Why Are Movie Stars Struggling to Sell Broadway Tickets?

stars on Broadway
Marc Brenner

In the days leading up to Forest Whitaker’s Broadway debut in “Hughie,” people were nervous. Gossip columns picked up on rumors that Whitaker couldn’t remember his lines during preview performances. Word on the street was that the production had collected only the most piddling of advanced sales.

Reviews, it turned out, were largely admiring of Whitaker’s performance — but the sales question remains in serious doubt. During its preview period, the production’s weekly box office dipped below $300,000, and never managed to make 50% of its weekly gross potential. Which raises the question: What does a distinguished, Oscar-winning actor making his Broadway debut have to do to sell a ticket?

For a while there, movie stars looked like Broadway gifts from the Hollywood gods. Even celebrities who got scathing reviews could ensure major ticket sales: Sean Combs, the former P. Diddy, got a big thumbs-down for his performance in the 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of that season’s biggest hits. Critics mostly panned Julia Roberts for her tentative work in the 2006 production of “Three Days of Rain,” but sales were still stratospheric.

These days, star power isn’t what it used to be. Paul Rudd in “Grace” (2012), Scarlett Johansson in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (2013), Orlando Bloom in “Romeo and Juliet” (2013), Daniel Radcliffe in “The Cripple of Inishmaan” (2014), Bruce Willis in “Misery” (2015) — all of them closed in the red.

Chalk it up to a waning of star power in general, at a time when not even George Clooney or Sandra Bullock can guarantee a hit at the movies. And that’s just one of a number of factors at play on Broadway, where the presence of a movie star might bring a box office boost or, just as often, a collective shrug from playgoers now faced with a growing list of big names trying their hands at the stage.

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Take a step back, and it’s clear that the most spectacularly profitable instances of star casting — Larry David’s box-office busting run in his comedy “Fish in the Dark,” for instance — are in works that feel on-brand with an actor’s screen work. So on one hand, you’ve got a screen actor wanting to stretch and try something new, and on the other you’ve got playgoers who’ll only turn out in droves for the kind of work they already know they want to see their favorite actor in.

It’s a tension most clearly illustrated in the Broadway track record of Radcliffe, who tends to choose Broadway projects as challenging as the edgy indie film work he’s favored in his post-Harry Potter years.

Even though he was the star of a tentpole film franchise with zillions of fans, his Broadway debut in a 2008 revival of “Equus” didn’t click — probably because his groupies weren’t interested in seeing Radcliffe in a dark, adult drama about a naked kid who blinds horses. Not even his well-reviewed performance in the lauded 2014 revival of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” made money. They both closed in the red.

Radcliffe’s most successful Broadway outing was his big-money run in the 2011 revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a family-friendly, classic title that meshed well with the fans who knew him from the Potterverse.

That kind of canny casting can overcome any brickbats the critics might throw at a show — as was the case with David’s “Fish in the Dark,” which got mixed reviews in 2015 but sold like hotcakes on the strength of David’s fans and a play that fell right in line with the cringe-comedy fans love in his HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” For the whole time David appeared in the production, “Fish in the Dark” sold more than $1 million a week, a tally far more common for large-scale, mass-appeal musicals than plays — adding up to almost $21 million over David’s 18-week run.

Earlier that season, Bradley Cooper took “The Elephant Man” to Broadway at the precise moment when his Hollywood fame hit critical mass, and a concurrent Academy Award nomination confirmed him as an actor’s actor who could handle a challenge. That timing helped make “Elephant Man,” in which he made his 2014 Broadway debut as the title character, one of that year’s top-selling plays, racking up almost $15 million in less than 16 weeks.

Only a very elite group of big-name actors — Roberts, Hugh Jackman (“A Steady Rain,” “The River”), Denzel Washington (“Fences,” “A Raisin in the Sun”), Tom Hanks (“Lucky Guy”) — seem able to sell tickets solely by putting their names on the marquee. But even membership in that elite group isn’t permanent. The cautionary tale: Al Pacino’s recent experience with “China Doll.”

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Pacino seemed like one of those stars who could make a Broadway hit of reading the phone book, as evidenced in boffo runs of “The Merchant of Venice” (2010) and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (2012). For the first several weeks of “China Doll” this fall, the David Mamet play posted huge sales.

But then something funny happened: The negative buzz on both the play and on Pacino’s performance became so deafening that, after those initial weeks powered by explosive advance sales, box office slumped. The actor’s longstanding appeal got the production to recoupment — but in order for Pacino to get his Broadway groove back, he’ll need to pick his next project very carefully.

He’ll need something as clearly on-brand as two upcoming star-driven offerings seem to be. “Blackbird,” the drama (opening March 10) starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, looks promising, since Daniels contributed to the star power that helped make 2009 play “God of Carnage” a hit, and the intense, intimate story of “Blackbird” fits right in alongside the edgy independent films in which Williams has given acclaimed performances on the big screen.

Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o is making her Broadway debut at a peak in her movie career. The March 6 opening of “Eclipsed” comes hot on the heels of her role in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and two years after her Oscar for “12 Years a Slave.”

Early sales numbers for both shows have been solid, particularly for titles that will be unfamiliar to anyone but the most avid theater fans, and over weeks when much of Broadway was suffering a winter lull. But still, neither show is posting the kind of numbers right out of that gate that would guarantee a profit. That’s a sign of a challenging, competitive market, especially since Williams, Nyong’o and Daniels — Whitaker too — are exactly the kind of prestige names that the older, affluent demographic of playgoers would presumably want to see on stage.

