Why are movie trailers afraid to reveal a movie is a musical?

Mean Girls, Wonka, and The Color Purple are all movie musicals, but the trailers never show that. Why are studios so afraid of letting moviegoers know a movie is a musical?

Bebe Wood plays Gretchen, Renee Rapp plays Regina and Avantika plays Karen in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.
Bebe Wood plays Gretchen, Renee Rapp plays Regina and Avantika plays Karen in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures. /
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Mean Girls is ready to hit theaters this Friday with the tagline “this is not your mother’s Mean Girls.” Yet, not one trailer has indicated that the movie is a musical. Why are movie studios so reluctant to show a film as a musical in the trailers these days?

It’s often overlooked just how dominant musicals once were in movie theaters. In the heyday of the 1940s and ‘50s, they were right there with Westerns and dramas as a reliable source of theater fodder, with a few even gaining Oscar love. It faltered in the 1960s with too many big-budget bombs and faded for good by the late 1970s.

There was a revival of it in the 2000s, and there could be some good hits like Mama Mia, Dreamgirls, and Les Miserables, with La La Land, an Oscar-winning hit that looked to pave the way for more adaptations. And there have been; audiences just don’t seem to know that. 

Mean Girls, Wonka, The Color Purple, Leo. What do these movies have in common? They’re all musicals, and yet their respective trailers don’t show any of that. Most don’t even have the actual songs from the movies, with the Wonka trailers just a take on the “Pure Imagination” song.

Even Disney got into this as Wish had some music in the trailer, but still did not showcase the movie is a full-on musical. So why are studio marketing departments so wary of letting folks know a movie is, in fact, a musical?

Are musicals really bad for the box office?

A common belief is that musicals will put off moviegoers. It’s not helped that one of the last major big-budget theatrical musicals was Cats, which was a box office disaster. Then again, one can argue that it was less due to being a musical and more of the terrible effects and acting.

Then there were the two movie musicals of 2021, both of which had been intended for 2020 before the pandemic delayed them. In the Heights was a huge box office disappointment, although that can be credited to a combination of release during the Covid-19 pandemic and a same-day release on HBO Max, which cut into its success.

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake was also a box office disappointment, $70 million off its $100 million budget, but once more that can be credited to the pandemic. It did win wide critical acclaim with multiple Oscar nominations and Ariana DeBose winning Best Supporting Actress. 

Yet those seem to have made studios buy once more the idea that modern musicals can be box office poison. The last major movie musical was Dear Evan Hansen, a box office and critical flop for myriad reasons. Thus, the marketing departments are being told to de-emphasize the musical aspects which can hurt the film. 

Why movies should be up front on being musicals

Wonka didn’t need to showcase the musical aspect as much as it was known to be a prequel to the beloved 1970s movie. Thus, it was logical to expect music in it just as fans would have expected Wish to have some songs as a Disney film. Not showcasing that in the trailers didn’t make much of a difference. 

However, with Mean Girls, the trailer makes it look like just a poor retread of the original. Sure, new actors and promises to address changes in the times, but otherwise, there is little to make it worth watching over the original. Showing it’s a musical with the songs would at least be something different and draw folks in to see how the story differs with some songs in it. 

Likewise, The Color Purple could be mistaken for simply a remake of the 1985 movie rather than being based on the popular Broadway show. Advertising it as a musical could help it out and stand out from the original well. 

It must be frustrating to the moviemakers to pour so much into making a modern musical work only for the studio to keep the songs completely out of any marketing. Maybe some moviegoers might be turned off, but the success of Broadway shows that people will come out for these, and maybe a musical can entice folks who’d otherwise skip a straight-up movie adaptation. 

It simply seems confusing that studios can green-light a musical and then refuse to say it is one in the marketing. One can hope it changes and movies like the Mean Girls remake can be more out and proud with the songs to remind people of how magical a movie musical can be. 

Mean Girls premieres in theaters Friday, Jan. 12.

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