Stranger Things, Ghostbusters, and the Value of Less Advance Hype

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Photo: Netflix and Columbia Pictures

On July 15, two '80s throwbacks arrived in the pop-cultural marketplace at the exact same moment. One was a female-centric, theatrical reboot of Ghostbusters, the comedy that owned the box office during the summer of 1984. The other was Stranger Things, a Netflix series set in 1983 and reflective of the sort of sci-fi/supernaturally themed films that often dominated the box office in the same decade. 

If people had been asked ahead of time to guess which project would still be generating robust online conversation three weeks later, I suspect most would have pointed at Ghostbusters, which was the focus of months of hype and media conversation, a lot of which, unfortunately, focused on unjustified, misogynistic fanboy backlash to the film. But instead, here we are watching as Stranger Things — a series that was promoted in advance, but much more quietly — continues to ride a wave of pop-culture currency, while Ghostbusters has done what so many major studio movies do these days: faded from public consciousness while other big, heavily hyped tentpole hopefuls — Star Trek: Beyond, Jason Bourne, and now Suicide Squad — take its place. Not only is Stranger Things made in the spirit of movies from three decades ago, its success is reminiscent of those older movies, too. Without firehosing the public in an endless gush of advance publicity, it has managed to generate positive word-of-mouth and establish something that often eludes mainstream Hollywood films: staying power.

It is, admittedly, both unfair and downright impossible to compare the success of Stranger Things to Ghostbusters, or any other movie, for that matter, in quantitative terms. We know, for example, that the Paul Feig–directed slime-comedy came in seventh at the North American box office last weekend and, to date, has earned $162.5 million worldwide. But we have no comparable information on Stranger Things because (a) Netflix subscribers don’t pay separately to watch each original program, and (b) Netflix does not release data regarding its viewership.

What we do know is that Stranger Things has been an extremely popular subject online and on social media since its July 15 debut, and that popularity does not seem to be waning much. A look at worldwide Google Trends in arts and entertainment over the past 30 days shows that Stranger Things is the second-most-popular search topic and the most-popular search query in that category among those using the search engine. Zeroing in on Stranger Things as a search query reveals that multiple other related queries — particularly those involving Millie Bobby Brown and her character in Stranger Things, Eleven — are having what Google calls "breakout" moments, which means interest in them is surging, at least partly because they have rarely been sought out before.

The regions expressing their Google obsession with Stranger Things are varied, too; they include Ireland, the U.S. and Canada, but also Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, home of your 2016 Olympics. By contrast, the Ghostbusters 2016 search query ranks ninth in overall arts and entertainment search queries over the past 30 days, and is popular in far fewer regions.

A representative for Twitter said Stranger Things has generated 2.1 million tweets since July 14; as this Twitter-provided chart indicates, it hit its tweet-per-minute peak — 350 every 60 seconds — on July 30, more than two weeks after its premiere. (I requested similar data from Twitter on Ghostbusters but did not receive it prior to publication. Once I receive that information, I'll update this piece. Update: According to Twitter, 1.3 million tweets that featured the word Ghostbusters -- not counting tweets that mentioned its stars or other related keywords -- were issued during the same time period.)

All of this is purely anecdotal, extremely non-scientific evidence of a broader, harder-to-define feeling that one gets from lurking around in online spaces: that more people are still actively geeking out about Stranger Things than they are about Ghostbusters. I note all this not to make the point that Ghostbusters is “worse” than Stranger Things. Frankly, I would be very happy if moviegoers collectively turned their backs on Suicide Squad this weekend and went to see Kate McKinnon bust spontaneous moves to the sounds of El DeBarge instead.

But because both of these releases have roots in '80s nostalgia and became available for public consumption at the same time, together they make a compelling point: that there’s something to be said for not overhyping films or TV shows to the exhausting extremes that have become routine in recent years.

In the '80s — the golden age of the summer blockbuster and an era with which Stranger Things and its creators, the Duffer brothers, are clearly enamored — summers were largely defined by a single movie. In the summer of 1982, E.T., a huge influence on Stranger Things, was No. 1 at the box office for ten weeks and continued to hold that spot for several weeks in September and October. In the summer of 1984, Ghostbusters was No. 1 for eight weeks; the following year, in 1985, Back to the Future was the top movie in North America for all of July (minus one week when European Vacation knocked it into second place), all of August, and most of September.

All of these films were major studio productions and were certainly widely publicized. But because internet culture did not yet exist and demand it, there was no need to hype them excessively for months, or even years, on end. No one was screaming about the release dates for these movies two years ahead of time, as is commonplace these days. There were no first-look photos or early trailers that got dissected to death four months before the Bill Murray Ghostbusters came out. There was no online attempt to weigh in on the quality of Michael J. Fox’s Back to Future jean jacket, as seen in leaked photos from the set, because there was no online. These movies just showed up with a bit of hype right before they opened, and most of the time, we had no idea what to expect from them until our asses hit our movie seats.

Because theaters were so packed, I didn’t even get to see E.T. until early August, almost two months after it was released, and I still didn’t know what that wrinkled alien looked like until I saw him for the first time on a big screen because Universal didn’t use full-body images of him in its posters or commercials. Today, we not only see the new Ghostbusters’ ensembles and gaze upon Jared Leto in his Joker makeup way ahead of time, we are bombarded with those images for months and months until they destroy all sense of surprise and/or kill whatever was left of our Jordan Catalano–related fantasies. And perhaps as a result, while opening weekends for certain movies break records, very few dominate the box office for more than a week or two. (Finding Dory this summer was a notable exception.)

Stranger Things certainly started generating social-media conversations once critics saw it, and Netflix did not shy away from promoting it. But relatively speaking, for this day and age, it remained an unknown entity until its fully formed, creepy yet warmly Winona-stalgic world dropped onto Netflix. That may not explain what made it such an enjoyable, binge-watchable show — Mo Ryan did a pretty solid job of explaining that in this piece for Variety — but it does tell us a little something about what may have helped endear it to fans. In the age of overhyped everything — from tentpole movies to second seasons of HBO series — there is something satisfying about finding a piece of pop culture that’s intended for mainstream consumption but somehow hasn’t been discovered yet. 

Our culture and certainly our media outlets, including this one, are super-thirsty at all times for information. Studios, creators, and marketers of films and TV shows are constantly figuring out how to feed the beast in a way that keeps their projects at the front of consumers’ minds (see my colleague Josef Adalian's piece on networks' new Always Be Marketing mentality for more on this). Stranger Things is not subject to the kind of financial pressures faced by a movie with a $100 million-plus budget; had it been released as a film, I suspect it would have been overlooked because bigger movies with bigger budgets would have stolen attention — and, more practically, auditoriums in multiplexes — away from it. 

A lot of people will remember the summer of 2016 as the one that introduced them to Stranger Things, a show that exists largely because of movies that won over huge swaths of American moviegoers three decades ago. A year or two from now, when you ask those same people to name the film they most associate with this summer, some of them will say Finding Dory, some will probably hem and haw (“Wait, did The Force Awakens come out in the summer? No, that was Christmas.”), and some will try their best to recall and come up empty, because all their minds can conjure is one massive, overhyped, comic-book-inspired blur.