At the Broadway League conference: Day 1/How many movie turned musicals have made money?

It’s that time of year! It’s the Broadway League Spring Conference!

This week, the umpteen Broadway League members from all the states across the Union descend on New York City to feast on all the new shows, and on Frankie and Johnny’s steaks.
In between the shows and the cocktail parites, there are a bunch of sessions about marketing, union relations, more marketing, new economic models, and then we hit marketing one more time.
Today was Day 1, which saw some interesting panels, including a return visit from Ben Self of Blue State Digital who spoke at the Winter conference.  Ben was responsible for the Barack Obama online campaign which raised a bazillion dollars . . . online.
But what got me thinking at today’s conference was some coffee break chatter about the movie-to-musical trend.  Someone asked if this current craze was bearing fruit . . .
Good question, my fellow Broadway Leaguer!
We’ve talked about how Hollywood adaptations were gaining market share on Broadway in this post . . . but the most important question is . . . are movies making money?
You all know me well enough my now to know that I couldn’t leave this unanswered.  So, I went and did some quick figuring.
I counted 32 musicals made from movies in the last 20 years.  Of those, only 9 were financially successful. That means only 28.125% of musicals made from movies are making money, which is 8.125% above the anecdotal average that states 20% of broadway shows make money (the 1 in 5 ratio).
So maybe there is a little edge. But not much.  I certainly wouldn’t go buying 20th Century Fox’s library on 8.125%, that’s for sure.
Cuz it’s never about the source of the material. It’s about the story in the material.

What I learned from Hal Prince and Steven Spielberg.

I watched Schindler’s List again last night.

Schindler’s List is Mr. Spielberg’s most criticially acclaimed film.  It won a total of 7 Oscars, including one for his own personal mantlepiece and is #9 on The American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 films of all time.
And although I’ve never met Spielberg, I’d bet money that if he could be remembered for only one movie, Schindler’s List would be the one.
It’s the kind of piece so many artists want to make.
And Spielberg did it . . . when he was 47 years old, and after making movies for well over 20 years.
Seeing Schindler’s, and looking at Spielberg’s career, reminded me of some great advice Hal Prince gave me once.
I was fortunate enough to work on three of Hal’s shows (Show Boat, Candide and the workshop of Parade).  One day, I found myself in Hal’s office, telling him that while Company Management was a fantastic day job, and teaching me a ton, what I really wanted to do was produce.
And I wanted to produce the Great American Broadway Musical.
So I pitched Hal everything I had ever thought of for a show.  The biggest ideas you can imagine.  And in the middle of pitching something that I probably thought could have the musical significance of a Schindler’s List, Hal smartly shut me up . . . and he asked me if I remembered what the first show he produced was?
I couldn’t remember.  (Tip of the “Duh” – read important people’s biographies BEFORE meeting them one-on-one).
“It was Pajama Game,” Hal said.  “Don’t come out of the box trying to produce West Side Story.  That was my 4th show.  Be happy if you get the Pajama Game.  It ran for over two years, made a lot of people money and made a lot of people laugh.”
I’m sure the Pajama Game isn’t the one show Hal would want to be remembered for, just like I’m sure Jaws or Duel (or his real first . . . Amblin’) aren’t the movies Spielberg would choose.
The masterpieces for both of these gentlemen came later.  (Non-coincidental side note:  Spielberg named his production company, the one that produced Schnidler’s, after Amblin:  Amblin Entertainment).
As young artists we all want to change the world, and create the next great thing that will be remembered forever.  The truth is, we should just worry about creating the next thing . . . period.
I went home that afternoon after meeting with Hal and started working on The Awesome 80s Prom; a show that I had come up with the idea for about five years earlier, but never started because I didn’t wanted to be remembered for an interactive show that was about drinking, and dancing, and bachelorette parties.  It didn’t seem “important” enough to start.
Looking back?  Starting The “Unimportant” 80s Prom, was the most important thing I ever did in my entire life.
The masterpiece will come later.  🙂  As it will for all of you . . . once you get started.
– – – – –
Only 1 Day until the 1st Theater Bloggers Social!
Thursday, April 23rd.
6 PM
Planet Hollywood
For more info and to RSVP, click here.

America loves stories of underdogs.

And so does the rest of the world.

Check out Great Britain’s underdog here, Ms. Susan Boyle, who has pulled in a stunning 9 million views on the UTube in only the last couple of days . . . and counting!
Oh, and while you’re watching, make sure you take note of the audience response at the end.
That’s the kind of response you want for the underdog in your story.

Thanks to Bruce L. for the nudge.

You know what else is cool about Susan?

1.  She sang a musical theater tune (like Les Miz need another 9,000,000 views)

2.  She said she wanted a career like Elaine Paige, a musical theater star, not a career like Madonna.

Do you think she’s gotten an offer to play Mama Morton in Chicago yet?

– – – – –

Only 7 Days until the 1st Theater Bloggers Social!
Thursday, April 23rd.
6 PM
Planet Hollywood
For more info and to RSVP, click here.

What do soaps and subscription houses have in common?

Barring major breaking news, you can count on your soap to be on every day.  Same time, same channel (and same story line).

Barring a major financial crisis (!), you can count on your non-profit to produce X number of shows a year as well.

They’ve put themselves on a schedule and by doing so, they become internally committed to delivering product (and at the same time trained their audience).

Or what about sitcoms?  When a sitcom is green-lit, the team is committed to writing, casting and producing 13 of those shows.  The first may be awful, the second may be great, the third may suck wind, the fourth may be so-so.

