Murray turns up nothing. More importantly, though: Steinberg isn't talking about Ghostbusters (2016), he's talking about the aborted Ghostbusters: Alive Again.

UPDATE (7/5/2016): In encountering people who continue to push this rumor, "Sony executives" come up frequently. In addition to David Steinberg, the other people in the email chain are Leonard Venger (President of Litigation for Sony Pictures Entertainment), and Leah Weil and Daniel Yankelevits, both general counsel for Sony. No general film production executives (namely, Amy Pascal) are involved in the single relevant email chain, nor the second brief email chain cited above (just Venger and Weil again, as well as the lawyer in question, Scott A. Edelman).

When Bill Murray agreed to do Ghostbusters II in 1988, he was more interested in working with his friends Reitman, Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis again than he was in making a sequel to Ghostbusters. He had just come off of Scrooged, an experience he reportedly hated, because the script by his friend Mitch Glazer had been toned down from a pitch-black satire and turned into more of a special effects comedy (in the vein of Ghostbusters). Murray was willing to return, but the prospect of making a Ghostbusters sequel at all sounded like more of a commercial venture than an artistic one. To help preserve the sanctity of the series, the four men negotiated a crazy clause: no future Ghostbusters movies could be made without the approval of Reitman, Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis, and Reitman had to be offered the first chance to direct. (Should this Vulture article not convince you for some reason, Reitman himself explained the deal on the Kevin and Bean radio show on Wednesday, June 8th, which you can find on this page.)

UPDATE (6/28/16): One point that I ought to have clarified, in case it's not clear: Murray's need to sign off on the project did not mandate any participation in it. Even if Murray had zero interest in being involved, in front of or behind the camera, his approval was still necessary.

When Steinberg mentioned litigating Murray in 2013, all that was under discussion was how to obtain either Murray's approval of Alive Again or Murray waiving his need to sign off on the project. Furthermore (not that it matters as much, given many of the people who spread this rumor would've vastly preferred a Ghostbusters 3), it's not that Murray actually disliked the Alive Again pitch, it's that he was simply impossible to get ahold of in the first place. While I'm debunking rumors, there was also a rumor that Murray shredded a draft and sent the pieces back to Aykroyd, which Aykroyd and Murray denied, the latter on the Howard Stern show, where he mentioned a draft on his desk he just never got around to other words, "declining to engage."

In February 2014, Harold Ramis passed away. One month later, and four months after the Steinberg email, Ivan Reitman officially passed on the job directing the new Ghostbusters movie, opting to produce it instead. In April, Reitman courted 21 Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller for the job, but they eventually declined. In October 2014, nearly an entire year after the Steinberg email, Feig was announced as co-writer of Ghostbusters, and the project officially became a reboot instead of a sequel.

In case that isn't clear: the email people claim relates to Ghostbusters (2016) was sent at least six months before the project was even concieved (probably more, given Feig met with Reitman to discuss a sequel, declined it, then met with then-Sony chief Amy Pascal to explain why he turned it down, and then hit upon the idea of a reboot).

Despite this wealth of evidence indicating otherwise, I'm sure the notion that Murray was somehow badgered into making the movie will persist, even though such a scenario plainly makes no sense. Bill Murray successfully spent 25 years avoiding making a third Ghostbusters movie, and as a rights holder, he had all the leverage. 

Any situation in which Sony somehow managed to twist an entirely non-existent hold over Murray to their advantage and subsequently pressured him into appearing in the new movie not only requires some wild imagination (for what legal reason, on a purely theoretical level, would a court determine he was required to make any movie he hadn't already signed onto or agreed to be involved in?), but also lacks any evidence to support it (despite widespread misinterpretation of what Steinberg's email means, at least it exists -- not one email, interview, or scrap of evidence exists for the coercion theory). Conversely, if one argues that Sony always had that power, that begs the obvious question as to why they wouldn't have just forced Murray to make Ghostbusters: Alive Again when Harold Ramis was still around. 

Ironically, Murray said in an interview with Vulture that he agreed to appear in Ghostbusters (2016) because he was concerned about this exact scenario: "I started to feel like if I didn’t do this movie, maybe somebody would write a bad review or something, thinking there was some sort of disapproval [on my part]." (Yeah, any legal coercion would cover this too, but that's the kind of convenient catch-all that conspiracy theories like this rely on.)

Conspiracy theories also fly in the face of Murray's iconic pop culture persona: a man who shuns Hollywood blockbusters to make smaller films on his own terms, a man without an agent or manager, someone who many filmmakers aren't even sure will actually appear on set for their first day of shooting.

UPDATE (7/15/2017): Just to add to this post a little more, some of the focus has spread to tension between Ivan Reitman and Paul Feig in the emails, which is an angle that definitely has a bit more substance to it. Feig wanted the 2016 film to be set in its own universe. Reitman initially agreed, but as Sony worked toward a deal for Feig and Reitman, Reitman had second thoughts. However, the last emails about this debate in the leaks can be found here: Feig and Reitman have a positive meeting. Feig and Reitman both walk away happy, and Pascal is overjoyed by the enthusiasm Reitman shows for the film as a result. It's possible that Reitman ended up being less satisfied with the working relationship between himself and Feig later on, but the leaks end before that happens, so there is no proof of it. In the end, Sony established Ghost Corps on their lot, which was clearly out of deference to Reitman and his plans for the franchise, both with and without Feig. (It should also be noted that art rarely benefits from a backseat driver. Fans can debate whether or not Feig should've been in the driver's seat to begin with, but to say Reitman should've had more power than Feig on Feig's film -- which Reitman agreed to make -- is a classic recipe for disaster.)

It's possible that Ghostbusters (2016) will be a disappointing movie, one which people will say they knew would stink from the start. However, even if that turns out to be the case, the chances that Bill Murray felt or feels the same way and was secretly forced to say otherwise are...definitely very slim.

UPDATE (7/14/2016): Just in case Reitman's viewpoint on the whole situation wasn't completely clear, he gave a fantastic interview to Vulture in which he not only reiterated the information about their contract, but specifically elaborated on the idea that Murray might've just been disingenuous. Again, not something anyone who truly believes the catch-all of them playing coy or bound by contracts is going to be swayed by, but worth a read.


  1. Nice article. I'd love to read a blog post about the 'Original Ghostbusters cast members filmed secret returning character cameos' conspiracy theory. Will you be writing one on that at any point?

    1. Nah. It was a rumor started by a notorious troll, and there doesn't seem to be any evidence to back it up. Why would Murray want to do it if he never wanted to make a sequel?

      Also, per Birth. Movies. Death., there may be legal issues surrounding the use of those characters in a live-action movie stemming from this same "veto" contract. So, there's really nothing there to write about.