Why Are Studios Hiding the Fact That Their Musicals … Are Musicals?

If you sat down to see Warner Bros.’ “Wonka” in December, odds are you were expecting a whimsical origin story led by Timothée Chalamet’s star power. But you may have been surprised to find in the film’s opening moments that Chalamet was singing. Because “Wonka” is a full-on musical with no less than eight elaborate musical numbers — not a second of which was teased in the film’s trailers.

Similarly, Paramount’s new box office hit “Mean Girls” was marketed as a colorful update of Tina Fey’s 2004 comedy when in fact it’s also an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, a bona fide singing extravaganza with over 15 numbers.

Is Hollywood avoiding marketing musicals as musicals? It sure seems so. The new strategy sees studios looking to sell musicals to the widest audience possible — and to young men in particular. And that means hiding the music.

“Marketing musicals is a harder genre because there’s more financial risk involved,” Pilaar Terry, Managing Partner and COO of POV Agency, told TheWrap. “Studios have to consider appealing to hardcore musical fans (and for Broadway adaptations staying true to the original IP) while also attracting new, more savvy moviegoers who may not be musical fans at their core, or are turned off to the genre altogether. That’s an extremely tough mix.”

The approach is coupled with a belief that Gen Zers need movies marketed to them differently, as they are more interested in discovering movies via social media than actually going out to a theater to see them.

“Musicals are a proven genre,” a former studio head told TheWrap about why studios are hesitant to flaunt musical numbers in trailers. “That’s actually the problem. They are a proven genre and people made up their minds about whether they liked them or not.”

At the box office, the strategy has largely worked.

“Wonka” has been the big hit of the season, becoming the first film since the “Barbenheimer” craze in July and August to cross $500 million at the global box office against a reported $125 million budget. “Mean Girls,” which Paramount pivoted from streaming to theaters, carries the lowest price tag at $36 million and is on its way to turning a profit after earning a $33 million extended opening on MLK weekend.

Paul Dergarabedian, analyst at Comscore told TheWrap that the stigma against the musical genre is “crazy, despite the success of so many musicals,” likening it to an untouchable “third rail.”

The assumption remains that musicals aren’t four-quadrant films, but are skewed more towards women. One only has to look at Disney features like “Tangled” and “Frozen,” both of which utilized their marketing to play up the film’s comedic elements to entice boys. “Musicals still have this stigma that they don’t appeal to men, [that] they especially don’t appeal to the younger male demographic, which is the most sought-after these days,” a PR consultant said on background.

“Mean Girls,” given its roots in a 2004 teen comedy about…well, mean girls…was expected to heavily skew towards female moviegoers and did just that with 74% of its opening weekend audience being women. “Wonka,” a four-quadrant family film, played more evenly but still leaned slightly female at 54% in its opening weekend.

“Musicals are a proven genre. That’s actually the problem… People made up their minds about whether they liked them or not.”

Former studio chief

Do audiences feel like they’re being tricked? “Mean Girls” attendees took to social media to post videos of them being surprised that the actors were singing. But insiders at Paramount shrugged off such posts, pointing to an internal exit poll that said only 16% of those surveyed were “disappointed” to find that the new version of “Mean Girls” was a musical, while 75% knew going into the theater what sort of film they were going to see.

“I don’t look at it as studios trying to trick audiences,” the PR consultant said. “It’s more about getting out of the gate with the broadest possible message that you can have.” Dergarbedian equated it to why romantic comedies often market themselves as other genres, like action-adventure.

Two insiders at Paramount concurred with Dergarabedian’s assessment, saying that rather than trying to “hide” the musical elements in “Mean Girls” the studio was trying to put all of the film’s crowd-pleasing elements in the spotlight. By emphasizing Tina Fey’s brand of humor in the trailers and other marketing material, Paramount felt it could reach out to the widest potential audience possible.

Of course, not every musical can take that approach. In the musical heyday of the 2000s, films like “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” and “Mamma Mia!” couldn’t hide their musical origins. Each was based on a long-running and successful Broadway show, and music was front and center as they hit theaters.

“Studios are always good to go with the best campaign for the film,” said the PR consultant. “If the best approach is to downplay the musical elements and hype up the cast, then that’s what they’re going to do.”

Both the studio head and PR consultant said in the case of “Wonka,” audiences were already aware that the last two screen iterations of Roald Dahl’s character were musical in nature, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in 1971 and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 2005.

A generational marketing challenge

The experts who spoke to TheWrap agreed that musicals face a challenge in marketing, particularly from a generational perspective. “Musicals really generate that audience participation like what you saw with Taylor Swift’s Eras tour,” said the PR consultant. Swift’s film, where the first trailer for “Mean Girls” premiered, went viral for its predominately teen girl audience singing and dancing in the aisles. And with 63% of teens ages 13 to 17 using TikTok on a daily basis, where dancing and singing are commonplace, musicals have an opportunity to court young moviegoers by playing up their musical elements.

It’s worth noting that hiding the music in a musical isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. The Warner Bros. feature “The Color Purple” downplayed the music during its marketing campaign ahead of a Christmas Day release but hasn’t benefitted from the same long legs as “Wonka” has. The movie has grossed $58.3 million after nearly a month in theaters and fell out of the top 10 this past weekend.

The film, with a reported $90-100 million budget, opened to strong reviews and enjoyed strong turnout from Black moviegoers during the holidays, but thus far it hasn’t converted that momentum to interest from audiences in other demographics. Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story.

So is it safe to say that musicals might be four-quadrant movies if marketed properly? Universal certainly believes so, as they will have the next big musical film coming to theaters with the two-part “Wicked,” a film version of one of the most famous Broadway musicals of the 21st century, which will serve as director Jon M. Chu’s followup to “In the Heights.”

While “In the Heights” had a cast that was mostly unknown outside of Broadway — a likely contributor to the film’s box office underperformance — “Wicked,” like “Wonka,” will have the advantage of a star-studded cast led by Ariana Grande and a beloved soundtrack. Its musical elements will likely be core to the marketing campaign, but having a world-famous pop star doing the singing will undoubtedly become its biggest promotional advantage.

Universal did not respond to requests for comment.

Another big question mark is “Joker: Folie a Deux,” the highly anticipated “Joker” sequel from Warner Bros. that pairs Joaquin Phoenix’s brooding killer with Lady Gaga as comics favorite Harley Quinn. The film is a musical, but its marketing campaign has yet to kick into gear and details about how much of a musical it is are unclear. Will the same fans that turned the dramatic “Joker” into a $1 billion hit be keen for a musical follow-up? And will they even be told it’s a musical going in?

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