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Wonka, Mean Girls, And Being Honest With Your Audience

With hits like Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Super Mario Bros., the return of Indiana Jones, and concert films from Beyonce and Taylor Swift, 2023 was a pretty good year for moviegoers.

In the wake of these blockbusters, many were eager to see what films the holiday season would bring and what releases would be among the first to grace the silver screen in 2024.

One that received a fair bit of promotion throughout the back half of 2023 was Wonka, a prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The trailer frequented my TV and social media feeds, and I recall it playing ahead of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny at the screening I attended. There was even a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade inspired by the factory's edible gardens.

In my circles, Wonka was getting a mixed reaction ahead of its release. I knew people who were stoked about this new take on the beloved character and couldn't wait to how Timothée Chalamet took up the mantle, someone who said it was "sacrilege" to make a prequel to the classic film and another who called it a cash grab, and a few who were going into it with cautious optimism and curiosity.

The initial vibe I got from the first Wonka trailer was that they were going for an edgy, more dramatic take on the character while maintaining his eccentric nature in a muted, Victorian-ish London-inspired city.*

*While author Roald Dalh was British, it's never confirmed where in the world Wonka's factory is or when the story takes place...

And, honestly, I found that concept intriguing. It sort of reminded me of The Joker and Batman Begins. And for a character as whimsical as Wonka, those darker undertones could make for a rare treat.

When Wonka at last reached theaters, it wasn't exactly what viewers were expecting.

The main bit of criticism I saw circulating during the first week after its release? Wonka is a musical.

Now you might be asking, well, what's the problem?

It makes sense that a prequel about the beloved chocolatier would be a musical. After all, Gene Wilder's Wonka sings the masterpiece that is "Pure Imagination" and my local casino has several Wonka slot machines that play snippets of the other songs during the free spins and bonus games. I also have a distinct memory of my third grade class following along with the Agustus Gloop Oompa Loompa dance tutorial in the DVD Extras of the remake starring Johnny Depp, kind of like playing Just Dance.

But here's the thing: audiences weren't expecting to be watching a musical because part was concealed in the trailers.

Typically, musical film trailers will include clips of the cast singing or feature samples of the soundtrack. It lets audiences know what to expect.

Movie trailers, I suspect, are just as hard to create as it is to write a blurb for a book. How much information do you provide prospective audiences in order to entice them, without giving away too much of what's to come? Sometimes, elements shown unintentionally spoil the events of the film, which in turn might make moviegoers less willing to spend the money on tickets and concessions and choose to rent it later on as opposed to going to see it in the theater. It's a delicate, tricky balance.

But the promotional materials for Wonka, I think, kept too much under wraps. Not telling the audience that the film is a musical is sort of like telling a reader that the book they're picking up is about a meteorologist and an elementary school art teacher while withholding the fact that it's a horror novel. By hiding the genre, audiences may not be able to accurately determine if it's going to be something that's for them.

So why hide that Wonka is a musical?

Potentially, it's a matter of numbers.

Movie musicals get an unfair rep. They're a niche. Sometimes a little hokey and campy. You get the occasional flick like Pitch Perfect that becomes more mainstream. Mamma Mia! is such a cult classic it got a sequel-prequel later on. One of my past retail job's radio station played "Rewrite The Stars" and "This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman on the daily, and I've heard both in other stores, too. The Les Misérables adaptation, while it did make some significant cuts, was frankly groundbreaking in its use of live performances, and I will wholeheartedly defend Russell Crowe as a solid casting choice for Javert.

But then you get the films like Cats that end up being box office stink bombs instead of the bombshells the cast and crew hoped for; you'd think an original song from Taylor Swift would've made the soundtrack a little more airwave-worthy than it ended up being even if the film itself was a mess.

Additionally, there was the West Side Story remake that seemed to fall off the face of the earth shortly after its release (at least in my feeds). And of course, there's the recent Dear Evan Hansen adaptation that got some negative feedback for a number of aspects including bringing Ben Platt back for the titular role he originated despite being 27 years old and not really looking like his high school-aged character (even with de-aging efforts at work).

Although there are examples of recent musicals doing well, a lot of them haven't. While you can certainly attribute that to the pandemic, the collective love for the genre seems to have gone flat.

