A Few Thoughts on the Villification of Paul Feig

Hate the idea of a new Ghostbusters film? That's fair enough. Attacking another human being? It might be time to draw the line...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

I believe it to be Empire magazine that works on an editorial policy of treating the approach to every movie as if it’s Christmas Eve. That, until you’ve seen the final cut of something, go in with optimism, and a wish for something to be good, be it Big Momma’s House 3 or Captain America: Civil War. Hate must be saved until you’ve seen the final cut of a film.

Ad – content continues below

I like that ethos a lot. I think in an era when great films can have terrible trailers, and terrible films can have great trailers, that reserving judgement for a movie until the whole thing has been seen is something to cherish.

So then: you don’t need me to tell you that the upcoming Ghostbusters film is having a bumpy ride to the big screen. Not necessarily behind the scenes – I don’t know anyone working on the film, nor am I privy to much in the way of Hollywood gossip – but rather the hostility fired at it on a daily basis.

Ad – content continues below

People, for a mix of reasons, just don’t want the film, and soon, they get to vote with their money. That’s when we find out if the social media hatred aimed at Ghostbusters will genuinely convert into box office failure. I’ve a sneaking suspicion it won’t, but then, nobody’s been headhunting me to be their box office analyst, and I’d wager that won’t change in the next year.

The truth is that nobody knows with absolutely certainty how this story will end yet. 

Ad – content continues below

The Feig Factor

Right now, though, I want to talk about the man directing it. Paul Feig – a man I don’t know, have interviewed once or twice, but otherwise wouldn’t know me from Adam – is not alone in facing flack for Ghostbusters. His core four cast – Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Katie McKinnon – are also firmly in the firing line, and sitting on the end of no shortage of nasty comments. Feig has heavily defended them, rightly, and in doing so, brought another dose of ire onto himself. 

I’ve read some of it. Just a flavor, certainly not all. My personal opinion? I firmly believe that no human being should have to put up with what Paul Feig has gone through over the past year or two. In fact, I’ll go further: I think the vilification of another human being for choosing to make a film like Ghostbusters is utterly shameful. If that earns me all the downvotes in the world for everything I ever do, then so be it.

Ad – content continues below

Heck, just over two years ago, the world seemed to generally like Paul Feig. He had given the world one of the finest television shows of all time, in the shape of Freaks & Geeks (naturally enough it was cancelled after one season, but lord, is it still worth seeking out). He’d written two excellent books about his time growing up, that are both very funny and remarkably inclusive tales of a man trying to fit in. And then he’s made some good comedy movies too. Of the three high profile movies that have brought him to the fore of modern day comedy filmmaking (he’d made others before, after all), I liked Bridesmaids, was a bit up and down on The Heat, and loved Spy. All of them were commercial successes, to varying degrees.

But then, in the midst of this run of success, Paul Feig agreed to make a new Ghostbusters film. And then he cast four women in the leads. And then the internet exploded.

Ad – content continues below

Concerted Unpleasantness

Since the Ghostbusters project was first announced, Feig has been the key target – something he’s not always helped himself with, as I suspect he’d admit – for staggeringly nasty comments online. Lots of people are, of course, but in the history of doing this site, I’ve never seen such concerted unpleasantness aimed in such concentrated form at any filmmaker, Uwe included.

I’m not talking about comments that say “I wish you weren’t doing this film,” or “I hate there’s a new Ghostbusters.” There have been those, but they seem fair responses to make, to me. We’re the customers for films, after all. Sharing thoughts and feedback is what studios want us to do, and marketing departments panic if we’re not talking about upcoming movies. I defend the right for anyone to constructively say how much they hate the idea of a remake/reboot/belated sequel, whether I agree or not. As long as it doesn’t cross the line into personal abuse (and when fans start attacking fans? Well, I don’t think any of us take any pleasure from seeing that). 

Ad – content continues below

Just to digress slightly, I do think one or two of the anti-Ghostbusters arguments are a bit baffling. If you’ll indulge me, the one that always baffles me is when it’s argued that the new Ghostbusters is only being made for financial reasons. That, to me, overlooks that this is a project that’s been in gestation for over a decade and a half in various forms. Plus, it overlooks that the primary reason Ghostbusters II was greenlit was down to cold, hard cash.

Don’t believe me? Then let me cite the memoir of the woman who greenlit that first Ghostbusters sequel.

Ad – content continues below

In the late 1980s, David Puttnam was heading up Columbia Pictures, and when he left office a lot earlier than planned (it would be fair to say his tenure was not warmly received by his bosses, nor many in Hollywood), one of the first jobs of his replacement, the late Dawn Steel, was to sort out the Ghostbusters sequel. The film was stuck in limbo at that time, and on the verge of falling apart.

As Steel wrote in her excellent book They Can Kill You, But They Can’t Eat You, “the first thing we had to do was to put Ghostbusters II back together,” adding in brackets that “the first Ghostbusters had made over $200 million.” Note that she didn’t write “because we had a great story idea” – and I like Ghostbusters II, lest that be misinterpreted as snark – rather that Columbia was ranked eighth out of the nine studios at the box office at the time she took over. She needed Ghostbusters II quickly, because she needed a hit, and she quickly put Karate Kid III into production as well for the same reason. “David Puttnam thought these sequels were just crass and commercial movies,” wrote the woman who greenlighted the sequels. “To us, they were unmined gems.”

