Defying old axiom, legit gets boost from films

The movies aren’t killing Broadway anymore.

Old wisdom along the Rialto had it that as soon as Hollywood made a movie adaptation of an up-and-running Broadway show, audiences — lured away by the national presence and the cheap ticket price of a movie — dried up and the show shuttered.

Everyone’s favorite example: “Annie,” which ended its nearly six-year run in early 1983, just a few months after the release of John Huston’s 1982 film adaptation. Earlier, the TV broadcast of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Broadway transfer of “Much Ado About Nothing” on Feb. 2, 1973, prompted the show to close nine days later.

But then came “Chicago.” The 2002 adaptation of the Kander and Ebb tuner not only took home a slew of Academy Awards, it also boosted the sagging sales of the 1996 revival.

Since then, movie versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” have conferred similar benefits on the shows that spawned them, despite the fact that neither film was a hit with auds or critics.

“The expectations have completely reversed,” says Margo Lion, producer of the Broadway version of “Hairspray” that has inspired an upcoming film. “You used to fight very hard not to have any other representation of your show in any other media. But now, I’m hoping the ‘Hairspray’ movie will redouble the intensity of the audience’s passion for the show.”

She has good reason for optimism.

In the case of “Chicago,” the show had “come off its peak all over the world,” says Barry Weissler, producer of the revival. “The movie gave us a tremendous rebirth” — pumping sales on Broadway and spurring a new national tour that’s still making the rounds.

Warner’s “Phantom” pic came out in late 2004, and Alan Wasser, general manager of the Broadway incarnation, says the movie’s release was a major factor in the show’s rejuvenated B.O.

“From around September 2004 right through to now, our numbers are much stronger,” Wasser says. The musical took in almost $39 million in 2005, making it the highest-grossing calendar year in the show’s history.

Sony released “Rent” in November, but the show’s Broadway B.O. picked up before that. “We saw a pretty hefty bump in the summer, when the trailer started playing,” says “Rent” producer Jeffrey Seller. “The movie has already unlocked audiences for us, and it will continue to do so as it continues to live and breathe on DVD, on cable, on TV.”

Seller says the advance for “Rent” is 2½ times what it was a year ago. For the week ending Jan. 22 (traditionally part of the yearly winter slump in Broadway biz), “Rent” grossed a healthy $508,849. For the same sesh in 2004, the show earned just $273,734.

Before anyone calls it a trend, though, there’s an exception: U’s “The Producers,” which went wide in December.

“I have not seen a discernible effect in New York business at all,” says Richard Frankel, producer and G.M. of “The Producers” on Broadway. “I don’t know why. But I was concerned about the movie, so I’m wholly disappointed that it had no effect.”

Producers agree that when a movie boosts a show, it does so thanks to the brand extension of the Hollywood marketing machine. In the case of “Phantom” and “Rent,” it helped that the films’ logos matched the shows’.

“A film advertising budget is massively more than a show would spend in a year, and it occurs in a very short window of time,” Wasser notes. “The ‘Phantom’ film had one of the biggest billboards in Times Square, and it served equally as an advertisement for us.”

The “Rent” trailer, a simple sequence of the movie’s cast singing “Seasons of Love” on a bare stage, also served as a national plug for the show. “As an advertising opportunity, that exceeded anything we’d ever been able to do in our nine years,” Seller says.

Why, then, didn’t “The Producers” movie bump up biz for the show? There are many theories — because “The Producers” is a newer show with less to gain; because “Phantom” and “Rent” both boast a core group of rabid repeat-viewers; because “The Producers” is more of a star vehicle; or because the show is a little too inside-showbiz to awaken national interest.

But there are no concrete answers. And it is also unclear just what’s changed — in the business model, in the zeitgeist — to switch the old wisdom about movie musicals to the new.

“Now a movie just reinforces the brand identity of the show, and the public is more brand-conscious than it used to be,” “Hairspray’s” Lion speculates.

“I suspect a movie’s publicity also sends a message that this show is so good, they made a movie of it,” says vet producer Emanuel Azenberg (“The Odd Couple”). “Or maybe they were just wrong in the old days.”

Maybe so. The flop 1985 movie version of “A Chorus Line,” for instance, didn’t seem to affect the Broadway version either way; it ran for another five years.

And the June 1978 film of “Grease” actually helped the Broadway show for a bit. “In our seventh year, we shot back up almost to capacity,” says Kenneth Waissman, who produced the show. “That added the momentum for the next couple of years.” (“Grease” closed in April 1980.)

Unlike most producers of the day, Waissman managed to use the movie to uplift the show.

He was savvy enough, in striking the movie deal with Par, to get the studio to advertise nationally for the Broadway production. Plus, in cinemas within 100 miles of Gotham, a trailer for the show was attached to the movie.

For “Chicago,” Weissler sent an elaborate press kit, detailing the history of the tuner and his production of it, to every critic who reviewed the film. It worked: “They attached us to every single movie review.”

And it could be argued, as Seller does, that regardless of the quality of the movie or its effect on a concurrent Broadway run, “movie musicals help musicals,” potentially creating a global awareness of a property that powers regional productions, tours, and, say, Broadway revivals — as affection for the “Grease” pic no doubt helped fuel the 1994 revival, produced by Weissler, that ran for almost four years.

Still, legiters have yet to hit on a firm equation for determining how a movie version will affect a musical, in part because up until “Chicago,” the tuner was a dying breed in Hollywood.

“This is a trend that’s still emerging,” Wasser says. “No one really knows anything about it yet.”

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