So maybe in the hopes of not losing potential audiences by saying Wonka is a musical, Warner Bros. decided to keep that hush-hush and hope its viewers accept the surprise like a golden ticket.

Wonka, interestingly enough, is not the only musical film that has concealed its musical nature from audiences as of late.

A film adaptation of The Color Purple Broadway musical, which in turn was based on the film of the same name, came out around about two weeks after Wonka and its being a musical was also apparently omitted from its marketing campaign.

But that pales in comparison to the comments on the Mean Girls 2024 film.

Like The Color Purple, this isn't a remake but a film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the original Mean Girls film. And as was the case with both The Color Purple and Wonka it, too, muted its soundtrack in the first trailer, playing Olivia Rodrigo's "get him back!" instead.

As one YouTube user put it, "It is truly insane to make a trailer and not once acknowledge [it's] a full blown musical, absolutely wild behaviour."

At least the A in the logo has a little music note so there's a hint of it being a musical...

On X, formerly Twitter, one user wrote, "i’m so sorry but how are you gonna have a mean girls musical movie trailer with no music from the musical… like we know Reneé [Rapp] can sing but can the rest of the cast?!?"

I think this critique perfectly sums up one of the main issues with hiding the true genre of these movies from potential viewers: they're not able to get a fair impression or know what they're getting into. I haven't seen Wonka yet, but I can imagine I'd feel caught a little off guard when Chalamet begins singing in the first few minutes of the film had I not known it was a musical in advance!

It's clear I'm not the only one who's expressing concern about the promotional materials. At the time of writing, I feel it's too soon to assess the overall impact this marketing strategies will have on the aforementioned films' ratings. Wonka and The Color Purple haven't been out all that long and I'm intending to release this post ahead of Mean Girls hitting theaters.

However, the ongoing discourse surrounding these non-musical trailers for musicals and audience expectations also reminds me of what happened with The Last of Us: Part II and has me wonderng if they'll meet a similar fate of criticism and poor favor.

The game was met with an overwhelming amount of controversy at the time of its release from fans who felt the first game's ending was perfect and didn't need a continuation and those who didn't like the direction the story was taken in. There was also a wave (really more like a tsunami) of review-bombing because the game prominently features queer characters, including a side character who is trans.

For what it's worth, I only disagree with that last criticism of the game. I do think there are improvements that could have been made to the handling of Lev's story but there are some things that were done fairly well.

I have longstanding plans to write a full post about my feelings towards the game's narrative structure and other choices so I'm only going to summarize my thoughts for the time being. And, hey, there are gonna be spoilers.

One of the biggest points of contention in The Last of Us: Part II was the brutal murder of Joel, who is the playable protagonist of the first game. Naturally, this was going to provoke the ire of longtime fans. There's the matter of how it happened, who did it, and the fact that it happened at all.

But there's also the matter of the way the game was promoted that had players especially upset.

In the trailers, we see Ellie's mouth being covered by someone's hand, and she turns around to see aged-up Joel who says, "Think I'd let you do this on your own?"

This indicates a couple of things. One: Joel's not dead at this point. Two: he and Ellie, the cherished surrogate father-daughter duo are back in action.

When Naughty Dog dropped this preview, fans were ecstatic to see Joel and Ellie again and ready for a new adventure. The Last of Us: Part II was one of if not THE most-anticipated game of the year.

However, that excitement was quickly squashed.

Joel is killed off early on in the game, by a new character we're then supposed to sympathize with later on. It hurt. I was as vexed by it as anyone.

But mostly, I felt lied to by the ad campaign, as a lot of players did. Let down by a broken promise.

That wasn't helped when that cutscene from the trailer came to pass. Ellie's mouth is covered, but it's not Joel's hand. When she turns around, we're greeted by Jesse, a new character we've spent scarcely any time with.

And it's Jesse who delivers what was Joel's line in the trailer, solidifying the collective feelings of being deceived by false advertising.

