H'w'd studios bullish on legit, but still glitz prevail over wit?
The A-train isn’t the 405, and the Algonquin isn’t the Ivy. But Broadway is starting to look a lot like Hollywood.It’s not just that so many marquees bear the titles of movies-turned-musicals. It’s that studios are now producing stage shows at an unprecedented rate. For a decade, the Mouse was the only studio with a division devoted to legit entertainment. Now DreamWorks, MGM, New Line, Universal and Warner Bros. are knocking at the stage door. Within the next five years, the Hollywood majors could account for half of Broadway’s musical offerings. With hit pics like “Chicago” and upcoming film versions of “Rent,” “The Producers” and “Dreamgirls,” Hollywood’s interest shouldn’t be surprising. But in showbiz, things aren’t always as they seem. Studios are not enamored of theater because they want to secure film rights. And it’s not because they’re trying to develop scripts in front of an audience. And they’re not expecting a Broadway windfall: A boffo week at a Broadway venue ($1 million) would be an embarrassment by Hollywood B.O. standards. No, the studios are stage-struck for the same reason they are pushing for greater control of ancillary markets around the globe: They recognize that theatrical box office is no longer their primary engine of growth. For the majors, Broadway reps opportunities similar to DVDs, remakes, sequels and vidgames: Legit can extend a studio’s brand and exploit its library. Darcie Denkert, prexy of MGM on Stage, which licenses studio properties to theater, says the studio views legit as an opportunity for “a halo effect” — freshening the library and stirring interest in expansion. Always a factor in Hollywood decisions: The search for esteem. “A Broadway show is a prestige piece, a chance to have your name on a quality project,” says Mark Kaufman, exec VP of production and theater at New Line. Not surprisingly, a key motive is cash. Though Broadway grosses are modest by Hollywood standards, “It’s only partly about making money in New York,” says David Schrader, managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical Prods. “The benefit really comes over the long haul, if a show can do a tour that makes money nationally and internationally.” Schrader should know. “The Lion King” has grossed $410 million on Broadway since its 1997 bow, which is only a fraction of its global grosses. The show is headed into the $1 billion-plus stratosphere occupied by phenoms like “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” — serious money, even by Hollywood standards. “Lion King” also points up an added Hollywood motive: The copycat syndrome. If someone else is doing it, we want to do it, too. Disney led the way for the current spate of studios on Broadway. Legit stalwarts shook their collective heads when the Mouse mounted “Beauty and the Beast” in 1994. But three years later, Julie Taymor, a New York talent with artsy downtown cred, gave artistic legitimacy to the phenomenon with “Lion King.” Studios, of course, have always dabbled on the Rialto. In the 1930s, for instance, Warner Bros. bankrolled the Biltmore Theater as a showcase for George Abbott. In more recent times, Paramount produced a 1978 play, “Platinum,” which rehearsed on the Par lot before heading east for Gotham (where it closed after a month). It’s ironic that the increasing interaction between Broadway and Hollywood comes at a time when the gulf has never been bigger. In the past, studios routinely adapted stage shows into films, which is now a rarity (see separate story). And nearly every movie star, director and writer in the old days was stage-trained; now, Hollywood is teeming with people who’ve had no experience (and little interest) in the theater. And how does the insular Broadway community feel about its ubiquitous new bedfellows? They’re wary of Hollywood intrusion, but with the costs of putting on a show skyrocketing, conglom support is becoming a necessity. “I think the days when you can say ‘I’ll never work with a corporation,’ are over,” says Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters & Producers. Producer Emanuel Azenberg, whose next project is the revival of “The Odd Couple” starring Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, argues that blockbuster musicals suffer from the need to please crowds. “If you have to recoup a $15 million budget, you have to have a common denominator in the material,” he says. “It diminishes the aesthetic.” Even Azenberg admits that in a world of escalating budgets, “It’s always good to have people with an interest in producing on Broadway, and the resources to do it.” “I think it’s very positive that that much capital is coming in. We need it,” said Roger Berlind, the vet legit producer behind “Doubt” and the recently closed revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “It’s tough competition, but it’s healthy.” “From the point of view of visibility, the live shows are great for Disney,” says Thomas Schumacher, prexy of Disney Theatrical. Schumacher says that in Australia, the stage shows are even bigger than the movies in terms of audience awareness. For years, Disney was the only studio that acted as a hands-on legit producer, developing a project from creative team through to performance. Now Warner has joined the fray as sole producer of “Lestat.” Also in development for Warner: A dance version of “Casablanca” choreographed by John Clifford. As with its smash “Hairspray,” New Line is co-producing “Wedding Singer” with Broadway vet Margo Lion. But after its debut learning experience, the studio is participating more fully in the producing chores. “This one, it’s more of a partnership,” Kaufman says. “In a perfect world, we’d have a new show each season.” MGM on Stage licenses rather than produces, but for some projects, it oversees the initial stages of development before recruiting Broadway producers. (Studio was instrumental in teaming composer David Yazbek and book writer Jeffrey Lane for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”) “MGM’s business plan is built around taking a very small financial risk,” says Denkert. “But no matter how involved we are in development, we always retain approval over creative elements.” Disney has stayed on Gotham’s good side in part by continuing to pluck respected key creatives from far afield, enlisting De La Guarda co-creator Pichon Baldinu to oversee the vine-swinging aerial work for “Tarzan,” and attaching opera director Francesca Zambello to “The Little Mermaid.” Also winning over potential skeptics is the fact that Hollywood seems to be invading New York with welcome deference. “They’re always very respectful,” Lion says of her colleagues at New Line. “They give me their notes, but they don’t tell me how to do my job.” Marc Platt, the producer of “Wicked” and a former exec at Universal, brought aboard David Stone in part because of Stone’s experience producing for the stage. “I needed someone who understood the day-to-day nuts and bolts of the business,” Platt says. So for now, worries that Broadway is surrendering to the corporatized creative culture of Hollywood may be premature. And studio execs will tell you that there are advantages to getting all your money from one place. “It’s absolutely true that I don’t have to go out and raise money the way independent Broadway producers do,” Schumacher says. Gregg Maday, exec VP of Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, agrees. “Rather than 40 investors who may want a vote in developing your show, there’s only one source for our money. It’s liberating.” On the other hand, Schumacher says, “I have to be vastly more vigilant about my money, because the SEC controls it. It comes from shareholders.” And, Platt adds, creatives don’t have it quite as comfy as they do in traditional legit models, since they’re developing ideas owned by a conglom. “When a studio develops a property as work for hire, everyone is expendable.”
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more