Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was essentially a film-length commercial for a new line of candy from Quaker Oats.
1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a much-loved film musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It tells the story of a young, good-hearted, but very poor, boy named Charlie who’s given the chance (by discovering one of five “Golden Tickets” in a chocolate Wonka Bar) to take a tour of the famous candy factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka. As it turns out, Wonka is using this tour as a way to determine whether any of the five children have the moral fiber to be his successor when he retires. He ends up choosing Charlie.
While the film wasn’t a significant hit when it was released, it has since become a major success on video, DVD and re-airings on television. The film’s songs, in particular, are memorable, from “The Candy Man Can” (which was a No. 1 hit for Sammy Davis Jr.) to “Oompa Loompa” to “Pure Imagination.” However, amazingly enough, when the film was produced, it was as part of a promotional tie-in for a new candy company! Read on for the strange tale!
This story really begins with the near-collapse of the U.S. film industry in the late 1960s/early 1970s. A series of major flops and a changing economy saw weekly movie attendance in the United States drop from 44 million in 1963 to less than 20 million at the end of the decade to a low of just 14 million in 1971. It was a staggering drop-off that led to financial panic for all the major studios, as a lot of these companies were now cash-poor. Never was this more obvious than when Warner Bros. was purchased in 1967 by the little-known production company Seven Arts. The newly formed Warner Bros.-Seven Arts was then purchased in 1967 by Kinney National Company, a parking lot company that had only recently bought DC Comics (you can read more about it in this old Comic Book Legends Revealed). So for really the first time in the history of the U.S. film industry, the system was wide open for new companies to become involved in making movies.
Tax breaks and tax shelters introduced during the Nixon Administration also made film investment seem like a logical avenue for companies that might not otherwise do so. In addition, studios became more interested in distribution contracts in which an outside investor would pay for the actual film and the studio would distribute it and then split the income with the original investor. You see, while outside investors could fund a film, the major studios were still the only game in terms of actually getting a movie distributed to theaters. So that was a notable way studios saved some money in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, the studios had reclaimed their position as king of the mountain, but for a period in the early 1970s things seemed really up for grabs. Enter the Quaker Oats Company and the 10-year-old daughter of director Mel Stuart.
Stuart was the vice president of The Wolpert Organization, a television and film production company run by David Wolpert. Stuart directed a number of documentaries for the company, and as the 1960s ended, he had finally gotten the opportunity to direct his first theatrical release If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (an early starring role for Ian McShane). Now he was looking for his next project, and he found it in a book his daughter had read a number of times, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She told him he should make it into a movie and he agreed. He approached Wolpert, who agreed it was a good idea for a film. Interestingly enough, however, Wolpert had only recently produced a television special sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company. Discussions between Wolpert and Ken Mason, the advertising executive who handled the Quaker Oats account, led to Wolpert learning that Quaker Oats was interested in a project that could help promote a new chocolate candy bar it was developing for its Breaker Confections subsidiary. Wolpert quickly brought this (rather unconventional) idea to them. Quaker Oats would completely fund this project and then get a major studio to distribute it (because Quaker would be paying for the film, it would be able to negotiate a favorable distribution deal). Then the company would launch a candy bar to coincide with the film. Quaker would make its own chocolate Wonka Bar and, thus, would make money from the ticket sales to the film while also having one of the great opportunities for advertising a product. That’s why the film’s name was changed to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as Willy Wonka was what Quaker wanted to advertise.
So Quaker Oats financed the film, Wolpert produced it and Stuart directed it. (Wolpert bought the film rights from Roald Dahl for $200,000 and the agreement that Dahl would write the screenplay. Eventually, screenwriter David Seltzer would do an uncredited script rewrite.) It was not a major hit as a film, but it did, in fact, launch a popular candy company. Quaker Oats used the Willy Wonka Candy Company name for its new line of candy products (with Breaker Confections eventually becoming officially known as Willy Wonky Candy Company). Amazingly enough, Quaker Oats ended up not actually making a Wonka Bar! It just couldn’t get the recipe right. When the film and the new line of candy launched in 1971 and early 1972, respectively, the only products the company made were Super Skrunch bars and Peanut Butter Oompas. It was not until 1975 that the Willy Wonka Candy Company actually made Wonka Bars. They were short-lived.
However, the candy company as a whole turned out to be a lasting success, and other products from the film (most notably the Everlasting Gobstopper) eventually were used. Quaker sold the candy company to Nestle in 1988. By then, Quaker had also sold the film rights to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Warner Bros. So while the film was not a huge success for Quaker, the cross-promotion sure worked out!
The legend is …
Thanks to Jason Liebig of CollectingCandy.com for the candy wrapper images.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!