I can understand why Naughty Dog chose to insert Joel into the scene for the trailer. They needed to generate excitement for the upcoming release. "Think I'd let you do this on your own?" is a line that builds suspense because it makes future players curious as to what Ellie set out to do alone. Initially, I expected it to pertain to the first game's ending, perhaps based around Ellie wanting to get some answers about her immunity from the virus and a need to come to terms with her survivor's guilt. Upon discovering her departure, I'm sure Joel wouldn't waste any time looking for her, especially given the danger that the wrong person having knowledge of her immunity may pose.

And there's also the fact that they wouldn't want to spoil Joel's death before players ever had the chance to pick up their controller.

This all backfired.

We don't know Jesse. We don't have that bond that we did with Joel. We've barely interacted with him up until that point. He's pretty inconsequential outside of having fathered Dina's unborn baby. It's harder to understand why he'd go after Ellie and put himself at risk; Joel's motive would be simple—he loves Ellie like a daughter and needs to do right by her after the events of Part I.

Having Jesse take Joel's place in the scene left me feeling underwhelmed by comparison. And, frankly, I didn't feel much of anything when he was unceremoniously killed off shortly after.

The expectation of another epic, emotional, and heartwarming tale alongside two of the most-loved characters in video game history being tragically shot down incited a fair amount of backlash. There is plenty one might appreciate about The Last of Us: Part II, but for a lot of players, the stark difference between the trailer and the final product was a shame.

Not to mention the host of other issues its story suffered. But, again, that's for another post...

Author's note: for more on video game trailers and audience expectations, check out this post inspired by Resident Evil: Village.

So what does all this talk of Wonka and Mean Girls and The Last of Us mean for writers?

Simply put, be honest with your readers. Don't promise them a Joel and give them a Jesse.

There's a book I've referenced a couple of times on the blog regarding reader expectations and my experience of feeling misled by its blurb. This one was a Western romance novel about a blacksmith and his new wife who met face-to-face for the first time on the morning of their wedding, so I was anticipating maybe an enemies-to-lovers dynamic with a healthy dash of forced proximity as the newlyweds got to know each other. She was also planning to open her own business from the ground up, which I was interested in seeing. Instead, the book was a faith-based romance in which the male love interest only appeared every so often while the leading lady dedicated herself to convincing one of the saloon girls to go to church and become a "good Christian woman."

Like I've said whenever I reference this one in a post, I typically don't take issue with characters being religious or faith-related conflicts and motivations being a focal point. But I came close to DNFing that Western several times because it felt like I was reading sermons at times and being preached to by a holier-than-thou main character. That wasn't what was pitched to me as a reader, and it left me feeling disappointed because the actual nature of the story wasn't made clear to me upfront.

You may not always have total control over how your book is promoted. In a traditional setting, you might be fortunate enough to get a little boost from your publisher's marketing department. Or you may be able to hire a publicist or social media manager to help broaden your reach. No matter what path you take towards publication, you're going to be at least partially responsible for marketing your book.

How do you ensure you're marketing honestly to readers? A lot of that is going to be left up to the specifics of your book. It's typically a good idea to include the genre and appropriate category for your intended audience. Some authors might include the length of the work (eg if it's a novel or a novella). Others might provide a list of content warnings to give readers a heads-up when sensitive subject matters are involved in the story.

It's all about being honest with your audience. By giving them a clearer understanding of what they can expect when picking up your work, chances are they'll find it a much more enjoyable reading experience.

Just remember, you don't have to tell them everything because, to quote Depp's Wonka, "The best kind of prize is a SUR-prize!"

Were we closer to the release of The Greatest Showman, I think Wonka would have been more clearly indicated to be a musical. However, we're in a post-Cats and post-Dear Evan Hansen era, which might have had the teams behind Wonka and Mean Girls feeling the need to be a little more cautious in their marketing plan. That said, the secrecy surrounding the films being musicals has raised a few eyebrows and left some moviegoers scratching their heads.

Only time will tell if this discretion was a wise move. No matter if it's a film, a novel, video game, you want to keep audiences wondering what's going to happen next, not what the heck is this?!. Or worse yet, feeling like a victim of false advertising and unfulfilled promises.

You'll sometimes hear that honesty is the golden policy. But in the case of marketing, being honest with your audience may just be the golden ticket to a worthwhile experience.



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