“The Lion King” is roaring, and all of Broadway can hear it.
The 15-year-old tuner has seen an extraordinary rise in box office and attendance over the past few years, even more remarkable for a show that is the third oldest currently on the Rialto and the fifth longest-running title in Broadway history.
So what’s Disney doing right?
There are a number of factors at play, from Broadway-wide trends such as dynamic pricing to the theater’s location to consistent marketing and creative maintenance. It all adds up to a continuously feeding loop that has propelled an enduring property from strength to strength.
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For a reminder of the show’s B.O. potency, legiters need look no further than the weekly sales charts, where “Lion King” consistently grapples with habitual top dog “Wicked” — as well as newer tuners like “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and the “The Book of Mormon” — for pole position.
Annual figures are even more telling. The $94.5 million that “Lion King” minted in 2012 was about $10 million more than its 2011 cume of $83.4 million — which was around $10 million better than the 2010 number, itself nearly $10 million higher than the 2009 tally. When held up against the box office trends of other long-running shows in their first 15 years, the steep upward curve of the latter frames of “Lion King” stands out.
It’s not just rising ticket prices contributing to the growth — annual attendance has grown every year since 2009 as well. The approximately 700,000 folks who saw the Broadway production in 2012 represent 50,000 more than the show’s 2008 tally.
The boom can be attributed in part to dynamic ticket pricing, which has had a major impact on Broadway in the decade-plus since “The Producers” rocked the box office with premium-price tickets aimed at taking back the big money that scalpers made on high-demand shows. Now all of Broadway has accepted the value in adjusting prices to match demand, while the dominance of Internet ticket sales, as well as the Web’s increasing agility in allowing ticket-buyers to view exactly which seats are available at specific perfs, adds to a show’s bottom line.
So while the rise at “Lion King” still stands out when compared with the contempo sales of current offerings, it’s also clearly in keeping with a concomitant rise at all well-established shows, fueled by savvy pricing that shifts the needle higher in high-demand frames (such as holiday weeks and summer seshes) and lower in periods of lesser demand (including the annual doldrums of January and September). For instance, “Wicked,” a relative newcomer at nine years old, also managed to grow its annual cume by $10 million last year.
To some degree, then, Disney Theatrical is setting prices at “Lion King” with strategies similar to the producers of many other shows. Company exec VP David Schrader describes the process as one with two dynamic layers. First, the range of prices across the theater is set according to an estimate of the demand for a particular performance, based on the 15 years of past B.O. from which to extrapolate annual trends. Second, after tickets go on sale, Disney re-examines each perf to see how demand is shaping up in reality, and then tweaks pricing accordingly.
At the same time, the company attempts the tricky balance of maximizing revenue while avoiding price-gouging. While keeping pace with the prices of other Rialto fare, execs say Disney tries never to set the bar. The show, for instance, has never logged the highest average ticket price of any production on the boards.
The overall upswing in New York City tourism is another factor that has influenced “Lion King” in particular and Broadway overall. Tourists, domestic and international, are key to keeping afloat long-running shows that over time exhaust the area’s supply of locals, and recent years have been banner ones for numbers of theatergoing out-of-towners. Tourism in the city has been up year-to-year since 2009, with 2012 numbers hitting a record 52 million.
Adding to these broader trends are the specific factors that contribute to the rise at “Lion King” alone. First three on the list: Location, location, location.
In 2006, “Lion King” moved out of the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street, in part to make way for Disney’s production of “Mary Poppins.” The show’s new home, the Minskoff, was smaller — about 1,600 seats vs. the New Amsterdam’s 1,800 — but because of the venue’s layout (particularly its lack of a second balcony, where seats tend to be lower priced), more seat locations could sustain higher pricetags; therefore, the gross potential turned out to be slightly higher at the Minskoff.
But Disney and others in the industry believe the biggest benefit of the venue is its highly visible perch — smack in the middle of Times Square. The Minskoff commands second-story frontage on the square that’s nearly a block long, an unmatched patch of marketing real estate that since 2006 has been occupied by the big, bold, black-and-yellow title treatment of “Lion King.”
It’s something tourists can’t miss when they make their inevitable stop at Times Square; nor can viewers when exterior shots of the landmark intersection show up on TV and in other media.
Schrader speculates that the production’s presence in other tourist-magnet cities around the world — including London and Madrid, among the eight international and touring incarnations now running — also keeps the property front-and-center in the minds of world travelers, including the international visitors to New York who represent a growing segment of the Broadway ticket-buying demo.
In this, “Lion King” follows the legit model for international expansion first built by Cameron Mackintosh with Brit mega-musicals including “Phantom of the Opera,” which just had its 25th birthday on the Rialto.
There are also the obvious benefits of the show’s link to a 1994 pic that’s joined the pantheon of animated standards for tyke auds. The $30 million opening weekend of the film’s 2011 3D theatrical release took Hollywood by surprise, and that return to the spotlight seems likely to have propelled new sales to the stage version.
Changes in the TV advertising landscape have also aided Broadway. Television spots have become more frequent, in part because the smallscreen has become a more affordable advertising option for the Rialto as the proliferation of channels has pushed down ad rates and allowed for more efficient and targeted buys.
“They spend consistently, not just in weak periods,” says Nancy Coyne, topper of Serino Coyne, the ad agency that has worked with Disney on “Lion King” from the beginning. “In the tourist season, you’ll see a lot more outdoor, and in the winter you’ll see more television.”
That’s not to say the company hasn’t shown some special love for the show. Two head-turning promotional efforts included a takeover of part of Penn Station and, for 16 days in tourist-clogged December, a free exhibit near Bryant Park where visitors could see some of the show’s design elements up close. According to Disney, the latter logged close to 80,000 visitors.
“The notion is to keep doing things that dominate the area to stay in the public eye,” Schrader says.
It hasn’t hurt that the company maintains worldwide quality control. The effort involves 22 creatives overseeing all the musical’s global outposts — a team led by associate director John Stefaniuk, associate choreographer Marey Griffith and music supervisor Clement Ishmael. Director Julie Taymor stops in to spot-check each production at various stages of rehearsals or performances.
Even as Disney types and others involved in the show contemplate the multiple factors that have pushed the production to its current high, they all eventually point back to the musical itself — a family-friendly story that, thanks to a narrative that touches on all stages of life and to Taymor’s imaginative design and staging, holds as much appeal for adults as it does for kids.
Disney execs wish they could take credit for the show’s current boom, but to hear them tell it, the surge is as much of a surprise to them as it is to the rest of Broadway. It’s a show, they say, that has grown in unexpected ways from the beginning.
“First, it was a surprise that we were even able to do it at all,” says Thomas Schumacher, prexy and producer at Disney Theatrical. “But Julie did a really good job, and one of the strengths of her idea turns out to be that it’s totally replicable. That was a surprise too. It’s been a surprise all along.” The takeaway: “Lion King,” now 15, continues its box office surge. Prime location, sound marketing and prevailing Rialto realities play to the show’s strengths. A look at box office sales over the first 15 years of a show’s life shows the exponential rise of “The Lion King” compared with other B’way stalwarts. Long-running shows in general have seen their grosses rise over the past few years, but none as much as “The Lion King.”