But they are on a schedule so they keep on creating . . . because their calendar tells them too.  And their hope is that the season is fantastic.

Commercial theater producing is hard, because we hire ourselves. No one green-lights and pays for 13 shows in a row, or five episodes a week, or even five shows a year.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put ourselves on some kind of similar schedule.

Successful commercial theater producers, like successful sitcom writers or successful stock pickers, are about the long term.  Sure, one great episode or one great stock is fantastic . . . but what you want is much more than that.

To get it, you have to be willing to have an awful show, a great show, a suck-wind show, a so-so show, and so on.

So if you’re a producer, tell yourself you’re going to do a show a year.

If you’re a writer, tell yourself you’re to write a play year, or a scene a week.


If you’re an actor, tell yourself you’re going to audition for five projects a week.

Put yourself on a schedule, because on this side of the biz, no one else is going to do it for you.

And believe that over the long haul, you’ll have one hell of a season.

In defense of the screen to stage adaptation.

While watching Honeymoon In Vegas the other night, I took a twitter poll asking for a quick thumbs up or thumbs down on the idea of making Honeymoon into a musical (a project that is currently in development).

Thanks to my recent linking of my twitter and facebook status, I got a flock of a lot of responses before you could say “Wasn’t Sarah Jessica Parker in that movie?”. Here are a few:

Enough with the “from the screen to the stage” and “remake” crap, please.

There are so many amazing new works we can enjoy… 🙂

I totally agree with this [the above post] in the nicest way possible. 🙂

Aren’t there any original ideas?

I think they need to start bringing originality back to Broadway.

No more musicals that were movies – unless it’s Beetlejuice!

Yikes.  Insert sound of clawing kitty here.

Original sounds awesome.  And it’s what I’d prefer any day of the week.  But it’s not as easy, prevalent or desired as you think.

I’ve written about the rise of screen to stage musicals before, but this time, let’s look at stats on originals:

This season, there will be only three completely original new musicals on Broadway that were not based on any pre-existing source material, movie or otherwise:  13, Title of Show and The Story of My Life.

What do they have in common?  I’ll give you a hint.  They all closed.

Last season, there were only three original musicals on Broadway as well:  In The Heights, Passing Strange and Glory Day (plural cruelly omitted purposefully).  Kudos to Heights, but disappointment for the other two.

Two seasons ago?  No originals.

Three years back?  Two:  In My Life and Drowsy Chaperone.  Chaperone worked in a small window, and then went away.

Four years?  Two:  Brooklyn and Spelling Bee (The Bee was actually based on an improv play, but since the play hadn’t achieved any sort of notoriety, we’ll include it here).  The Bee succeeded but the Brooklyn investors would have been better off buying a bridge.

What’s interesting about these stats is not the winners.  I just named 10 shows and 2 recouped and that’s consistent with the commonly quoted stat that 1 in 5 shows make money.  We’re on par.

What’s alarming is that the other 8 shows were very quick flame outs, resulting in a loss of the entire capitalization or close to it (or in some cases, maybe even more?).

Now, all you tweeters  . . . knowing these much higher risk statistics, are you really surprised that Producers and Writers look to source material before their own brains for ideas?

Flip the analysis around and look at some of the most successful musicals during that same five year period:  Wicked, Jersey Boys, Lion King, Mamma Mia, and so on with un-originals and so on.

In fact, look at the longest running musicals of all time:  Only 2 originals in the top 10 (I don’t count Oh! Calcutta!)

I love an original musical.  Falsettos is one of my favs.  But the fact is that their artistic degree of difficulty is exceptionally high (and those critics that scream about lack of original ideas on Broadway should score them like Olympic gymnasts and give them extra points for the attempt).  The financial risk is the highest, and they have a recent history of lower returns.

The truth is, some of those originals I mentioned above were simply not very good.  And despite the statistical history, a great show can always make this post null and void.  So anyone dissatisfied with the lack of originality on the GWW (Great White Way), should get out there and write a great show and I’ll be the first to line up to produce it.

But we do have to remember that Broadway is a very specific place.  It’s a very thin slice of real estate in the center of the world.  Producing and creating theater is different from producing and creating Broadway theater.  And original just doesn’t always work here, whether we like it or not.

Think about it this way.  Broadway is like a museum.  You know, like MoMA.  Unfortunately, not every painter gets his art hung in MoMA, no matter how good they are.  It’s a museum of modern art.  The people that go there, go to see a specific type.  That’s what they want.  And the curators have to pick shows that are not only going to satisfy their patrons, but are going to thrill them.

That doesn’t mean that painters of other styles should stop painting.  It just means that MoMA might not be the place where their art has the best shot at success (interestingly enough – a heck of a lot of painters adapt their images from subjects or landscapes, don’t they?)

So don’t blame the Curators or the Producers or the Writers.  You might just want to pick a different museum.

Still sticking to your guns and think that what audiences really want is originality?  We wondered that same thing on 13 . . . and then we tested a tag line that called the show the most “original new musical on Broadway” (Title of Show used a similar hook).  The results were as follows:

6% of those surveyed were definitely interested in the show based on that tagline.
15% were intrigued by the tagline.
79% of those surveyed said that this tagline “made them NOT interested in seeing 13.”

These results are another example of what those of us on the inside would prefer is not necessarily what the majority of our audience prefers.

So maybe that Beetlejuice idea isn’t so bad after all . . .