The misleading marketing of Sweeney Todd

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Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd & The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street led to complaints, after the marketing was shy about the fact it was a musical.

When Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler decided to adapt the 1973 play Sweeney Todd, they spent a lot of time to bring the story of the 18th century serial killer back to the stage. Their resultant work, 1979’s musical Sweeney Todd & The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, was a quick success. It brought home Tony awards for the production, and the musical would subsequently be staged not just on Broadway, but around the world too.

Macabre, acclaimed and visually striking, it wasn’t too surprising when Hollywood got interested in a film version of the show.

First in line was director Sam Mendes, no stranger to musical theatre himself. With his jump to film though, he’d won his Oscar for American Beauty a year or two beforehand, and he started developing the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd. By the middle of 2003, an approach went into Stephen Sondheim to see if he was interested in penning the screenplay, and he passed. Instead, he gave his blessing for Gladiator scribe John Logan to tackle the project. Mendes and Logan then developed the film for a film, although didn’t quite get it over the line.

In the end, the chance to make the film Jarhead came up, and Mendes had to leave Sweeney behind. But a replacement for him wasn’t far behind.

Tim Burton had first caught the production at the start of the 1980s, before his filmmaking career really began, and he was a quick fan of the show. He too would approach Sondheim about making a movie of the show, but it wouldn’t be until 2005 that he ultimately signed on the dotted line to do so.

By this time, DreamWorks was backing the project and that script was in place, a screenplay that was quickly reworked. Distribution would be handled by Warner Bros outside the US, and DreamWorks in the US. This all became official by the middle of 2006, as Burton in turn cast Johnny Depp in the lead role. Filming was set for early 2007, with a release at the end of the year.

This was quite an ambitious production too. The enormous sets were designed by Dante Ferretti, and this was to be a sizeable, studio-based physical production. In all, the bill was set to come in around $50m, and given that Burton had no intention on compromising where the gore of the story was concerned, it was to prove a challenge to promote. Not least because it needed to recoup those funds.

After all, the odds were stacked against the film. Appreciating Depp was pretty much at the top of his movie star powers when the movie was set for release (albeit primarily with family audiences), it nonetheless needed to recoup a fair investment, not least once distribution and marketing costs were factored in. Lengthening the odds of it doing so was the inevitable 18 certificate in the UK and R rating in the US. That, and the fact that it was a musical.

It was the latter that would prove the sticking point.

Whilst Chicago and been a box office hit and won a Best Picture Oscar at the start of the decade, worries remained over the box office pulling power of a musical. Sure, the film version of Hairspray was happening, but given that was due to be released in 2007 too, uncertainty remained over how to sell Sweeney Todd & The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. A plan was hatched, and it’d be a contentious one.

For in the end, the two studios concerned opted to play it surprisingly safe. Well, depending how you view things. The first trailer for the film landed in October of 2007, and as you can see, the sell of the film is very much on the conventional side…

As you can see, at no stage in the promo is there any mention that the film is a musical, let alone an award-winning, popular one. Granted, there’s a brief moment where Johnny Depp is singing a little, but no suggestion the film follows that pattern for much of its running time. Heck, I’m a fan of the movie, but I remember watching the trailer when it first landed and being a bit puzzled.

I wasn’t alone. If the aim was to hide the fact the film was a musical from a good chunk of its potential audience, then it was very much mission accomplished. Even appreciating the film arrived in the UK nearly two months after its US bow, the metaphorical cat remained in the bag for many, in spite of subsequent promotions at least offering a few more hints as to what was in store. That said, the majority of them were still selling this as a horror-tinged Johnny Depp-Tim Burton flick. Take a look at the poster, for instance, and see if you can find any clue to the source material…

When the film hit UK cinemas, it’d be fair to say there was a little bit of a backlash. Reports came in quickly of patrons walking out of the film when the penny dropped, and complaints being raised. In particular, as this Guardian article notes from 2008, a complaint was put in to the Advertising Standards Agency in the UK, that oversees promotions in the UK are on the level. There’s no sign at all that the ASA upheld the complaint, but still, it goes to the depth of ill feeling that the misleading promotions generated.

Sweeney Todd & The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street would go on to still be a box office hit, and earned critical acclaim. But the sour taste of its publicity campaign didn’t wash away quickly. To this day, it’s held up as one of the highest profile examples of a misleading trailer.

It didn’t do the film any harm in the end, and without a sequel to worry about, the long term consequences were minimal at best. In fact, a $153m worldwide gross was regarded as a solid return, not least when the soundtrack CD (remember them?) sold well too, and the home release brought in a few more coins. Throw in three Oscar nominations and one win, and – in truth – the marketing approach, on a purely fiscal level, was hard to fault.

Not bad: for a musical. Just don’t tell anyone that’s what it was…


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