Just as the clique of star actors who can reliably open a film is diminishing, so is the pool of celebrities who can turn the stage door into a rock concert with screaming groupies lined up on 45th Street. In the world of Instagram and Twitter, why pay $120 for a theater ticket when you can stalk a star online for free?

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  1. jonjohnoc says:

    Most of the stars listed are not STARS but stars. Many like Rudd are only stars because of a mass audience film and that will never traslate to Broadway gold. Forrest Whittaker is a true talent but not a STAR. And Bruce Willis is a fading star (although I would have loved to seen Misery)
    With ticket prices continually increasing (some show premium seats are over $500), producers are going to have to do their homework to fill up their theatres based solely on the cast name.

  2. ECard says:

    Come on, Variety. Bradley Cooper made his Broadway debut opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain, not Elephant Man.

  3. Mark Brack says:

    Maybe it is TIME movie stars et all get OFF of Social Media – and go back to being a mystery to the ticket buying public? They – the stars – need to adopt that old studio system policy and stay out of the limelight except when they are out there in a play, TV show or a motion picture. Its the old economic saw – to stay in high demand LIMIT your availability – aka supply and demand……………….

  4. BillUSA says:

    I’m sure, as we stage fanciers die off as the years go by, that it’s a generational falloff effect. Plus perhaps people are tiring of celebrities weighing in on political issues or otherwise acting boorishly when not doing their overly-compensated jobs.

  5. cadavra says:

    Well, in the case of HUGHIE, it sounds excellent, but I sure as hell am not going to pay Broadway prices for a one-act that’s barely an hour long. Ditto the revival of OLD TIMES last fall. Add in the quick fold of LOVE LETTERS–two actors in street clothes sitting at a table reading their scripts–and it’s clear that it isn’t the stars so much as what we’re getting for our hard-earned money.

  6. TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Because this generation of movie stars all look like skanks and man boys. Emos and waifs like this who lack screen charisma in film can’t be expected to have the stage presence to lure fans to Broadway.

  7. Fifiwereking says:

    off the top of my head, jackman, mirren, david hyde pierce, mark rylance and, ironically, daniel radcliffe, are pretty much the only stars who don’t have to “sell” me a ticket; most of the time the biggest influences on where to spend my theatre dollars are the subject matter and the reviews, not the cast…unless the celeb is a flavor-of-the-month, like bradley cooper, tourists are more interested in musicals, especially the pop catalog musicals like mama mia, jersey boys, rock of ages, et al, whereas regular theatregoers want great actors in great plays, not “celebrities”…. currently, only blackbird and Richard II look sufficiently tempting, although more are on the way (daniel craig and david oyelowe in Othello?? Yes, please!)

  8. Laurie Goldstein MD says:

    I am a native New Yorker, and have been a theater-goer for a long time. However, I now pick my shows very carefully, because the prices have become outrageous. I would amend the last line of this article to read “Why pay $120 (or much more) for less than 2 hours of often mediocre theater. Unless a play gets great reviews by critics or more-importantly, by word of mouth, then I won’t go, regardless of the celebrity on the stage. Also, movie stars are often out of their element on the stage. But I have to recommend Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in “The Cripple of Inishmaan”. That was an exception to the rule.

  9. Fifiwereking says:

    because he’s Cumberbatch… I’m sure it would be the same in new york if we’re ever lucky enough to have him…

  10. Jack Monte says:

    This article is far longer than need be. Why? Because there are no movie stars anymore. Magazines like People and OK have convinced everyone they’re “just like us” out walking with their 2 feet and buying things. Wow! So now people spend money on films or shows that look interesting, not specific actors as much as in years past. Look at all of the non acting going on in Star Wars and Jurassic Park 4.

  11. Helen says:

    Cumberbatch has no problem selling out plays in London

  12. Malcolm says:

    “[P]laygoers [are] now faced with a growing list of big names trying their hands at the stage..” is surely a major factor, as is the ‘on brand’ reasoning, but surely as important as ‘on brand’ (c.f. the Pacino example) is KNOWN WORKS. People may take a risk on a known name in an unknown film for $10, but an unknown play for 2-20 times that cost is a far bigger (financial) gamble to take.

    Which surely leads to the #1 factor (over-shadowing the potential differences between a theater and cinema audience; a stage and screen actor – c.f. rumors about knowing lines – and a lack of enthusiasm for stunt casting): it’s just too expensive to go to the theater for most people*!

    *Unless there’s VERY good reason(s).

  13. mmlalea2 says:

    Unfortunately, with current ticket prices, most tourists in NY will opt to see a funny, family-friendly Broadway musical over a drama. The only time I can get anyone to drama is if they’ve already seen a musical and can afford a second show during the same trip.
    PS. Daniel Radcliffe was awesome in the limited engagement “Cripple of Inishmann.” It was a full theater when I attended the show so it surprised me to read that it ended in the red.

  14. apartamente says:

    they have to sell tikets .. that matters

  15. Bluestocking says:

    You forget Mark Rylance’s current sold-out performance in an obscure prose-poem play, NICE FISH, at St Ann’s Warehouse. Granted, he’s a classical stage actor, but the most bankable bets of all are the stars who comfortably cross genres: Helen Mirren, for example, or countless other British greats.

    • Fifiwereking says:

      nice fish isn’t on broadway, and mark rylance isn’t a “movie star”…. I’d bet that until Sunday night, 95% of American moviegoers didn’t know his name, and that by Monday night 80% of them had forgotten it, remembering him only as “the guy who robbed stallone”… I, on the other hand, would be happy to spend an evening watching rylance read the yellow pages….

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