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Is Hollywood marketing ‘hiding’ musicals like ‘Wonka’ and ‘Mean Girls?’ It’s complicated

Ryan Faughnder – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Since the introduction of sound to motion pictures with “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, musicals have been among the defining genres of cinema, as important as westerns and war films.

And yet, in recent months, several Hollywood studios have been accused of playing peek-a-boo with their movies in which characters spontaneously break out into song.

Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find references to moviegoers being stunned that Paramount’s new “Mean Girls” film, based on the Broadway smash that was adapted from the 2004 Tina Fey-penned Lindsay Lohan comedy of the same name, had a bunch of musical numbers in it.

You’ll find critics wondering why the trailers for Warner Bros.’s “Wonka,” starring Timothée Chalamet as Roald Dahl’s off-kilter chocolatier, and the same studio’s “The Color Purple,” featuring outstanding singer Fantasia Barrino, seemed coy about the fact that they were full-blown musicals.

This observation may be a tad overblown.

Marketing campaigns are multifaceted and have reach to the broadest possible audience, which is no small feat in today’s highly competitive theatrical film business. Audience members who saw the multitude of promotional materials and cast appearances for either “Wonka” or “The Color Purple” would certainly have been exposed to hints of what was in store.

The official trailer for “Wonka” had flashes of dancing, including shots of high-stepping chorus lines, along with Hugh Grant’s Oompa Loompa teeing up a certain famous number. A television spot released in November showcases Chalamet’s rendition of “Pure Imagination.” Beyond that, the 1971 “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” was itself chock full of tunes, so the prequel’s song-and-dance aspect shouldn’t shock anyone.

And Warner’s official “The Color Purple” promos featured dance sequences and Barrino belting out “I’m Here” from the Tony-winning show. But no, the studio wasn’t totally leading with the musical nature of the film.

Why not advertise musicals more explicitly as musicals? Is the thinking that they are too niche? Too old-fashioned? Do studios fear reprising past flops, like “In the Heights,” “Cats” and “Dear Evan Hansen?” Maybe a little bit of all of the above?

The reasoning is more complicated than it sounds. Broadway fans may cry foul, but each film is different and needs to be marketed accordingly. Studio insiders told the The Times that the priority of the early marketing for “Wonka,” for example, was to emphasize the story and the characters and get audiences acquainted with Chalamet’s version of the top-hatted inventor. Given the wide cultural fondness for Gene Wilder’s famed take, that would be no easy task.

One factor, according to marketing experts who spoke anonymously, could be that the original film versions of “The Color Purple” and “Mean Girls” were not musicals, unlike Broadway-born creations such as, say, “Les Misérables” or “Mamma Mia!,” which were clearly and successfully marketed as such.

To reach the largest audience, studios tend to sell movies by showing viewers what they already know they like. You sell “Mean Girls” by selling “Mean Girls,” emphasizing the biting humor and larger-than-life characters.

On the flip side, Disney’s recent hit remake of “The Little Mermaid” (most definitely a musical) wasn’t at all hesitant about having Halle Bailey sing “Part of Your World” in its advertisements. And why would it be? People go wild for that song. Is there any chance that Universal Pictures, when it markets Jon M. Chu’s upcoming “Wicked” adaptation, would shy away from the high notes of “Defying Gravity” in its trailer and television spots? I doubt it.

When studios go that far, it can backfire. Hollywood saw a major backlash in 2007, when audiences were baffled by the on-screen singing in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which was an adaptation of a Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical and not just your “normal” Tim Burton movie (if such a thing exists).

Are Hollywood’s marketing tactics working?

The new “Mean Girls” opened with a solid $33.6 million during the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in the U.S. and Canada, before sinking 59% in its second weekend, which suggests that Paramount may have been wise to avoid broadcasting its musicality. “The Color Purple” had a promising start when it debuted to a strong $18 million on Christmas Day by courting largely Black audiences, but it swiftly faded for a domestic total of $59.7 million.

But “Wonka” is a straight-up hit. The film has grossed $534 million worldwide, including $188 million in the U.S. and Canada, after opening to $39 million domestically in mid-December. That’s an impressive run, making clear that word-of-mouth was not hampered by any revelation that there were lots of songs. Perhaps in this case, hiding the musicality was unnecessary, though it’s hard to see that it hurt.

Marketing isn’t everything. Sometimes the movie itself has to carry the day, and good buzz is a powerful force, especially for family-friendly films.

When it comes to original movie musicals, box office pundits love to point out the gangbusters success of 2017’s “The Greatest Showman,” which looked like an utter bomb when it launched to $8.8 million. It ended up grossing a staggering $174 million domestically and $439 million globally. 20th Century Fox may have had a tough time marketing the movie for opening weekend, but audiences found it and embraced it anyway. Of course, that was an unusual example, and the film business has changed significantly since then.

The musical genre will face another test this year with another movie from Warner Bros., Todd Phillips’ supervillain sequel, “Joker: Folie à Deux,” featuring Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn alongside Joaquin Phoenix’s mad clown Arthur Fleck. Will DC fans accept a dark, gritty musical, even if it’s covered in evil clown makeup? If Warner Bros. and Phillips want to be extra brave, they’ll give us a showstopper in the teaser trailer.

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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