3 Reasons Why Lion King Made a Billion Bucks.

Lion King Broadway billionBroadway hit another milestone last week that made the business world (and a whole lot of potential Broadway investors) perk up and take notice.

The Lion King announced that it would be the first Broadway show to gross $1 billion . . . from its Broadway production alone.  The news was so big it got picked up by publications all over the world, from the usuals, like Entertainment Weekly, to “serious” outlets like Time Magazine (Fancy us!).

The Lion King‘s success is of special interest to me, as I was right across the street when it opened, working as the Associate Company Manager of Ragtime.  The Lion King vs. Ragtime matchup was more intense than Hulk Hogan vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper in WrestleMania I.  And we all know what happened there.  (Ok, maybe only dudes who were 13 in 1985 know what happened there.)

What happened was that Lion King went on to make a billion bucks.  Ragtime, which I’ll go to my grave saying is one of the greatest musicals of the modern era, lost the Tony and closed way too early, and its lead Producer would up in jail.

So what did it?  What made Lion King the richest musical in the county . . . and counting?  (It was the highest grossing musical last week (in its 16th year) with a take of 1.8 million bucks.)

Here are my three reasons why Lion King made a billion dollars at its box office:

1.  “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It!”

That’s the thing I heard the most from audience members way back in the day . . . and what I’m still hearing now.  As I preach all the time, in product development, in marketing . . . unique sells.  The Julie Taymor puppetry was so unbelievably unique, and so “new,” that it became a “talkable topic” – fuel for word of mouth.  And the unique qualities of the design and the artistry made the show feel like it belonged on a stage, not like it was a cheap ripoff of a movie.  It felt new.  If you look at all the Disney musicals so far – it is by far the most unique – and, surprise, surprise, it’s still crushing it at the box office.

2.  The Circle of Disney

The Lion King is a new classic.  Parents who saw it as a kid are now showing it to their kids, who no doubt will show it to theirs, and so on.  That’s the magic of a classic Disney movie.  Because of the circular re-exposure it receives, entirely new audiences are created every year.  And when a tourist comes to NYC, with family in tow, seeing the musical becomes part of the journey of the brand.  While it can be scary to try and musicalize something that is such an important part of pop culture, if you can find a property that continues to generate new audiences year after year, snatch it up.

3.  Cross Promote This!

The first bullet points in this list are something that we can all apply to our producing careers.  This one, however, is a little most challenging . . . unless you own a ton of theme parks and a movie studio.  Yes, yes, one of the reasons Disney has made so much money with Lion King is its ability to cross promote the property with the theme parks (there is a mini version of the show in Orlando) and the television networks (it’s no coincidence that ABC affiliates are happy to do nice long feature stories on the show when it comes to town) and so on.  Ok, ok, so you don’t own networks or swamp land in Florida.  But that doesn’t mean there’s a lesson to be learned here.  You do have something.  Maybe you have a real estate company in addition to your theater company.  Or maybe you have a book club . . . or a blog?  Those folks could come to your shows and vice-versa.  Connect the dots of everything you’re doing.  Disney never lets people escape their world.  And you should endeavor to do the same.

4.  BONUS:  Disney Datafication

Here’s an extra reason why I think LK has done so well over the past decade and a half . . . they’ve got so much data at their fingertips and are so great at crunching it up (because they’ve been doing it in all their other industries for so many years), that they are the best at squeezing every dollar out of a consumer, without the consumer feeling like they are being squeezed.  From knowing when their customers are here, to knowing exactly how much they’ll pay for a premium seat, they know how to maximize their revenue . . . even if it means spending more money to do it.  Read this article to see their latest data-driven venture at their themeparks.  Your mind will be blown.  And your consumer experience will be improved . . . as will Disney’s bottom line.


We can’t all be Disney.  Actually no one can be Disney.  It’s no surprise that they’re the first company to produce a billion dollar musical on Broadway.  So don’t try to be Disney (Actually, that’s what Garth Drabinsky did at Livent, and he ended up in the clink as a result).  I don’t want to be Disney.  I don’t want to be Apple.  And I don’t want to be Obama.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the things they do well (and the things that they don’t) so I can be the best Producer me.


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  • John Sweeney says:

    I remember my reaction when I first saw Lion King (Nat’l tour in Seattle ~2002). It blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it before!!!

    I’ve seen & loved/hated many shows since – but have never come close to that feeling.

    As much as I love live theater, and as important as I think it is – it is sobering to think that the video game Grand Theft Auto V grossed $1B in less than a week…

    Ken – could you make a show out of that???

  • I think one of the other reasons Lion King is going so strong has to do with how well they’ve maintained the integrity and quality of the original production.

    My husband and I are both performers, and we were blown away by how clean and honest the Lion King on Broadway was, despite running for 10 years…especially in contrast with Mamma Mia up the street, which we were embarrassed to have taken our parents to a couple months earlier – it was appallingly sloppy and “phoned-in” (Lisa Brescia’s remarkable performance notwithstanding).

    As a result, we find it very easy to encourage friends and family to see The Lion King….quality really does make a difference.

  • San D says:

    Simply put, it’s magic. I have seen it 6 times, and I am a puppeteer and know how the mechanics work, and am still blown away by the magical qualities of the production.

  • Kelly Allen says:

    I completely agree that “Ragtime” is and always will be one of the greatest musicals of all time.

    And…your observation that Disney squeezes every dime without making people feel like they are being squeezed is RIGHT ON. I remember being a very tired teacher visiting Disney World and finding a delightful little spot in “France” in Epcot Center. I never wanted to leave. I kept wondering if there was a way for me to just give Disney all my money and let me stay in Fake Epcot France forever. How do they do it?

