VIEW FROM THE MEZZANINE
PerformInk Publisher Jason Epperson’s take on the business of producing theater.
It’s no secret that, since the turn of the century, movie studios have taken a keen interest in Broadway musicals, both as producers of new works, and of adaptations of their deep catalogs. With original work, they can stake their claim on any future movie adaptations. The movie musical biz has seen a comeback in recent years, and certainly the relatively small investment by Universal Studios in WICKED guarantees the company (as much as anyone can) a blockbuster hit when the film is released. Not to mention, for those musicals based on novels, movie studios have gobbled up the exclusive rights well before any shallow-pocketed theater producer can. But since the arrival of streaming services of digital media, something new has happened, and it started in the music industry.
Last year was the worst year for record sales in over 25 years, even though more people are listening to more music than ever. Services like Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes have slashed the income that labels and artists earn from album sales. The pittance that services like Spotify, Pandora, iTunes and the like pay for content has brought the record industry to its knees, forcing it to diversify its sources of revenue. That’s why concerts have turned into immense exhibitions — an attempt to justify the massive inflation of ticket prices. It wasn’t that long ago that concerts were a marketing tool to promote album sales. Tickets could be had for a respectable price, even if the beer couldn’t. The biggest blow has been to the creation of new music, while the mega-stars with bankable catalogs like Garth Brooks and Elton John can play eight nights in one city. Even those stars, who used to have top selling albums decades after their release, are not able to make a whole lot through song sales alone, especially when you can type “Billy Joel” into Pandora and get every pop-rock singer-songwriter from the 80s and 90s at your fingertips.
Likewise, movies from that era in particular — like GHOST, DIRTY DANCING, and PRETTY WOMAN (which is coming to Chicago in a pre-Broadway engagement) — are sitting around collecting dust. The money that comes in from cable is a fraction of what it used to be, DVDs can be had for $5 in the clearance bin at Walmart, and the rental business has all dried up, save for Redbox, which is cheaper than when I rented movies from Blockbuster 20 years ago. All because of Netflix, and Hulu, and Amazon Prime. So titles that were once a big deal are not anymore — they aren’t raking in much money on streaming, or anywhere else. Maybe it’s less Netflix’s fault than it is our own reluctance to invest much money into digital media, but nonetheless, streaming has hurt the movie business. Perhaps these neglected properties could be re-invented in some way. Enter Broadway.
Perhaps these neglected properties could be re-invented in some way. Enter Broadway.
See, while Universal Pictures was along for the ride with WICKED, they realized that it wasn’t just an investment in some future film of the piece. No, they’re also making a lot of cash from a few thousand people a week in New York, and of course, now thousands more around the world. Since WICKED, Universal has been involved with at least ten Broadway shows, and some you wouldn’t expect, like A DOLL’S HO– USE PART 2, SIDE SHOW, THE GLASS MENAGERIE, and WAR PAINT.
So now, studios have realized that they can take their stagnant titles, repackage them for the stage, and reinvigorate them with little investment compared to the cost of, say, a remake. Titles like HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, THE BODYGUARD, BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and so on have built-in name recognition that makes the theater owners very happy and generates a lot of pre-production interest. If the production isn’t successful, they aren’t out a whole lot of money, and have drummed up new interest in the film, sold merchandise, and might even recoup their losses in licensing. And if it works, they might even produce a new film based on the musical based on the original film.
I don’t have a problem with the idea of movies adapted into musicals per se. I’m not as cynical as some. I think a solid team can make adaptations of any type work. Some are done exceedingly well. BILLY ELLIOT, WAITRESS, and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS are great recent examples. Of course, adaptations of movies are nothing new — NINE, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS being some great older examples — but the way that so many are crowding out new works and pandering to the lowest common denominator today is problematic for the industry. And, though not the only factor, they are partially to blame for the ballooning cost of Broadway tickets.
Will PRETTY WOMAN be a calamitous trainwreck on Broadway? I don’t know. It’s in the hands of first-rate star Broadway director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (KINKY BOOTS, another screen-to-stage adaptation), and the music is by Canadian pop-star-of-the-same-era Bryan Adams, along with his songwriting partner Jim Vallance. Just like some other music stars who don’t have a hard time selling albums anymore (Sara Bareilles, U2, Elton John, Sting), Adams is trying his hand at a musical score. So now, along with the jukebox musical (another way record companies are recouping losses), we have musical theater composers being pushed out to make way for an influx of stars. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
But the bastardized PYGMALION storyline behind PRETTY WOMAN — the prostitute with a heart of gold and her man-savior — doesn’t sound so progressive for today’s markedly changed environment. Conceivably Gary Marshall (who worked for a year on the musical’s book before he died) was able to find a way to finesse it into something more modern. I learned my lesson counting shows like this out before they’re born with the aforementioned BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, which is – if not commercially successful – delightful.
Not surprisingly, PRETTY WOMAN’s studio Touchstone Pictures, as an arm of the Walt Disney Company, is not listed as an above-the-title producer. But, by granting the rights to producer Paula Wagner, they have a lot to gain in royalties, renewed interest in the film, and subsidiary rights — and virtually nothing to lose.