Hollywood figures out how to have a hit twice

By Published on .

"Spamalot," the musical loosely based on seminal farce "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," inspired by the comedy caper of the same name, racked up more than two dozen Tony Award nominations last week.

And the winner is ... Hollywood!

The wave that had already begun of turning popular movies into Broadway shows is likely to grow even stronger, industry watchers say, with Los Angeles' major studios increasingly looking to the Great White Way for a serious cash infusion.

At a time when box-office admissions are down, Hollywood is looking to other sources to breathe life into its core product. While live theater has often looked to Hollywood's stories for inspiration, there's never been a time when the studios have been so active in exploiting their own product and financially backing it all the way to Broadway.

"If you tell a story in an electrifying and compelling way, audiences will want to see it in any medium," said Darcie Denkert, president of MGM On Stage and author of "A Fine Romance," an upcoming book about the relationship between Hollywood and Broadway. "There's a real market for it."

At the same time, the price of Broadway tickets has increased, as have marketing and production costs. For the same reason that Hollywood loves a remake, having a live show with a recognizable name and some built-in goodwill can be a better bet than an original work.


MGM On Stage, a division of the Hollywood studio, has between 30 and 40 projects in development for Broadway, in addition to its current shows, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." The division, formed three years ago, has been one of the most aggressive in mining its library of films for potential live-show gems. Those in various stages of development include "Weekend at Bernie's," "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Midnight Cowboy" and "Get Shorty." A stage show of the cult horror film "Theatre of Blood" is running now in London.

Time Warner's New Line Cinema, meanwhile, will open "The Wedding Singer" early next year and plans to produce theatrical versions of the family flick "Secondhand Lions" and the British comedy "Saving Grace." The studio is considering the same treatment for such titles as "Elf," "Pleasantville" and "Don Juan DeMarco." The studio was encouraged after its version of "Hairspray" became a Tony-winning hit.

Sister studio Warner Bros. has formed a theatrical division, co-producing "Casablanca-The Dance" in Beijing, with plans to do live versions of other classic and contemporary films for the domestic audience. DreamWorks SKG is prepping "Shrek the Musical," and plans a song-laced version of the Steven Spielberg drama "Catch Me If You Can."

"In the golden age, authors took plays and adapted them to movies," said Margo Lion, a producer on "Hairspray" and "The Wedding Singer." "It's moving in the opposite direction now, and it's not a shortage of imagination from Broadway, it's just that so many good stories are coming from movies."

Walt Disney Co. already grabbed the brass ring, and competing studios have seen how a single mega-hit like "The Lion King" can make a fortune in ancillary revenue. That stage production, along with its touring companies, international shows and licensing to community theaters and schools, has brought in $1.7 billion, according to a Disney spokesman.

"Studios are waking up and realizing they have a lot of material that could lend itself to musicals," said Mark Kaufman, New Line's senior VP-production and theater. "It's great to give new life to your catalog."

A hit Broadway show can last for months or years, spawning traveling productions and licensing revenue from colleges, community theaters and other groups that want to perform it. Sales from related merchandise-CDs, books, apparel, gifts-bring in even more cash. Even a moderate success like "Bye Bye Birdie," which initially ran on Broadway 40 years ago, brings in $1 million a year from performance- licensing fees.

A successful live show also enhances the core product, with studios seeing a spike in interest in the original films and DVDs, in remakes, sequels and prequels. Since the Broadway runs, there are talks now about creating an animated series based on "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and a remake of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

Not only have the studios become more aggressive about turning films into plays, they also are changing the business model. In years past, studios mainly licensed the rights to Broadway producers. These days, they are dedicating divisions to the task and taking a financial stake in the shows so they can reap the rewards if it hits.

Those involved say there's a particular skill in turning a movie into a live show that starts with choosing the right project. "You have to ask, `Would it be believable for these people to burst into song?"' Ms. Denkert said. "Are there such emotional moments that words don't seem to suffice?"

All about economics

A movie must be adapted and reimagined, Ms. Denkert said, so that it looks like an original piece of work. It's then crucial to add the right talent. Filmmaker Blake Edwards plans to work on a musical version of "The Pink Panther," for instance, and the script for "Rain Man" will be written by the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter Barry Morrow.

The reliance on movies for story fodder has deep economic roots, said Kimon Keramidas, a student at the City University of New York whose dissertation examines current trends on Broadway.

"There have been a lot of big flops after millions of dollars in investments, and Broadway can't really afford that," Mr. Keramidas said. "For a film, the storyline's already sold, and there's already an audience. People are more likely to spend the money to go to the theater if they're familiar with the piece."

In this article:
Most Popular