35 Years Ago: How Three ’80s Movie Classics Nearly Opened On the Same Day
Some dates in cinema history are easy to remember, because they might be instantly associated with the release of an iconic film. For instance, May 25, 1977 — the date Star Wars opened in the United States and changed blockbuster cinema. Or December 21, 1937 — the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature.
Other dates go down in history because they marked a unique confluence of events. Take, for example, June 8, 1984. It’s the day when not one, not two but three genre classics were supposed to be unveiled to U.S. audiences: Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Top Secret!.
If you buy into the notion that alternate universes exist, here’s one to chew over: a universe in which the wild sci-fi comedy Ghostbusters never happened, but director Ivan Reitman and co-star Dan Aykroyd instead collaborated on another sci-fi comedy – an adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Reitman, in developing Adams’ brilliant book, was convinced that the alien character Ford Prefect ought to be played by a big-name comedian who was recognizable to Americans. Someone like Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray. When Reitman approached Aykroyd, the Saturday Night Live alum showed Reitman his script for a comedy about chasing after ghosts.
Aykroyd’s script, though, was drastically different than the story of three scientists who are booted out of New York University and go into business on their own, discovering the vast amount of ghosts floating around the Big Apple. Reitman spotted the appeal of the core concept, even if Aykroyd’s vision — which was both futuristic and set in space — was impossible to visualize. The director of Meatballs and Stripes was able to pitch Columbia Pictures honcho Frank Price with just the title, idea and three stars: Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. Price greenlit the film in May 1983, with just one caveat: the movie needed to open 13 months later.
The script had to be overhauled, and quickly. Ramis, Aykroyd and Reitman holed up in Martha’s Vineyard to finalize the script and tighten up the plot, in which the three scientists not only discover ghosts but have to stop a particularly nefarious one from reigning over the entirety of New York City. They also introduced a kind of Margaret Dumont to the Marx Brothers-esque qualities of Drs. Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler, the concert cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver). And, according to Reitman in the Hollywood Reporter, it was Weaver’s idea for Dana to be possessed by the demon Zuul, which “really personalized the larger concept.”
Nerdy and awestruck Louis, the other person who lived in an apartment building that Dr. Venkman (Murray) glibly defines as “Spook Central,” was nearly played by a Canadian comedian not named Rick Moranis. Reitman first approached John Candy, another co-star of Stripes. But as Reitman shared in the Hollywood Reporter, Candy’s interpretation would have been off-base: “Maybe if I played him with a German accent, he’d be funny. And I could have a couple of German shepherds.” Reitman instead went with Moranis, who more physically embodied the stereotype of a gawky geek.
Watch the 'He Slimed Me' Scene from 'Ghostbusters'
Reitman and his crew had to give equal focus (if not more) to the special effects since this comedy was still, at its base, a sci-fi story. A good amount of the trickery on screen was captured practically, from the flying library cards in the opening scene (it was “...all compressed air. Air and strings,” Rietman told the Hollywood Reporter) to the massive set in Burbank replicating the roof of the ritzy apartment building where demons overtake both Dana and Louis. All told, the shoot lasted 62 days from October 1983 through January 1984. After that, Reitman and the production team had to finish up visual effects so that the ghosts attacking New York, from Slimer to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, looked both believably goofy and terrifying.
In the end, Ghostbusters paid off, despite having started out as a high-concept idea with a series of well-known comic celebrities. The film's effects have admittedly aged over time, but otherwise it remains one of the funniest projects in the careers of its major stars and filmmakers. Ghostbusters was also the second-highest-grossing film of the year, right behind only Eddie Murphy’s star vehicle Beverly Hills Cop. Ghostbusters held the top spot for eight of nine straight weeks at the domestic box office during the summer of 1984.
In fact, for the first six weeks of its release, Ghostbusters was the top box-office hit – followed by another film that featured comedy and special effects in equal order. This second-place finisher also came from a big-name producer with a high concept.
Originally, Gremlins wasn’t even going to be a movie. It was just going to be a script written on spec — an industry term for when a screenwriter writes without having already been paid — by a young man named Chris Columbus. As recounted in the behind-the-scenes interviews on the DVD, The concept was inspired by Columbus' loft, where he could hear mice crawling around at night without seeing them. He wrote the first draft of a story in which a teenage boy is gifted with a strange new pet that comes with very specific rules for proper care. Lucky for Columbus, his spec script impressed a person with an incredible amount of clout in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg bought the rights to the script because it was “one of the most original things I’ve come across in many years,” he says on the DVD featurette. Spielberg executive produced the film through his production company Amblin Entertainment, handing the script off to Joe Dante, a director who he’d worked with a year prior to the release of Gremlins. Dante, best known at the time for his horror-comedy The Howling, was one of four directors (including Spielberg) to direct a portion of the anthology horror film Twilight Zone: The Movie. (Dante’s take on “It’s a Good Life,” the story of a super-powered and naughty little boy, is the creepiest section of that film.)
