Who you gonna call? For decades, it didn’t seem like anyone. Following the blockbuster success of 1984’s Ghostbusters and its less well-received yet still financially winning 1989 follow-up, Ghostbusters II, a third film in the franchise should’ve been inevitable. So why didn’t happen for more than 30 years?
While offshoots like the Ghostbusters video games, comic books and especially the animated series The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991) kept the brand alive, and even thriving to some extent over the years, it was 27 years before a new theatrical film–Paul Feig’s much-maligned all-female reboot in 2016–arrived in theaters. And it was a further five years before Ghostbusters: Afterlife, billed as the first direct sequel to the original pair of films on a big screen, found its way to theaters.
Yet all during that time, multiple attempts at a third official Ghostbusters movie–many of them spearheaded by self-styled keeper of the flame Dan Aykroyd–were scripted and in development at one point or another. Many of them were shot down due to budgetary concerns, the questionable involvement of star Bill Murray, or a combination of both (no Bill = no budget).
Here’s a timeline of the ghosts of Ghostbusters 3s past, the abandoned follow-ups that now haunt the winding, endless corridors of that dreaded place known as development hell.
Welcome to Ghostbusters Hell
Dan Aykroyd and co-star Harold Ramis–who had written the first two films–were interested in launching a third Ghostbusters film almost immediately after Ghostbusters II became a hit. Although they reportedly worked on a script throughout the following decade, the first concrete news about a Ghostbusters III emerged in 1999 when word surfaced that a screenplay titled Ghostbusters III: Hellbent had been completed.
According to IGN, Hellbent was set to take place in “ManHellton,” an alternate version of New York City located in Hell itself. When this underworld version of the Big (Burning) Apple becomes too crowded, some of its denizens are starting to be shipped back to our world–a Romero-esque “when there’s no more room in Hell” scenario–and cause chaos. This forces the Ghostbusters to spring into action and eventually confront Satan himself.
Except… the OG Ghostbusters were not going to be the main characters in this scenario. Instead they’d serve as support to a new team (a theme that would hang around this franchise all the way to the present). Part of the reason for this, of course, was Bill Murray’s reluctance to strap on the proton pack again. The idea was that Murray’s character, Peter Venkman, would be retired when the movie starts, would be reported as dead, and would come back as a ghost himself in a final twist.
Needless to say, the script was never filmed; but aspects of it were used in 2009’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game. More on that in a moment.
Murray Out, Stiller In?
The Hellbent script was kicked around for several years at Columbia Pictures–home of the first two movies–but, as mentioned earlier, the production costs and lack of Murray’s involvement gave the studio cold feet about moving forward. By 2002 Ramis had acknowledged that the project was more or less in limbo, and that Murray had become “obstructionist” about doing a third picture.
There were reports that Murray even wrote a note one of the 2000s screenplay drafts that “no one wants to pay money to see fat, old men chasing ghosts.” Aykroyd denied Murray personally wrote that.
By 2006, however, Ramis and Aykroyd were still rolling the rock up the hill, and were considering moving forward with what Ramis described to InFocus as a variation on the Hellbent script, although he later denied reports that he had tried to entice comedians like Ben Stiller and Chris Rock to star alongside the remaining original team as the new recruits.
Ghostbusters Gets The Office Treatment
Although the idea of Ghostbusters III was still floating out there like a blob of ectoplasm, it wasn’t until 2008 that there was some real news–and it wasn’t necessarily what fans wanted to hear. Variety reported that Columbia Pictures had hired screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky–both executive producers on the hit TV comedy The Office –to pen an entirely new take on a third film.
Eisenberg and Stupnitsky weren’t entirely an out-of-the-blue choice; they had just written “Year One,” a film directed by Ramis, so the connection to at least one of the original Ghostbusters was there. Again, the idea was that the third film would introduce a new generation of paranormal troubleshooters, although the involvement of the originals was now changed to “could return” instead of “would return.”
As a side note, the same Variety article stated that one of the reasons a third Ghostbusters film had been delayed for so long–it was now nearly 20 years since Ghostbusters II had been released–was that the financial participation of the originals (Murray, Ramis, Aykroyd, and director/producer Reitman) was so front-loaded that it was difficult for the studio to actually profit off the film itself.
