The Disney Director . . . dare I say . . . formula?

Disney has had a great run on Broadway . . . they’ve produced seven shows, and five have (or will) recoup (I’m putting Newsies in the win column already).   That’s a 71.4% (!) recoupment rate, in an industry where about 20% – 30% is the norm.


And when they win, they win big.  I’d guarantee that the profits from The Lion King alone have made up the losses for the two losers (Tarzan and Little Mermaid).

Business 101 tells you that if you want a successful business, you should study other successful businesses to see what makes them tick (there have been a ton of books on the Disney biz model, including this one).  So, I thought it was time to take a look-see for a trend or two.

Sure, there are the obvious takeaways of the Disney model, many of which can’t be duplicated by mere mortals:

  • Produce highly successful animated feature films first
  • Have several shows running at once so you can share marketing costs
  • Have a retail store in Midtown with huge billboard space

And so on . . .

But are there any others that may not be so obvious?

I was strolling past one of the three Broadway theaters that The Mouse occupies and I stopped for a moment to take a look at the houseboard (you know, that thing that looks like the title page on a playbill) . . . and before you could say “Supercalifragalisklalkh;lkhkjahjhdf”, a trend hit me smack in the face.

Disney has produced seven musicals.

That means they had seven Directors for those musicals.

Of those seven helmers, how many of them do you think directed a Broadway musical before they directed their Disney musical?

How about . . . 2.

Of those two, one of those was Julie Taymor, who had only directed one “musical” prior to that . . . Juan Darien . . . which was certainly not a conventional musical to say the least, as it was billed as a “Carnival Mass”.

The other was their most recent ship captain . . . Jeff Calhoun, who had five shows under his belt . . . making him the only veteran Broadway musical Director to have been chosen by The Mouse (and . . . if you believe the Shubert Alley scuttlebutt, Newsies was never intended for Broadway).

Pretty amazing, don’t you think?  Entrusting a multi-million dollar musical, and more importantly, a multi-multi million dollar brand (remember those movies?) to a first timer?  Now that’s trust.  That’s believing in the artist.

And, it’s working.

(It certainly helps that Disney doesn’t have to worry about raising money on the back of anyone’s name.)

Sure, it’s not the only reason, or even the primary reason, why Disney’s recoupment rate is what it is, but it’s certainly a trend worth looking at, especially when conventional wisdom tells us that if you want a musical to work, you better have a director that has been down the bumpy road to Broadway before.

Disney has proven that it’s not important that a Director has been down the road before . . . it’s just crucial that a Director has a crystal clear vision to see the end of the road before they start their trip.

(BTW, Disney is not the only Producer out there who has had industry-standard-busting success using first timers.  Click here to read this blog from 2008 about two other Producers who have also established a trend or two that are worth studying.)


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  • Ellen says:

    Love this post as I used to work in Consumer Products for Disney during the period when the theatrical arm was just being “grown.” So much of what drove every part of the property extension for us, no matter whether it was product or entertainment, was “story.” All things went back to that…did it tell the story, was it true to the story, etc. I will never forget Tom Schumacher giving us the “story” talk and I think his leadership of Disney Theatrical has been critical.
    So, if a potential director can hew to that “story” mantra, I think the trust will be there and the support will be given.
    Btw, Newsies is an interesting case for me, because when I saw the film in previews years ago, I enjoyed the movie, but my first thought was “this is a stage show on film; it needs to be a stage production.”

  • As a tv/film director who has never directed a Broadway musical but wants to, I think this is a FANTASTIC trend.

  • Alan B. says:

    In the link you sent to your 2008 story you mention Big Papi when I think you really meant to cite Robinson Cano as having the perfect swing!

    As for the Disney column you took a page from their play book when you chose first timer Danny Goldstein to direct Godspell. You hit a homerun with Danny! He did a brilliant job. It’s just too bad that the old timers who make up the Tony nominators NEVER think “outside the box.”

  • Tracy Jordan says:

    To your first point, “Produce highly successful animated feature films first,” reminds me of the old Steve Martin SNL sketch, ” how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes? First.. get a million dollars…”

  • A Contrarian says:

    What would George Abbott do?

  • Ilene says:

    You have an interesting point about the cost savings of hiring talented directors that don’t have the big Broadway experience and price tags. Something else that Disney doesn’t do … they DON’T hire ‘names.’ They just hire talented performers, so they’re saving $$ on the cast as well. They let the show sell the show and not the names. After all, if you put too many eggs in the big name basket, and then the name gets sick or, heaven forbid, has to return to their TV contract, you’re stuck in the middle of a particularly disgusting creek without a paddle! Perhaps we focus too much on names to sell shows rather than the SHOW to sell the show. Hmmmm….. Of course, having the world’s most famous mouse doesn’t hurt either!

  • Eli K-W says:

    I have always appreciated that Disney takes risks with their choices staffing shows. That is the difference between aiming to have a good show and aiming to have a groundbreaking show.

    On the other hand, it was refreshing to walk into Newsies and just… see a show. Not to have to readjust to any high flying concept. But their goal with that show was just that – a property that can then go to regional theaters in the US, not three international tours.

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