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Ivan Reitman Recalls The Wild First Screening Of Ghostbusters And The One Character He Wasn’t Sure Would Work

Massive cultural and box office hits like the Ghostbusters franchise are always reflected upon as the successes they eventually became. But sometimes, there’s an interesting story that tells a very different tale-- and it usually comes from the early days before the public gets their hands on the finished product. Director Ivan Reitman’s 1984 science fiction-comedy spectacle is the epitome of such a film, and he reminded the world of that fact with his own story of the very first preview screening for Ghostbusters. And believe it or not, there was a now iconic character that even Reitman wasn’t sure would work.

Reflecting on the legacy of the franchise, while introducing the surprise screening of Ghostbusters: Afterlife at CinemaCon 2021, Ivan Reitman let the crowd in on a piece of history seldom heard. And as we here at CinemaBlend currently have people attending the event in person, we were on hand to hear this historical yarn spun as it played out. The elder Reitman’s memory of that first Ghostbusters screening was told, as follows:

I remember the first time we showed Ghostbusters. It was really to a preview audience in Burbank in 1984. It was February. And the movie had just been -- we’d literally just finished shooting three or four weeks before that. It wasn’t a rough cut, it was a fairly well cut… but there were no special effects. So can you imagine showing Ghostbusters with no visual effects? But we thought what was important was that the story was going to work and hopefully the humor was going to work… When we shot those proton packs nothing came out of the proton packs. When Dana opened a refrigerator, we didn’t even have that shot, all we had was ‘scene missing.’ The audience groaned, but they were having a good time… Slimer was just a light going on and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was the thing that scared me the most about what we were doing. I had no idea if the audience would accept something as goofy as that.

Just try to imagine those classic scenes from Ghostbusters without special effects. It’s hard to believe that they’d work, because what we know as Ivan Reitman’s pride and joy dazzled the world with fantastic concepts and top notch creature work. But digging deeper, the talents of Sigourney Weaver, as well as the entire lineup of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson, among others, were at the film’s disposal. With a cast like that, you might have been able to release the film as is, and Ghostbusters would have still been a hit. So it’s only a stronger win when you take a look back at what the reaction of the finished film turned out to be.

In the history books, Ghostbusters is known, partially, as the top film in 1984. Besting everything from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Gremlins, it became a franchise that inspired everything from cereals and toys to animated series, and eventually, sequels and spin-offs. But the sum total that is the film the world got to see was a product of hard work, and fast thinking.

Even the title of the film was subject to change at one point, thanks to the 1975 sitcom The Ghost Busters presenting a copyright challenge. But sure enough, the Ghostbusters title was landed, and the effects were perfected; though that first preview audience wouldn’t see that for themselves for some time. Which would seem to justify Ivan Reitman’s fears that the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man wouldn’t work, and then some.

One of the key icons of Ghostbusters lore, who was popular enough to get a huge callback in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, this towering treat of terror wowed everyone from the moment he appeared on screen. And apparently, as Ivan Reitman recalls from that fateful first screening, even the lo-tech version of Stay Puft had the audience absolutely sold. Which, after hearing what the stand in version was made out of, could totally be chalked up to the miracle that is this concept:

But we didn’t have the Stay Puft Marshmallow in that [version]. We had a guy in a costume with kind of a styrofoam head. And that very first shot in the movie of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man walking past these Tribeca Buildings and all you could see was the bobbing head was all we had. The audience went crazy! It made me feel so good that we were going to get away with it.

Selling Ghostbusters without the amazing effects that helped land it as an all time classic is just another testament to how magical the movie actually is. And that’s not the only instance in franchise history that’s seen the series banking on the charm of folks like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray to shop the film around to the world. In fact, the past incarnation of what we now know as CinemaCon had a part to play in all of this.

Up until 2010, the event that’s now named CinemaCon used to be called ShoWest. And back in 1984, there were some clips of Ghostbusters shown to attendees; though nothing on par with showing an entire film, like this year’s show. A huge part of that presentation that still survives on the internet is the video included below, which sees Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray doing what they do best: riffing on a concept, and milking it for what it’s worth. If you want to know how Ghostbusters was sold at ShoWest in 1984, here’s part of what you would have seen:

Throughout the Ghostbusters legacy, Ivan Reitman, and now his son Jason, have built a blockbuster franchise on one simple principle: belief. Just as the Ghostbusters themselves threw open their doors, claiming “We’re ready to believe you,” the world itself was ready to believe in Ghostbusters. And now, it looks like everyone’s set to keep the faith with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. After the impressive CinemaCon screening that took place last night, audiences will have to sadly wait until November 11th to get their shot at taking that leap of faith. But that doesn’t mean 2021 isn’t stocked with other thrills at a theater near you! Head over to the 2021 release schedule, and hunt down the next haunting adventure you could take in at the movies.

Mike Reyes

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.