Mean Girls had the strangest marketing campaign of 2024 | Has Paramount’s gamble paid off?

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A strong opening weekend for Mean Girls in the US had Paramount singing TikTok’s praises. But has a nosedive in its second week confirmed the old marketing ways might still be best?

It is a truth Hollywood universally acknowledges that everyone – and I do mean everyone – hates movie musicals.

If I did like movie musicals (which, multiple focus groups have determined, is impossible) I’d no doubt be a little upset by this. I might even try and point out that The Greatest Showman and La La Land both made more than $400m (£314.4m) as recently as 2017 and 2016 respectively, or that three of the top four highest-grossing animated movies of all time have the dreaded m-word in their genre description.

This line of thought is, of course, ridiculous. We all know that openly releasing a musical in today’s cinemagoing climate is a fool’s errand. Just look at Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, an older-demographic-skewing adaptation of a 60s classic released mid-pandemic when no older demographics wanted to leave their homes. Or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, an original Broadway adaptation released with less marketing enthusiasm than HSBC’s latest current account.

Actually, if I can be blunt for a second, you’re all being a bit naive. We’re not in the 50s anymore – nobody wants to see actors singing and dancing and other ludicrous flights of fancy. It’ll take them out of the story. We want something more realistic, thank you very much. We want Jason Momoa swimming up a CGI whale’s backside, or whatever happens in Aquaman 2 (I have not, I will confess, seen Aquaman 2 at the time of writing).

Targeting a musical at a younger market? You’re actually starting to annoy me now. What possible evidence do we have that a generation growing up with TikTok might enjoy watching people dancing? Be serious, please.

What about Wonka? No, look, shut up.

The marketing team behind Mean Girls – the “new twist” on Tina Fey’s beloved 2004 classic – clearly know what’s what. Since the film’s first trailer dropped in November, they’ve wisely and diligently kept its sing-song credentials out of every press release and poster they’ve put out. Now, the film is pitching itself to a much wider audience – not just those that like musicals (again, they don’t exist) but also those that hate them with every fibre of their being. Because if there’s one thing musical haters like more than a musical, it’s being tricked into seeing one. They really get off on that stuff.

Still, when Mean Girls debuted to a surprisingly strong $32m (£25.2m) opening in the US last week, it looked like Paramount’s courageous marketing decision had paid off. The aforementioned TikTok generation turned out in their droves, with 60 per cent of the audience under the age of 25. Paramount’s distribution chief, Chris Aronson, was quick to sing the team’s praises, calling the result a “testament to the longevity of Tina Fey’s iconic property.” Ever a consistent marketeer, he wouldn’t even admit his film was a musical after a few million people had seen it: “Fey’s contemporary twist resonated with moviegoers,” he said, implying audiences were won over by some tasteful lemon shavings rather than the film’s choreographed dance numbers.

Even before its release, though, the runaway success of Wonka – which this last weekend overtook Oppenheimer to become the UK’s second-biggest film of 2023 – seemed to validate the “don’t tell them it’s a musical” strategy. Riding high on a beloved existing IP and a rare movie star popular with the TikTok generation, its $531.8m (£418.34m) takings so far will have had the studios behind the sudden surge of movie musicals coming this year wiping the sweat from their brows with a chocolatier’s handkerchief.

Still, that Mean Girls stuck so rigidly to the same formula felt more than a little odd. There are plenty of reasons why hiding the film’s main USP was a riskier move for Tina Fey’s high school comedy than the Roald Dahl prequel. Despite capitalising on an existing IP, Wonka at least told an entirely original story audiences hadn’t seen before. If musical-averse audiences went in expecting Hugh Grant not to burst into multiple renditions of the Oompa Loompa song, they at least had a fun, funny and heartwarming tale to keep them occupied.

