Just how many Star Vehicles recoup anyway?

You know what everyone is saying these days, right?  If you want to make money on The Broadway, then you gotta have a gimmick star.

We here at the ol’ office don’t believe in anecdotal evidence very much, so we dug into the archives of the last ten years to find actual data see if that dog had legs.   (Wait. Is that a saying?  Huh.  I don’t think it is.  But you get it, right?.)

My professional data diver, Jen Tepper, sorted through the star shows (“Ken, it was like reading a whole year’s worth of US Weekly,” she said) and came up with a list of the recoupment ratio of star shows to not star shows.

Ready for the results?

We determined that of the 30+ star vehicles (we excluded shows where the stars played themselves, e.g. William Shatner, John Leguizamo, Colin Quinn, etc.) . . . . 66% made money.  33% did not.

Shocking?  Not shocking?  Your thoughts?

Did you expect it to be higher?

Yep, unfortunately what many of us think may be a guarantee is only a 2 out of 3 shot at getting one in the win column.

To do some comparin’ and contrastin’ . . .

If we use the industry standard percentages of 1 out of 4/5 shows recoup, then adding a star seems to increase those odds . . . but only by about 30-40%.

“Wait, Ken, that’s a big percentage!  That’s doubling your show to make money!”

That’s what you’re screaming at your screen, right?

‘Tis true, o’ readers.  ‘Tis true.

BUT, what are you giving up for that increase of 30-40%?  Well, in most big star vehicles the salaries and profit shares have gotten so humongo that the upside for the investors is limited.  So sure you’re getting a better chance at getting your money back, but you’re giving up probably double that or more in upside (especially since most star vehicles are by nature limited runs, where non-star vehicles can run for years).

So, in a high risk biz like the one we’re in, when you know you have to go into it with the knowledge that you may lose your entire investment, what would you rather do . . .

– Be safer (but not completely safe) and invest in something just because it’s a star, with a ceiling on the upside and maybe make a concession on the art?

– Or take a chance on something riskier, that you believe in 101% that has endless upside?

Guess which one of those dogs I think has legs?



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  • Sue says:

    Ideally, you would do some of both. It’s called hedging. That’s how money is made on Wall Street.

  • Mark Briner says:

    I totally agree with you, Ken. And stars are ruining the Tony Awards, constantly taking home awards they don’t deserve in order to draw more stars to Broadway. On the flip side, I would also be curious to the success rate of non-star driven vehicles–which encouragingly enough includes every last decades-running mega-musical ever produced.

  • Rich says:

    Sue’s point, while otherwise accurate, does not consider the minimum required Broadway investment, thus ruling out many multi-Play investors. If I’m reading this analysis correctly, i.e., 66% of plays recouped featuring a “Star” actor vs. only 20%-25% recouping without a “Star” actor, then IMOP prudent investors’ choice would seem obviously to go with the former. Missing of course are the actual ROI’s associated with each category. Gut feel, assuming actual ROI’s of star-featured recouping plays to be ~<15% I think betting on the alternative, even given a potentially higher upside, is akin to playing the lottery.

  • Bob Z says:

    You’re trying to turn an art into a science. Not all stars are created equal. You can’t compare an A-lister (ex. Daniel Craig) to a B-lister (ex. Paul Rudd) or C-lister. That’s like saying a new Cameron Mackintosh musical has the same odds of one from an independent producer.

    The overwhelmingly majority of shows with A-listers fully recoup, with most turning a profit somewhere in the area of 30%.

    So actually yes, a new Daniel Craig or Hugh Jackman play has fairly decent upside (compared to leaving your money in a bank) with not crazy risk. Are there better investments? Most certainly. So it doesn’t make sense to engage unless you also have a love of Broadway.

    B and C list stars are where you have to be careful. Those are often as risky as a new musical, with less upside.

  • Tim Donahue says:

    Thanks for this research. As always, I find it informative.

    As the survivor of a MBA curriculum, I’d like to add one global observation. The trade-off between risk and return is universal–as long as an investor isn’t cheating. To chance higher return, one must take higher risk. To avoid some risk, one must be satisfied with a lower return.

    It’s not as inescapable as gravity, but it is a law of economics.

    Why? If an investment got a return higher that its inherent risk, investors would bid-up the price of the investment–each would say, well, I’d pay an extra $$s for a higher return–until the return became normal for the investment’s level of risk. Theater doesn’t quite work this way since an investor cannot resell his or her investment on an open market, but in a crude and market-wide way, the effect is the same.

  • Great observations Ken. I am curious how many shows that started with stars are able to maintain long runs? Certainly the longest running shows run for long times because the show is the star. And they are licensed many times over because the material’s good no matter who’s in it. It seems like if you want a huge hit and that big jackpot you still got to take risks and forget about the stars (or maybe your show will make some). On the flip side, with a star you can do what I see is Broadway’s glorified college productions, which I enjoy! You take a classic work, throw in a couple stars (back in college it was the best students) and do some innovative production, direction and design. Is there anything that new about it? Not really. Is there a lot of chances for everyone to stroke each other’s ego’s and feel good about making innovative theater even though it’s really not? Yes! And I say both (and more!) definitely have their place on Broadway.

  • Gary says:

    A star might be good when you know it’s only a limited run play. Once the star leaves you are basically screwed. The long-running hit musicals never needed a star and continue to thrive on broadway and touring companies and have become global brands.

  • Eric B Vest says:

    I’m not too big on investing….(I, unfortunately, am in that financial bracket of “paid a pauper’s wage.”) But, I’ve this family name of Vest…rather uniquely tied to the finding the Goodness found within any artistic endeavor, while making note of and disposing of the bits that seem less wholesome and worthy of word-play. I moved to Manhattan in 2011; and, if the night-time stars and daytime star and good fortune-hunters allow….I may be granted audience to pitch the musicals I am writing. A Home Run of Golden Grand Finales I hope will keep on GOING til we’re all gooniE’s….:-p

  • Toni says:

    I think some producers make the mistake of assuming their “Stars” are bigger draws than they actually are. It’s the same delusion that many people fall under when they think they have a sure thing.

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