A Not-So Brief History of Ghostbusters III

How an Indecisive Cast Led to 20+ Years of Development Hell

Earlier this week, I wrote an open letter to those Ghostbusters fans staunchly opposed to the new film. My goal in doing so was to try and take a toxic conversation and find some middle ground between the two sides. While there are certainly people who truly hate the concept of an all-female Ghostbusters remake for purely sexist reasons, my gut tells me that there are also people who have suffered through decades of Ghostbusters production rumors only to find that their long-awaited sequel was never going to happen.

And partially in good faith – and partially out of curiosity – I figured now might be a good time to remind younger readers of just how messy the whole Ghostbusters III debacle truly got. What follows is not the full transcript of all media references to Ghostbusters III, but an abridged version of they key players and key quotes. In other words, when Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis changed their interest in a Ghostbusters sequel, and – just as importantly – why Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray never wavered in theirs.

June 16, 1989: “We’ll come back to it. Why shouldn’t we?”

No intrepid journalist has ever passed up the opportunity to ask about movie sequels; as such, we can trace the conflict regarding a third Ghostbusters movie all the way back to the press junket for Ghostbusters II. “I’m always ready,” Aykroyd told the St. Louis Post – Dispatch. “I have ideas for stories. These characters can do it again sometime. Not for a while, but we’ll come back to it. Why shouldn’t we?” Harold Ramins, on the other hand, was far more practical regarding his interest in a third Ghostbusters movie. “I’ve been sort of merciless about the Star Trek guys pushing it way past the age where they’re graceful at it,” Ramis told the Orange County Register. “I’m just worried that . . . well, I already had to dye my hair for this one. I don’t want to have to get a face lift or anything.” And then there was Bill Murray. “Well, I think many things come in threes,” the actor said when asked about a sequel. “But I think some things come in twos. Leopold and Loeb. Hitler and Mussolini. It’s a little early.”

May 12, 1990: “I don’t much like doing sequels.”

While Ivan Reitman hinted as early as 1989 that he would not be returning for Ghostbusters III, it was in May of the following year that his quotes became a bit more explicit. “I don’t much like doing sequels,” he told the Toronto Star during an interview about his early career success. “It’s impossible to surprise anyone on a sequel.” In 1991, he would repeat this sentiment in interviews with the Jerusalem Post. “I suppose in a way it’s challenging to try to do something original with something you’ve done before. But that’s the kind of challenge I can do without.”

January 30, 1992: “They phoned just last week and wanted to meet about it.”

About face. Although Reitman was on record as being uninterested in another Ghostbusters film by this point, that does not mean that Sony Pictures shared his sentiment. In January of 1992, Ivan Reitman told the Orange County Register that Sony officials had recently reached out and expressed interest in getting the cast back together for another Ghostbusters sequel. “They’ve gone back and checked the records and realized three of my films were Columbia’s most successful,” Reitman said. “They phoned just last week and want to meet about it.” While the director seemed rather uninterested in another film, he was at least willing to entertain the idea.

February 16, 1993: “They wouldn’t mind if we just showed up for five minutes and introduced the new Ghostbusters.”

In a profile piece meant to promote the reunion of Harold Ramis and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the director mentioned that Sony Pictures had approached both himself and Murray to discuss the possibility of putting together a franchise. “The studio views it as a franchise,” Ramis told the Washington Post. “They wouldn’t mind if we just showed up for five minutes and introduced the new Ghostbusters.”

February 5, 1998: Murray’s agent refused to comment.

Up to this point, most of the coverage of a possible Ghostbusters III had taken on a politely skeptical tone. A reporter would ask if Ramis or Reitman if they were interested in making a third movie; both men would cite the difficulty in keeping material fresh throughout sequels and politely shoot down the rumors. It wasn’t until this item in a 1998 issue of the New York Daily News that we catch our first glimpse at the creative differences going on behind the scenes. According to the report, Murry was the one “deviling” the hopes of the rest of the cast to make a Ghostbusters III. “While Murray doesn’t want to be in the sequel,” the article notes, “he does want to get paid for it.” The author also points out that Murray co-owns the rights alongside Aykroyd, Ramis, and a Reitman, a legal point that will become increasingly important going forward.

January 27, 1999: “It’s more of a hobby with him.”

A few weeks into the year, reports began to circulate that Ghostbusters III would finally be going into production. These rumors were thoroughly shot down by Harold Ramis. “Harder than getting the script would be for Columbia to figure out a way to pay us all,” Ramis told the Daily News. According to Ramis, Aykroyd had written two different versions of the Ghostbusters III script, but this represented “more of a hobby with him” than an actual attempt at getting the project made. Regardless, Ramis admitted that any new film would feature the original Ghostbusters cast only as a means of passing the torch. The original cast members “would just be around as mentors to a new, young cast,’ Ramis said.” A few months later, Ramis admitted to the Chicago Tribune that he and Aykroyd had both contributed to a new script, one that would pass off the mantle of Ghostbusters to a new generation. “Tattoos and studs in their lips,” Ramis joked.

February 14, 2000: “I’m finally letting it go.”

Here we get our first real look at what Aykroyd had envisioned for Ghostbusters III. In a wide-ranging conversation with Star Interviews, Aykroyd shared a few of the specifics of a third Ghostbusters movie and admitted he had finally made peace with the fact that it would never come to be. “I would have loved to have had Ghostbusters III made,” Aykroyd said, “but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. So I’m finally letting it go.” When asked if the original cast would have been featured in the film, Aykroyd explained that he had explicitly written around Murray’s steadfast refusal to participate in a Ghostbusters III. “I wrote him a one day part. It’s a part that no actor would turn down,” Aykroyd said. “He dies in a lab accident, and he comes back as a deity.”

