We Can See Through Your “Limited Engagement”…
Earlier this week I blogged about the different types of arts and theatre run styles and the financial pros and cons of choosing one over the other. Often the strategies producers employ are straightforward and clear with advantages clearly favoring one over the other. That said, every so often there are productions that break the mold, leaving other arts administrators to ponder the reasons one was chosen over the other. Maybe the choice was part of a larger and further reading plan? Most recently, Disney Theatricals’ Newsies has emerged as one of these peculiar circumstances.
Last February, it was announced the Paper Mill Playhouse would be opening its season with the premiere production of the often misunderstood, cult Disney film Newsies. Adapted by the original and much loved Disney composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), with a new book by Harvey Fierstein, Newsies has been rumored to be under secret revision and workshopping by Disney over the past two or three years. The production opened in September to mixed-positive reviews from critics, including many from the New York theatre scene.
Toward the end of the production’s run, it was speculated the show’s life cycle would end — a success, but not something worthy of a run in New York (although productions of much less have been given that green light recently). Despite these opinions, less than a month after closing, Disney Theatricals announced in November the show would in fact have a Broadway transfer this spring, taking with it most of it’s no-name, UMich-esque cast. Even more interesting, Disney announced from the get go it would be a low-budget, three month limited run.
WHAT? Disney Theatricals (and it’s related enterprises) are valued conservatively at over $41 billion. With a company whose weekly debits and credits rival net worths of Fortune 500 organizations, why is the company dedicated to bring dreams and fantasy to life capping themselves at a $5 million capital; more than this is spent on single attractions their parks around the globe. Disney Theatricals can afford to throw endless amounts of cash into the production. Even if it makes minimal losses throughout its run, the brand equity and image it builds for the company more than outweigh the small financial loss which can be easily shouldered. What could Disney’s motivations be? Here are my top few ideas:
1) The “Saving Face” Strategy: While generally speaking Disney has a good track record with its stage adaptions, its two most recent neither financial nor critical successes. Tarzan, opening in 2006, cost the company $14 million with The Little Mermaid of 2008 costing $15 million. Both of these productions had poor directorial choices (Bob Crowley for Tarzan and Francesca Zambello for Mermaid). It’s not rare for shows geared toward family audiences to not score well with the Brantley’s and Isherwood’s of the world, but then soar with its demographic audiences. These shows failed on all levels. Based off these two most recent experiences, it makes sense for Disney to start small with Newsies, that way if it doesn’t pan out straight away, it can close humbly, still under the radar.
2) The “Not Sure What We’re Dealing With” Strategy: Disney knows more than anyone the cult following the film had when released in theaters, only gaining traction upon VHS release. A limited-run strategy is a great way to see whether the musical will follow the trajectory the film had in theatres or in home release. It’ll be hard to tell. Compared to other “timeless” Disney films which have been shown to children of all generations, Newsies real recognition is still only to children of the early 90s, the same 20-somethings who now know Christian Bale as Batman. Will these people come out to see the show? This financially strapped demographic can’t foot a $121.25 and producers (even Disney) can only afford so many student rushers.
3) The “Immediate Ticket Sales” Strategy: The most straightforward; the biggest benefit of marketing Newsies as a limited run engagement is the simple fact that it’s announcement a closing notice is published — a finite end date is known…sort of. Eliminating the “I’ll see it eventually…” mentality, audiences instead have to act sooner-rather-than-later to buy tickets, limiting, if not removing, the initial period in the financial red. By having these ticket sales straight out of the gate, Disney can proclaim a “hit” much earlier once the production breaks even with a strong advance. The production can then be immediately extended “due to overwhelming demand — don’t miss out” and can become the open-ended run we expect of Disney productions. Newsies alignment with the Tony nomination and award schedule feeds this argument.
4) The “We Know Our Cash Cow” Strategy: From the moment Newsies discussion began, it was speculated Disney work on the show was solely based on the potential for amateur and regional licensing. Moving the show to Broadway will put it on a national stage, allowing morning show performances and school groups to see matinees.
For years, schools and theater companies have asked Disney for a stage version of the film and a stint on Broadway only adds to the license’s value. Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Theatricals has even stated “If the Broadway run ends up lasting three months and does not recoup, I’ll be left in a slight deficit position, but I’ll make up for that in licensing,” showing clear thought of this. But then again, how many high schools and amateur youth companies out there can actually mount a production of almost young males dancers? Last time I checked, young girls were still cross-dressing and singing tenor parts in the ensemble.
It’s not sure that time will even tell Disney’s endgame in Newsies producing strategy. Disney has made it clear it’s trying to play it safe as possible with Newsies. I’m not supporting a blank cheque, but the show could be afforded a bit more — regardless of outcome, Disney will more than make up for any initial financial loss in exposure, equity, regional licensing opportunities, and ticket sales — the capital will not go to waste.
What are your thoughts on Disney’s producing strategy? Does it follow one of the above, use a combination of a few, or have a different approach completely?