Ad – content continues below

If Twitter had existed back in the late 1980s, I suspect that many would have virtually rolled their eyes at what would have been seen in some quarters as a cash-in sequel, just as many would have been excited. Ghostbusters II turned out well, though, so at least that story had a happy ending.

And I hope it will for Paul Feig, too. Because I find the subset of comments that have eschewed the substance of his new film and instead zeroed in on him on a personal level to be alarming and incredibly depressing. Some of the attacks I’ve seen – and there are plenty to choose from – have been pretty sickening, in some cases wishing physical harm on Feig, for making a movie. A movie that somebody else would have made at some point if he hadn’t.

Ad – content continues below

I hate that society accepts that. I already know that part of the response to this will be someone saying “it comes with the territory” or “that’s social media for you.” But I dislike that argument immensely because then, implicitly, we’ve accepted it. The bullies are getting their way, because they keep hurling so much bile that we deem it’s best to leave them to it.

An unwinnable war? More than likely. But blindly accepting that it’s okay to hurl decent human beings to the social media wolves is a regression for me, and not a small one.

Ad – content continues below

Snapback

What’s more, the way the modern media works, sadly, is that you can be on the receiving end of thousands of horrible comments, but if you snap back once, it’s the latter that’s the story. All of a sudden, every hateful comment doesn’t matter anymore (even when, as Feig himself has discovered more than once, it comes from someone such as a father of young children), because a human being snapped back at a bully.

An example? One Tweeter had regularly been firing insults at Feig for a prolonged period of time last year. Feig snapped back on Twitter, impolitely telling him where to go. And you guess what the story was on movie news sites the following day.

Ad – content continues below

More recently, Feig was quoted by the New York Daily News as saying “geek culture is home to some of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met in my life.” He’s not allowed to say that, of course, be it true or otherwise. That’s the law of the modern movie media, and the slew of headlines that followed became another stick to beat him with. Feig clarified that the comment was taken out of context, from an interview done over a year before, and that he had regrets over some of the phrasing (his full post on it is here). But the damage was done, and precious few cared about that clarification. More fuel was poured into the online attacks. I checked earlier today, and they still keep on coming.

One aside: I made a conscious decision to never read the leaked files that spilled online as a consequence of the cyber-terrorism attack on Sony’s servers, but I understand that Feig didn’t come out well when some of his personal correspondence was leaked online. I do contend that few of us would, if the entirety of our email mailbox was scoured through. But that’s the one part of all of this I can’t offer comment on. I wrote about my thoughts on the Sony “hack” (hack is a much softer, more palatable word that feasting on the spoils of an online terrorist attack after all) here.

Ad – content continues below

Be Counted

Those of us who have been on the receiving end of bullies in life may have been advised at one stage to stand up to them, because that makes them stop. I’d add to that that those of us who have been on the receiving end of bullies will know that this is not always a successful strategy.

I’ve had put to me that Feig is big enough to fight his own battles (he is), and that he doesn’t need people like me to fight them for him (he doesn’t). But should sites like this – and others – really be turning a blind eye to nastiness?

Ad – content continues below

In lieu of seeing the finished film (I haven’t) or having access to deep Google statistics (I don’t), I can only measure the Ghostbusters backlash realistically in the context of this site, and from what I’ve seen on my online travels. At Den Of Geek, we’ve been going since 2007, from Crystal Skull and bad Terminator films through to Fantastic Four reboots and Phantom Menace 3D re-releases. I’ve never in that time seen anything like the vitriol being aimed at a film and filmmaker in the way I have with Ghostbusters. Nothing has even come close to matching the nastiness aimed at a film that’s still over a month and a half away.

It’s a pity too, because it leaves a sour taste for constructive arguers on all sides. After all, it’s entirely valid that some don’t want a new Ghostbusters film. It’s entirely valid that some have questions over the cast (I’m still gutted Emma Thompson isn’t one of the Ghostbusters, personally). It’s entirely valid that some are declaring right now they’re not seeing it. There are personal opinions for and against the project, and nobody is arguing that they shouldn’t be given a voice. Just that some basic human courtesy in some quarters wouldn’t hurt.

Ad – content continues below

I Ain’t Afraid

This new Ghostbusters film is a film that has divided geekdom, that much is clear, and the next few months will certainly be interesting.

But I want to finish by saying this: if this Ghostbusters film does turn out bad – and none of us knows for 100% certain which way it will go – then Paul Feig will still be a human being, just one who tried to make a good film and it didn’t work out. The worst case scenario here is that the original films still exist, Paul Feig’s previous work still exists, and some money and time will have been deployed on seeing a movie. And what do you know: it may turn out to be really rather good.

Ad – content continues below

Either way? Let’s fight back against the demonisation of a man who’s just doing his damnedest to make a good film. Or at the very least, don’t add to it. If you go and see the film, hate it, waste money and time on it, then have your say. If you’ve spent two minutes watching the trailer, and hated every second, have your say. But let’s make it about the film and the work. Let’s not personally attack other human beings, be they commenters who don’t want a new Ghostbusters film, those who can’t wait for it, or those who made it.

Oh, and one more thing: I’m not hiding behind anonymity here. My name is at the top of the article, and my Twitter handle is @simonbrew. Thank you very much for your time.