Broadway’s ‘Lion King,’ ‘School of Rock’ Turn to Virtual Reality to Boost Ticket Sales

Broadway's 'Lion King,' 'School of Rock'
Paul Lachine for Variety

Old-fashioned Broadway is embracing newfangled virtual reality, in the hopes that the fashionable 3D-imaging technique will add up to real-life ticket sales.

Last week, “The Lion King” released VR footage of its entire opening number, “Circle of Life,” accessible on VR headsets, mobile devices and desktops. It came about a month after musical “School of Rock” put out a 360 video of song “You’re in the Band,” filmed in a New York City classroom.

Earlier this year, Cirque du Soleil created a 10-minute VR film based on its current touring show, “Kurios.”

At first blush, the age-old art of theater makes for a counterintuitive match with cutting-edge virtual reality. But the you-are-there surround of VR comes closer to the immediacy of theater than it does to any two-dimensional medium, and besides, Broadway’s always on the lookout for relatively low-cost ways to turn heads more effectively than your average YouTube clip or TV ad.

Thanks to a recent wave of accessible consumer tech, virtual reality is downright buzzy right now.

“Dollar for dollar, I’d rather be doing something like this,” said Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer and producer of “School of Rock,” currently in previews ahead of a Dec. 6 opening.

According to Lloyd Webber, the “School of Rock” VR video cost $300,000 to produce — about the same as he would pay for a standard video shoot, he said. Disney declined to give an exact cost for its own project, but Disney Theatrical’s senior VP of marketing, Andrew Flatt, said the “Circle of Life” spot cost about a third of what the company paid for its most recent TV advertisement, and just 20% of what the entertainment giant shelled out for a 2012 pop-up exhibition in Manhattan spotlighting the show’s design elements and other memorabilia.

“We figured there was an opportunity for our video to hit just as the VR zeitgeist was coming down the pike,” said Flatt, who positioned the segment as part of Disney’s ongoing campaign to keep the 18-year-old megahit at the top of consumers’ minds in a competitive Broadway landscape.

Flatt admitted to some hesitation in making publicly available, free of charge, a high-quality recording of the show-stopping opening number: That kind of spectacle is, after all, a major enticement for ticket buyers to pony up for the full live experience.

But these days, consumers expect glimpses behind the curtain, and the VR segment, which includes sequences shot from the wings, also satisfies a bit of the demand for the kind of hands-on experiences (such as backstage tours) that fans crave.

The publicity payoff could be significant. “School of Rock” got a major jolt of pre-opening awareness from its own VR release, which racked up more than 1 million views in less than three days. The total view count on YouTube and Facebook is now close to 2 million.

Of course, the marketing value of such segments is greatly bolstered by the public’s general curiosity about VR itself. That novelty factor will surely wear off as the tech becomes more commonplace, and more content is generated.

In the meantime, however, stage producers and creatives can take advantage of the buzz — and, while they’re at it, make some early forays into what could become a new genre of screen entertainment.

“This is the beginning of a new medium,” said Michel Laprise, the “Kurios” director who also created its VR offshoot. “You’re discovering the language of it while you’re making these films.”

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