Everything looks to be going well for “Memphis.” The bluesy tuner, which has played for nearly 700 performances, has been filmed for theatrical release and is readying a big national tour this fall.
There’s only one thing missing: investors getting paid back.
Similarly, “Rock of Ages” has paid homage to the 1980s nearly 800 times — in two different Broadway theaters — and has yet to fully refill its investors’ coffers.
Conventional wisdom has it that flops close and long runners make money, but that’s no longer the case.
“Clearly, there are certain shows that do well enough to establish themselves and find an audience but do not to do well enough to clean up and pay back investors as quickly as used to be the case,” says Stuart Oken, the producer of “The Addams Family.”
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Does the lack of a quick Broadway recoupment matter? Some say the whole “hit” and “miss” dichotomy has now become much more complex.
“In film your first theatrical release can be kind of a loss-leader,” says “Quartet” producer Gigi Pritzker, who has, as the topper of Odd Lot Entertainment, not only produced many films, but also has “Drive” at the Cannes festival. “For us, Broadway was very much about getting that stamp of approval that allowed us to open bigger in London and gets us more star power for our tour.”
Pritzker says “Quartet,” where costs are under control, was already close to profitability.
“It depends on your business plan,” says Oken, whose “Addams” is about two-thirds of the way toward recoupment. “In our case, we’re also trying to establish ourselves in the lexicon for years to come.”
Oken notes that Broadway has increasingly become a seasonal business with high peaks and deep valleys. “Addams” did $1.2 million in the week over Easter, dipped to less than half of that thereafter, and expects to come back strong this summer when Brooke Shields joins its cast and seasonal visitors fill Times Square.
“Tourism is a huge factor,” Oken says.
At this time of year, such shows as “Quartet” and “Addams” also have to cope with the buzz surrounding new musicals, which front-load the marketing dollars, making it tougher for the second-year club.
Patience can be a virtue. “I think ‘Memphis’ really is the classic example of that,” says Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. “They had to do a lot of special promotions to find their audience. Clearly they had problems in previews. They had to have the opportunity to overcome the tepid reviews. And now they’ve done that. They knew that if they could just get people to come and see it, they would tell their friends. And they were right.”
“Legally Blonde” is another example of a show that did better as memories of the opening reviews faded — and that was more successful on the road and in London than in New York. “Memphis” shows similar promise.
It’s a perennial Broadway truth that only 20%-30% of shows pay back their investors.
“The percentages really haven’t changed much over the last 60 years,” St. Martin says.
And of those that do recoup, many just barely do so. History shows that only two or three shows a year make the really big money. The producing game has always been to try and snag one of those rare blockbusters — “The Book of Mormon” being the most recent example.
So what has changed? Obviously, the cost of entry into the game has ballooned. And, notes “Wicked” producer David Stone, “shows just run longer than used to be the case.”
The touring market has also changed. Back in the so-called Golden Age, hits would tour and second-tier shows would quietly close. Now, there’s a touring market for such mid-range shows as “American Idiot” (which did not fully recoup on Broadway), so more money can be made on the back end. Thus, there’s more of an incentive in keeping the Broadway flagship flying. If a show closes early, it signals a flop.
Of course, producers often have a tough time explaining to their investors why a show that has been running for 500-plus performances has yet to cover its initial costs.
But that’s Broadway. These days, plugging away is not necessarily a matter of vanity. It’s financially better in most cases to play on and build the brand.