Hollywood has a problem: while some cinema chains are doing better than others, many people just aren’t visiting anymore, and not telling the truth about musicals doesn’t help.

With streaming services growing in popularity and convenience, an ongoing cost-of-living crisis affecting disposable income, and an industry barely recovered from the pandemic and subsequent strike action—which both saw release windows shift for many films—people need convincing to buy a ticket.

In response, marketing has had to become more creative. Back in 2023, we had Barbenheimer, a cultural phenomenon (and surprise goldmine for Hollywood) around the release of Barbie and Oppenheimer, the two most anticipated films of the year. Elsewhere, however, the marketing for some of the recent biggest films has adopted a new, more simple tactic: being economic with the truth.

Give ’em the old razzle dazzle

You would be forgiven for not realizing that 2023’s Timothée Chalamet-starring prequel Wonka was a musical. After all, not one second of marketing material showed any songs; the key selling point of any movie musical.

Also thanks to its marketing, you might assume that the recent musical adaptation of The Colour Purple was a straight reworking of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel or a remake of the 1985 Spielberg film. And you might not be aware that 2024’s Mean Girls retelling is, in fact, based on the all-singing, all-dancing Broadway show and not the 2004 original.

Videos of people watching the new Mean Girls and realizing only when seated in the cinema that the movie was a musical went viral on TikTok and X (formerly Twitter).

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By GlobalData

This is hardly a new phenomenon, and it repeats every few years. After the underperformance of 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, Disney moved away from advertising the musical numbers in its subsequent film Tangled, focusing instead on the male lead. The same was true a few years earlier, with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street advertised as a horror/thriller and not as the fully-fledged Broadway musical adaptation that it was.

Money makes the world go ‘round

There are several reasons why movie studios might want to hide the fact that an upcoming release is a musical. Firstly, there is still a stigma around the musical, with the perception that male filmgoers, especially, might be put off. For example, Disney’s aforementioned gambit with Tangled was an attempt to draw in boys. One marketer told The Hollywood Reporter that, with musicals, “people have pre-formed opinions.”

But the primary reason for this subterfuge, according to movie marketing teams, is the poor box-office returns of recent musicals.

For a few years, musicals were a big draw. And these films flaunted their song and dance numbers with abandon. 2016’s La La Land was a hit with critics and audiences alike, and 2017’s The Greatest Showman made a huge profit. But, more recently, profits have been lacking for musical films. Both West Side Story and In The Heights were extremely well-reviewed but disappointed at the box office. Of course, both of these films had Covid-related issues to deal with. But even before the pandemic, the high-budget adaptation of the classic musical Cats bombed in theatres.

This is the greatest show

However, this outlook risks oversimplifying things. As BoxOffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins explained to The Hollywood Reporter, “It’s become easy to oversimplify why musicals haven’t worked.” He explains that many marketing teams use West Side Story and In The Heights as examples of musical flops, but the inescapable fact is that these films were released during very volatile Covid-19 conditions.

It’s unlikely that their musical genre had much to do with their failure. And, indeed, Cats did not have the same obstacles, as it was released pre-pandemic. But the performance of this film is likely tied to its quality; it was simply not very good, scoring a rating of 19% on the review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.

The bombast, the bravado, the musical

Tricking people into seeing musicals is ultimately unhelpful for both sides of the movie-watching public.

Many people not expecting a musical may feel disappointed when characters begin to sing, and musical fans are left feeling cold, as if their enjoyment of song-and-dance numbers is something to hide or be ashamed of.

Musicals are not going anywhere, despite their lingering stigma. They are one of the oldest forms of cinematic entertainment. And if studios want people in seats, they should embrace the bombast, bravado, and everything else that makes the musical so unique.