“The most successful entertainment venture of all time” would seem a rather bold claim to make, a parlor game waiting to happen. But those words are exactly what the press kit for “The Phantom of the Opera” uses to describe the tuner.
The claim is based on the fact that “Phantom” has grossed more than $3.2 billion at the box office worldwide, according to its producers. That includes every production from London to Tokyo, but does not include outside revenue from CDs, merchandise or the 2004 film version.
Of that sum, nearly $1.9 billion has come from U.S. productions. Worldwide, the producers say, 80 million people have attended 65,000 perfs in 119 cities in 24 countries.
Alan Wasser, the show’s general manager for all U.S. productions, seems pretty confident that even accounting for inflation, “Phantom” is the top-grossing theatrical show of all time. It is, after all, the longest-running Broadway show in history, and no shows from the past can compete with Cameron Mackintosh’s touring juggernaut.
Worldwide, “Les Miserables” has grossed $1.8 billion, while “Cats” has taken in more than $2 billion. A Disney Theatricals rep says “The Lion King” has made $2.1 billion and “Beauty and the Beast” has taken in $1.3 billion.
When it comes to the Broadway classic “Oklahoma!,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization is mum on dollars. More than five decades of amateur and stock, however, make it a very deep gold mine. But sheer number of perfs on Broadway make it a midget compared with “Phantom,” which will have clocked in 7,486 on Jan. 9. The original 1943 production of “Oklahoma!” did 2,212 and its three Broadway revivals tallied a collective 781. The numbers for “My Fair Lady” aren’t much different: 2,717 for its original 1956 staging and a collective 662 for three Gotham revivals.
Drew Cohen, general manager of Music Theater Intl., which licenses stock and amateur productions of musicals such as “Guys and Dolls” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” speculates that even if you were to add up grosses from all amateur productions, and account for inflation to boot, “No other show would even come close to ‘Phantom.’ ” So much for legit.
Comparisons with other media are even trickier. Let’s start with the most obvious competition. Not accounting for inflation, “Titanic” is the top-grossing movie of all time, with a worldwide take of $1.834 billion. That doesn’t come close to “The Phantom of the Opera.” But “Titanic” is also the second-highest-grossing title in home entertainment, earning around $1.2 billion worldwide from DVD and video sales and rentals. Then add about $55 million — which is what NBC and HBO jointly paid for the TV rights. That comes to $3.089 billion — close enough to be within the margin of error.
The top-grossing film in home media, “The Lion King,” took in about $1.5 billion worldwide. But in theaters it earned only $768 million, bringing its total to $2.268 billion.
It could be argued that a movie on DVD is a different “entertainment venture” from a movie in a theater. But it also could be argued that a Broadway show and its road version have an equivalent relationship, and the “Phantom” producers, in making their claim, combine the London and Broadway productions with all the others.
If inflation is accounted for, “Gone With the Wind” is the top-grossing movie domestically of all time. Its $199 million domestic take is equivalent to $1.293 billion today.
What about worldwide? The 1939 pic’s unadjusted worldwide gross is $400 million, about double the unadjusted domestic. If we double the adjusted domestic, that’s an estimated $2.6 billion worldwide in 2005 dollars. DVD/video and TV sales would have to be pretty high to reach $3.2 billion — and note that almost all of “Phantom’s” earnings were not in today’s dollars. Warner Home Entertainment, which controls “GWTW,” would not reveal sales figures. Video Business/ DVD Exclusive reported in 2004 that the title had sold 8.5 million copies.
Let’s look at TV shows. “Seinfeld” is tops in syndication sales, earning about $1.9 billion. You’d have to add that to $200 million-plus in DVD sales so far, not to mention the license fees NBC paid to production company Castle Rock to air the show, which reportedly reached as high as $5.5 million per episode during the final season.
But including TV shows is cheating. At 22 minutes an episode, “Seinfeld” has about 66 hours of content — vs. 2¼ (not including intermission) for “Phantom.”
Further out on the money tree is music. According to the Recording Industry Assn. of America’s Web site, the top-selling album of all time is “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975,” with 28 million albums sold through June. Even if you wrongly assume all of those copies retailed for $13.99, it wouldn’t reach even half a billion dollars.
In game land, the Web site for the Guinness Book of World Records lists “Super Mario Bros.” as the top-selling videogame of all time, at 40.2 million copies. Including that title also would be cheating a bit, since it came with the Nintendo system. But even a reasonable price for the game wouldn’t top “Phantom.”
Since Broadway theater has been dubbed “the fabulous invalid,” it’s intriguing to see how well legit stacks up against movies. Around the time the Broadway version of “Phantom” passes “Cats” in the legit record books, its earnings also will pass the domestic gross of “Titanic” ($601 million). “The Lion King” film earned $313 million domestically; its Broadway version has done more than $400 million.