June 23, 2007: “I’m not holding my breath.”

The more that Aykroyd talks, the more it becomes apparent that he views Bill Murray as an obstacle to be negotiated in the pursuit of a Ghostbusters III. Despite announcing in 2000 that he had given up the ghost (so to speak), by 2007, Aykroyd has begun to think about a potential sequel as a computer-driven spectacle. “I want to do it as CGI (computer generated images),” Aykroyd told the Toronto Star. “I’d like Bill Murray doing voice as well. But I’m not holding my breath.” A decade before, Murray was on the hook for a small role as a mentor; then it was a single day’s shoot until, finally, Murray never even needs to change out of his Chicago Cubs jersey, only needing to record a few lines of dialogue for his onscreen avatar. Murray’s role in Ghostbusters III has gone from headliner to glorified cameo.

December 10, 2007: Ghostbusters III! Sort of!

On December 10, 2007, Marketing finally announced the release of Ghostbusters III… sort of. As trade publications discussed over the next week, Sony had decided to go the video game route for its long awaited Ghostbusters sequel. Ramis and Aykroyd would write the original script for the game, and each of the major cast members – Ramis, Aykroyd, Hudson, and yes, even Murray – would return to voice their characters. Perhaps most surprising was Murray’s enthusiasm for the project; Murray would later tell David Letterman that “the video game was kind of fun,” about as close to high praise for the Ghostbusters franchise as Murray had to offer. Many trades would connect Murray’s general enjoyment of the Ghostbusters video game experience with the renewed life of a third film.

September 5, 2008: Ghostbusters III! Again! Sort of!

In September 2008, Harold Ramis confirmed rumors a new Ghostbusters movie was in the works, only this time, the writing process would be handled by people independent of the film’s original core. In an email sent to the Chicago Tribune, Ramis explained that he, Reitman, and Aykroyd were consulting a new project to be produced by Judd Apatow. “The concept is that the old Ghostbusters would appear in the film in some mentor capacity,” Ramis wrote. “Not much else to say at this point. Everyone is confident a decent script can be written and I guess we’ll take it from there.”

May 19, 2009: “At any second everything could blow up.”

With Ghostbusters III pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point, the Los Angeles Times sat down with Dan Aykroyd to discuss his thoughts on the exceedingly long development process for the new movie. “Although I’m the biggest cheerleader as the originator of the concept but I’ve never begrudged Billy not doing a third movie,” Aykroyd told the Times, pointing out that Murray had not only come back for Ghostbusters II but had also contributed his voice to the video game (Aykroyd is not above a few minor jabs at his costar for refusing to read his third draft of the Ghostbusters III script, with Aykroyd describes as “pretty good”). When asked what actors Aykroyd would like for the new Ghosbusters crew, the actor foreshadows the 2016 reboot by naming Alyssa Milano and Eliza Dushku. “I think they’re amazing,” Akryoyd said. “And I’m excited about the whole idea of getting this done.”

January 13, 2010: “Good work is being done and all of us have our fingers crossed.”

Eager for more information, MTV spoke with Ivan Reitman about his own involvement in the project and managed to confirm both the dates and Reitman’s decision to direct the new film. “I hope to start shooting in this next year,” Reitman told MTV News, also admitting that he would take on the role of director for Ghostbusters III. A few months later, though, New York Magazine runs an exclusive story that Sony Pictures wants a younger director for the new franchise. There is one catch: Reitman’s contract still allows him to choose his own successor, and sources close to the project say that each of the major cast members have the ability to single-handedly kill the project by backing out. In other words, New York Magazine reports, “it has to be unanimously approved before going forward.”

January 20, 2011: “Now all I have to do is get Bill Murray to read it.”

Here we enter the final era of Ghostbusters III rumors, one centered on Bill Murray actually reading the damn script. On January 13, 2011, Ivan Reitman tells the Chicago Tribune that “all of the actors but one have read (the script) and loved it.” On January 20, Reitman tells the Fresno Bee that “we finally have a good script for Ghostbusters III. “Now all I have to do is get Bill Murray to read it,” Reitman adds. This sentiment is repeated on February 11 with The Age (“We have a really wonderful script and I’m just waiting for Bill Murray to read it; I think it’ll become a reality once he does”), on March 18 with The Hollywood Reporter (“We’re just waiting for Bill Murray to read it”), and before long, Murray’s reluctance to commit to another Ghostbusters film is public knowledge. In 2013, Reitman tells an audience during a repertory screening of the original film that “Bill Murray has never actually read anything.” “He may have read ten pages at some point,” Reitman said, “but he’s never read a script.” And since the Ghostbusters approval must be unanimous, this effectively put an end to the future of Ghostbusters III.

There are many things one could choose to take away from all of this, but for my money, there is only one thing that truly matters: there will never be another mess like Ghostbusters III. No studio would ever sign a contract with a director that gave him final say over his own replacement if he is booted off his own franchise; no studio, too, would put the future of a property so entirely in the hands of its dysfunctional cast and crew. We can only hope that some day, some smart screenwriter will find a way to turn the infighting and legal battles of Ghostbusters III into their very own screenplay. Now there’s a story I would most definitely watch.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.