    Thanks for the link to the article and CONGRATS on “Kinky Boots” recouping!

  • George says:

    The first sobering thought that came to mind was ALL that creativity, hard work, dedication, desire… perfomances, night after night after night… and – only NOW it passed ONE billion… while the Govt, coming back from it’s “vaction” (during which it workers got both back pay and unemployment) just printed up and spent $328 BILLION in one day!

    Tell me we aren’t walking with a cocaine addict on a very short and rickety pier…

    But – aside for ALL the reasons – that Ken made – I have only one to add (unless I missed it?) GREAT SONGS/MUSIC!!!

    Sorry, I’ve seen a couple of “Ragtimes” and I can’t – or the life of me – remember one single song… not one.

    And that is true of a LOT of Broadway these days!

    Not the “Lion King” – I was so caught up by the songs on the first night I heard ’em I remember rushing over to Virgin to pick up the CD and I must’ve play it… a BILLION times.. since!!!

    As that self confessed “elitist” Opera Fan – I can’t think of any song/aria more beautiful and more perfectly – dramatically – placed than “He Lives in You!”

    Long after most of us are nothing more than dust… this work of ART will be sung and celebrated… over and over and over again!


  • Marcinho says:

    Another great post! KUDOS to “The Lion King”!!! I remember the opening! Look how far it has come!!!!!


  • Marcinho says:

    And if I failed to mention it before…

    CONGRATULATIONS on the recoupment with “Kinky Boots”!!!!! 30 WEEKS!?!?!?!?


  • Lyn says:

    Loved The Lion King from the first note, and as I was in standing room, that note was literally in my ear! I’m happy that it’s had the success it has. I think of all the people for whom this may have been the only theater experience they’ve ever had and am so grateful for that. I am, however, a huge Ragtime fan and was so disappointed when it closed. It doesn’t get much better than hearing that story told through the voices of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie.

  • All of what you said plus one more. The Lion King is more of a pageant than a musical. The story, if you don’t know the movie, is very thin. But you get puppet after puppet– a non-stop feast for the eyes–to make up for that. If you are a tourist who doesn’t speak much English, you can enjoy the show anyway (which is probably also important in terms of the record-breaking worldwide tour).

  • John P. says:

    You don’t think Elton’s music had a little bit to do with it??

  • Charmaine in Chicago says:

    Yes LK is Disney, but it’s NOT Disney (ala Beauty and the Beast) and that’s what makes it amazing and that’s thanks to Julie Taymor. Anybody know if the rumor is true that the Disney brass almost took a pass on it in Minneapolis?

  • Charmaine in Chicago says:

    Ragtime. I agree, it’s something really special. And it lives in the world outside NY. Artistically at least. Just saw a wonderful new production in Milwaukee. The songs? I can’t even think about “Wheels of a Dream” without choking up.

  • Robert Hawk says:

    LION KING is a wondrous show (and I love RAGTIME too). BUT . . . all these figures for the accumulative grosses of shows are to some degree meaningless, and misleading. What if the accumulative grosses for MY FAIR LADY, A CHORUS LINE or even the still-running PHANTOM OF THE OPERA were adjusted for inflation? I think it would be a very different story. More to the point would be how many tickets were sold, how many butts in seats? Just look at the list of all-time high grossing movies: AVATAR is #1, TITANIC is #2 (and LION KING is #11). GONE WITH THE WIND is “only” #137 (!) When adjusted for inflation, however, GWTW is still #1, AVATAR is #14, where TITANIC only drops down to #5, and LION KING to #11. It’s a tricky and deceiving business throwing around figures — especially if you don’t adjust for inflation. I’m just happy for any show that has a good long run and keeps hundreds of people working. THAT’S how I measure achievement and “success.”

  • Zanne Hall says:

    Like the “best me” line.

  • Stuart Green says:

    Set “A Brave New World” to the keys of “A Whole New World” – Thanks for the Ears up Ken. Really interesting to see mass marketing go even more “personal,” but after all isn’t that what it’s point is?

  • Janis says:

    I never plan well enough in advance to see LK on Broadway, but I’ve seen the touring show twice and loved the first production, but was very disappointed in the more recent “Updated” touring show.
    I usually enjoy a second performance even more than the first because I know the songs, but lately the beat of far too many “Updated” versions have been speeded up. The songs are changed slightly and shortened and the theme is often made too obvious, but not proven in the action.
    I thought maybe it was just me, but others at the LK show made the same observation.
    I’m convinced that the “updates” of wonderful shows are made in response to the popular idea that “People, especially kids, have shorter attention spans.”
    However, if your show is not good enough to keep the attention of anyone, no matter their age or the length of their “attention span” (Whatever that means), it’s not good enough to be on stage.
    I think the ‘short attention span’ is just an excuse for dumbing down almost every form of entertainment. In fact, a nine year old who knows the terminology perhaps far too well was with us at both shows and was the first to comment after the second show, “I love the puppets, but I was not ’emotionally engaged’ by the story this time and the songs weren’t as good.” The adults we were with said the same thing.
    It’s a trend I hope someone puts a stop to. Disney has the clout to end that silly trend I hope they do so.
    Most audiences are filled with middle aged and older folks and few kids so give us middle aged folks what we want.
    If you’re marketing a show to kids, for heaven’s sake, don’t dumb it down. Just BAN TEENAGERS FROM THE SHOW. Rate it as G and advise parents that their kids will love the show, but publicize it as banned for teenagers. They’ll show up in droves.

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