With Dante onboard, the script went through some necessary revisions. Chris Columbus isn’t known today for his pitch-black material, having directed films like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Rent, but his first draft of Gremlins was a lot nastier than the film released into theaters. Dante said his draft had the heroic lead character Billy (Zach Galligan) lose his mom in a struggle with the eponymous creatures, and even toss her head down the stairs upon his arrival in the scene. Plus, the adorable mogwai Gizmo and the nefarious Stripe weren’t two different characters: they were one and the same, with Gizmo turning into Stripe, a choice that would have pushed audiences away.
Watch the Mogwai Multiply in 'Gremlins'
“The only way to make the story believable was if it was completely stylized,” Dante told the Guardian in 2017. Unlike the balls-to-the-wall 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the original's special effects weren’t so advanced that the cuddly Gizmo could run or dance. This put the character more in line with the “boy and his dog”-style story that Spielberg advocated in place of Gizmo turning into Stripe. Still, Gremlins remained dark enough even during its production to warrant concern among the studio and some parents. Dante recalled in the DVD commentary how the scene in which one gremlin is blown to bits in a microwave led a mother to castigate him after a test screening for making something so inappropriate.
That hinted at the major controversy which surrounded Gremlins after its release. The film never hit the top spot at the box office, placing second to Ghostbusters throughout June and July. (Adjusted for inflation, Gremlins grossed over $400 million. It was the fourth-biggest film of 1984.) Spielberg was both this film’s executive producer and director of the popular but similarly criticized Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was released a few weeks earlier. Both were criticized for scenes that parents said warranted something more than their PG rating. Spielberg quickly worked with the head of the MPAA to create a middle ground between PG and R.
That both Ghostbusters and Gremlins survived the summer of 1984 without cannibalizing each other at the box office is quite remarkable. But there was a third film in the mix, too – a raucous and outrageous comedy from a trio of directors who had a previous summer hit under their belt. They would have been on a collision course, if the studio hadn't backed off.
Top Secret! was originally slated to open in theaters on the same day as both Ghostbusters and Gremlins. In fact, most searches online actually suggest that the film opened on June 8. But Box Office Mojo and The Numbers, two of the premier box-office reporting websites, both place the correct date as June 22, 1984.
Paramount Pictures delayed Top Secret! by two weeks for a very specific reason: to get out of the way of the one-two punch of Ghostbusters and Gremlins. Paramount also had two other films in the top five at the domestic box office, Temple of Doom and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. A third might have been overkill.
The studio was understandably invested in Top Secret!, a spoof comedy starring Val Kilmer. It had been four years since writer-directors Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and Jim Zucker made their big splash with Airplane!, a comic riff on disaster flicks that grossed more than $83 million domestically. It ended up as the fourth-highest-grossing film of 1980; adjusted for inflation, Airplane! made nearly $280 million. The team, known as ZAZ, went to TV next with the brilliant but quickly cancelled cop spoof Police Squad!, but otherwise their ideas were going nowhere.
“We just needed a subject that we would be excited about,” David Zucker told ScreenCrush in 2014. Abrahams added, “We didn’t quite understand what we had with Airplane!, I think.”
Watch the Underwater Bar Fight Scene from 'Top Secret!'
They ended up with a concept for Top Secret! that blended tropes from World War II and Elvis movies, as an American rock star named Nick Rivers (Kilmer, in his feature debut) gets embroiled in spycraft surrounding East Germany. They later admitted that it a great script, so much as a series of terrific set ups. “Airplane! is more of a movie," Jerry Zucker told ScreenCrush, "and Top Secret! is a little more of a joke book."
And there were plenty. Top Secret! includes hilarious scenes with Germans talking on giant phones, Nick Rivers shushing nearby people for crunching leaves loudly, and a scene shot entirely backwards where Rivers and his love interest Hillary visit a bookkeeper played by Peter Cushing – best known for his work in English horror films and, of course, in Star Wars as Grand Moff Tarkin.
Unfortunately, Top Secret! was simply unable to break out at the box office, despite being pushed back by Paramount. The delay meant the gag-heavy film wasn't playing opposite Ghostbusters and Gremlins, but it ended up competing against those box-office juggernauts anyway – not to mention The Karate Kid, which also opened on June 22, 1984. Top Secret! now exists as a cult classic, with such big-name fans as director-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of The Lego Movie, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse fame.
June 8, 1984 went down as a banner day in genre-movie history. Ghostbusters and Gremlins, two of the most memorable films of the '80s, were released that day – and they managed to succeed without ruining the other’s prospects. Eventually, Ghostbusters came to have a stronger foothold in popular culture, with one reboot released in 2016 and another on the way from Jason Reitman, Ivan’s son. But they remain two of the decade’s best, most entertaining films – even if their joint success came at the expense of another extremely funny comedy from the men behind Airplane!