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Universal is aiming to head off unexpectedly harsh reviews, anemic box office tracking numbers and an online backlash to its star-studded musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” about the touchy subject of a lonely teenager faking a friendship with a peer who committed suicide.
The studio, the movie’s producers and star Ben Platt were all caught off guard by critics who savaged the film at this month’s Toronto Film Festival for everything from Platt’s real-life age of 27 to the singing itself to the treatment of teenage depression, individuals with knowledge of the film told TheWrap. The film currently holds a 47% score on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, and a 41 score on Metacritic.
Platt, who originated the role of high schooler Evan Hansen on stage and earned a Tony Award in 2017 for the role, responded over the weekend. “I am trying my best to tune it out because there’s nothing I can do about how old I am,” he told NBC News’ Kate Snow on “The Drink.” “All I can do is play a character, and when I’m playing a character, there’s all sorts of things about myself that are not like who I am – I weigh a little less or I dress a little differently or my hair is a little curlier. And in this particular case, I’m someone younger than I am and that’s my job as an actor is to play things that are not like me.”
Insiders at Universal confessed that they were hurt and disappointed at the early response to the film and bristled at the suggestion that the production exploited teenage anxiety and the tragedy of suicide.
One senior executive said there would be no change to the marketing campaign, despite the early response. But another insider said that in light of the bad reviews the challenge was to convey “there’s something good here — so how do the studio and the filmmakers get that message out against all the negative noise?”
Another executive said that the studio was very proud of the work and indeed the movie’s producers — which include Platt’s own father, Marc E. Platt (“La La Land”) — were actually defiant about the backlash.
One studio insider also reaffirmed that executives “are deeply proud of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and the remarkable performances from the film’s talent. There is confidence on the Universal lot that that general audiences will turn up to theaters well into the Fall.”
“Dear Evan Hansen,” which will open Friday exclusively in theaters at around 3,300 locations, is currently tracking at an opening between $9-11 million — a disappointing projection despite the state of the pandemic-era box office.
Luckily, the film does not look to be as much of a financial risk as Universal’s buzzy 2019 bomb “Cats,” another Broadway musical adaptation that notoriously coughed up a hairball with just $73.8 million at the global box office on a budget of a reported $95 million.
While the studio has not disclosed the budget for “Evan Hansen,” the Oscar-winning “La La Land” cost $30 million (and went on to gross $448 million worldwide). And Fox’s 2017 musical “The Greatest Showman” — which like “Evan Hansen” and “La La Land” featured a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — also garnered lukewarm reviews and only opened to $8.8 million but legged out to $436.7 million worldwide. (Admittedly, neither was released in a global pandemic.)
According to one insider, studio executives have reached out to key journalists to seek champions for the film and promoting a reel of ordinary fans offering heartfelt endorsements of the music, the themes and especially Platt’s performance as what makes “Dear Evan Hansen” special. The marketing has also rolled out a number of other music videos with Carrie Underwood and featurettes that aim to highlight some of the film’s other strengths. But many of those marketing elements were planned months in advance of the film’s Toronto premiere, insiders said, including the use of positive critic’s comments in the film’s current and final trailer. There are no plans to call out the film’s detractors as the studio did in late ads for “Cats,” including a spot that said there are “people who dislike ‘Cats’ and people who are wrong.”
A veteran movie marketing executive who asked not to be named said: “In my 16 years (at one major studio) we never changed a campaign because we were getting bad reviews.” However, he added that audience data from test screenings of the film or its trailers can often cause a studio to rethink its launch campaign. “It’s not, ‘These reviews are horrible, we’re going to do something about it’ — it’s the playability of the movie, if people just aren’t responding to it,” he said. “We absolutely do more if we can’t move the needle on a movie being a wanna-see.” TV spots in the final three weeks before opening date can be crucial to change the angle on a campaign, this executive said.
Not everyone feels that the negative reviews will depress box office — especially since the target audience for the film is youthful one that’s often less swayed by critics.
“The bad news of course is that critics have been less than kind, to put it mildly…but teens and young adults care less about critics and more about what their friends say,” Gene Del Vecchio, adjunct professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business, told TheWrap. But he added that though the first trailer for “Dear Evan Hansen” has racked up 21 million views on YouTube alone, Universal might consider focusing more on the romance and comic scenes of the film rather than its darker side of suicide, anxiety and regret.
“What they’re obviously trying to do is have appeal to a younger audience. It’s a teen drama, it’s definitely that, and teens and younger audiences have been really driving the box office,” Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “You have Julianne Moore in the movie, you have Amy Adams, you have a mix of younger and older cast members. It is a musical, but it is a teen drama, and they’re really trying to operate on many different levels.”
Still, the online reaction to early screenings of the film may put a damper even on review-proof young audiences. Online commenters have called out the movie’s “truly vile characters,” said it was “deeply offensive” or sent a “disturbing message,” and claimed it “exploits” a teen’s suicide for an uplifting musical. One critic’s one-star review with RogerEbert.com even labeled it a “total misfire.” “It’s an emotionally manipulative, overlong dirge composed of cloying songs, lackluster vocal performances, and even worse writing,” Robert Daniels wrote for RogerEbert.com.
And Platt, who began playing the role in workshops when he was still a teenager, has faced special criticism for his attempts to pass as a high schooler on screen. While it’s hardly unusual for twentysomethings to play teens (the film’s other young co-stars are also in their 20s, and Jordan Fisher, who currently plays Hansen on Broadway, is also 27), many critics said that Platt lands in the “uncanny valley” or looks like an “interloper oddity from some other-world.”
In a post-screening Q&A with director Stephen Chbosky and the cast moderated by Katie Couric earlier this month, Ben Platt defended how the film and the show has moved people for the better. “I saw firsthand how it changes people’s lives, starts conversations. Everyone is looking for something to hate right now. We’re bored and outraged and tired and frustrated. I get it. We’re going through a horrible time,” Platt said. “People who want to love it will love it and people who want to hate it will hate it…And everyone hates musicals.”
With all the pedigree behind it, the studio continues to host guild screenings on behalf of an awards push. And TheWrap’s Steve Pond previously wrote (in his positive review) that the film has a good chance for nominations for one of its two original songs, notably one co-written and performed by Amandla Stenberg.
And the production team and cast has taken the opportunity to echo one of the musical’s central themes, reminding fans “you are not alone.” “There are millions of kids struggling, going through so much. We made it for them. Millions of kids will be reached by this,” Chbosky told Couric. “But haters gonna hate.”
Beatrice Verhoeven and Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.