Read more: Wonka | Production designer Nathan Crowley on practical sets, chocolate, Christopher Nolan and more

Mean Girls (2024) doesn’t have that luxury. As an adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name, it is both more song-heavy than Wonka (with 13 original pieces vs 9) and has less to offer outside its musical set-pieces. Take away Mean Girls’ showtunes and you’re largely left with a line-for-line remake of the 2004 original. The 25 percent of the audience which, according to Paramount’s own exit polls, didn’t know the film was a musical when they bought a ticket in its opening weekend seemed pretty unlikely to find much in it for them.

Perhaps that’s why word of mouth surrounding the new film verges on the lukewarm. Though Mean Girls’ opening weekend was initially seen as a TikTok success story, one of the most-shared videos on the platform sees an audience groaning en masse when Angourie Rice breaks into another musical number.

In the social media age, it doesn’t take much to sour a film’s reputation, and there are signs Mean Girls might not be the box office queen its US opening suggested. Its second weekend over there saw it take a pretty steep 59 percent hit, while its solid, but not spectacular, $4.1m (£3.2m) UK debut speaks to a film which doesn’t seem to have the longevity January’s relatively bare release calendar should have provided.

Meanwhile, another film from a genre studios have typically avoided with a barge-pole has turned into one of January’s most surprising success stories: Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell’s rom-com Anyone But You. Despite a lack of existing IP (unless you count Much Ado About Nothing as a franchise-starter), an R/15 rating and an underwhelming opening weekend, Sony’s flashback to the 90s classic-literature-turned-rom-com craze has sailed past $100m (£79m) worldwide after improving on its stateside earnings with its subsequent weekends since release. It even shares much of Mean Girls’ target demographic – overwhelmingly skewing young, and skewing female.

What’s more, the film did it the old-fashioned way. It took two popular young stars (Top Gun: Maverick’s Powell and Euphoria’s Sweeney), released a trailer that accurately portrayed the film audiences were about to watch, and fanned tabloid rumours that its two leads were involved in an on-set romance. It’s not, as From Hollywood With Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy author Scott Meslow told The Guardian, exactly rocket science.

“[If] you find stars who are hot and want to do movies like this, and you put some actual marketing muscle behind it – and you made a good movie – people are going to see it,” Meslow said.

Of course, there’s still every chance that Mean Girls will rebound now that the initial “wait, this is a musical?” shock has subsided. In any case, Paramount will no-doubt be pleased with $66.3m (£52.1m) from a film initially scheduled for a straight-to-streaming release on Paramount Plus.

If it doesn’t, though, January 2024 could prove a very interesting indicator of the changing nature of the cinema industry. While cinema owners were understandably worried by the prospect of a winter season without a blockbuster tentpole, the latest weekend was the first to fall below expectations with a US gross 9 per cent lower than the same time last year. Without the $2.3bn (£1.8bn) grossing Avatar: The Way Of Water to keep cinemas buoyant, that’s not bad going.

Read more: The Beekeeper | How Kurt Wimmer’s script takes righteous aim at 21st century tech bros

Instead, the screen vacuum left in James Cameron’s wake has ushered in a month defined more by variety than a single box office titan. Alongside Mean Girls, Anyone But You and Wonka, Poor Things debuted in the UK at an impressive second place for an 18-rated comedy-drama featuring loads of sex and a dog with the head of a duck. The surprise champion of the international box office this weekend, meanwhile, was David Ayer’s The Beekeeper – a traditionally ludicrous Jason Statham vehicle which we thought was actually rather good.

Of these, Mean Girls is an outlier as the only film with a Rotten Tomatoes audience score lower than 80 percent. While we obviously place great stock in the internet’s favourite movie-rating system, its 64 percent total doesn’t bode well facing up against a series of campaigns which at least seem to have confidence in their own product.

But what do I know? I’ve no real idea how marketing works. I’m sure it’s very hard. And besides, whichever way Mean Girls’ fortunes turn out, Hollywood will have been proved right. If it makes $200m, the songless marketing works. If it doesn’t, well: everyone hates movie musicals, after all.

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