Meanwhile the chances of Murray appearing in the film at all continued to dwindle, despite Aykroyd claiming that the new script offered his co-star the “comic role of a lifetime.” Things got even more bitter as Aykroyd mused out loud about recasting the role of Venkman. All of this talk must have given the studio jitters again, because the Stupnitsky/Eisenberg script went back down the development hole.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game
The 2009 video game may well be the closest we’ll ever get to the original concept of a Ghostbusters 3. Aykroyd certainly once thought so, suggesting it was canonically the third installment. When the game was released in 2009, it received mostly positive and pleasantly surprised reviews. Gamers and critics were delighted with its ability to recreate the odd tonal alchemy of the original films as it stood on the knife’s edge between being funny and freaky (a trick neither 21st century film in the franchise has duplicated). The game allowed players to take control of a fifth, silent rookie recruit who gets to participate in the busting ghosts in 1991 while also hanging back and letting all four original lead actors trade barbs in the cut-scenes. Yes, even Murray provided Venkman’s vocal performance here.
Much of the dialogue and the general story structure of the game is based on gags and outlines written by Aykroyd and Ramis, which in turn was loosely based on the abandoned Ghostbusters: Hellbent premise. However, the finished game in many ways mirrors Ghostbusters: Afterlife since rather than being about hell, this game ceners on the Gozerian dimension again trying to take over our world, and features returning ghouls from the first film like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. (He gets a mini-cameo, so to speak, in the newest film).
The game also dives into Ivo Shandor’s origins. Since Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife screenplay directly contradicts this game’s revelations about Gozer and Shandor’s backstories, as well as introduces an Alyssa Milano love interest for Peter Venkman who is incongruous with the 2021 film, we presume this game is now out of canon.
Ghostbusters in Black
By 2012, a new screenplay had been commissioned, this time from the keyboard of Etan Cohen, writer of Men in Black 3 and a contributor on Tropic Thunder. The idea was to once again focus on a new team, this time comprised of Columbia University students who discover the remnants of the original gang’s research and pick up the ball themselves. Aykroyd told Larry King (via The Mary Sue) that the story would involve “particle physics” and that there would be a place for Murray in the movie if he “wants to walk in the door.”
Then in February 2014, Harold Ramis died. Although the 69-year-old actor/director’s involvement in the newest edition of Ghostbusters III was said to be minimal, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that Ivan Reitman told the studio that the script had to be reworked to account for Ramis’ absence. But shortly thereafter, Reitman–who had always been attached to direct the third film–decided he would no longer helm the project and would make it in his role as producer his job to find a new director.
“When I came back from Harold’s funeral, it was really moving and it made me think about a lot of things,” Ivan said. “With Harold no longer with us I couldn’t see it.”
Among the directors reportedly considered for the job were Zombieland helmer Ruben Fleischer, The Lego Movie team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and Paul Feig. The latter eventually won the job… but not to direct Ghostbusters III as previously envisioned. He would instead reboot the property with an all-female cast, and this time the idea actually made it to the screen. We all know what happened next: 2016’s Ghostbusters (later known as Ghostbusters: Answer the Call) became a flashpoint for toxic fandom at its worst, whatever the relative merits of the picture, and underperformed at the box office.
Ghost Corps and Afterlife
Perhaps anticipating a better response to Feig’s Ghostbusters movie (in which Murray, Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson cameoed as different characters), Reitman and Sony (home of Columbia Pictures) set up a new production banner called “Ghost Corps,” which was essentially charged with creating a shared Ghostbusters universe.
Two projects were announced off the bat: a new film with the Russo Brothers directing an all-male cast that would be potentially led by Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt, and an animated feature. The all-male sop to whining fanboys was retconned into a figment of everyone’s imagination after the Feig movie stalled in theaters, with the animated project apparently suffering the same fate.
In 2018, Aykroyd teased that a new script featuring the return of him, Murray, and Hudson as their original characters was in development, but it was just a year later that Ghostbusters: Afterlife was announced. Since they are in the new movie, we can probably assume that this was the project Aykroyd was talking about. But the graveyard of abandoned Ghostbusters sequels is no doubt as crowded as ManHellton itself.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is in theaters now.