Superstar Peter Schneider: Yes, Disney proves it can do an opera, too

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Aida," walt Disney Co.'s most recent foray into the world of musical theater, boasts songs by famed tunesmiths Elton John and Tim Rice, a prime location in the center of Times Square, and a tale made legendary by Verdi's opera of the same name. So why doesn't Peter Schneider, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, accept the contention that "Aida" was the marketing equivalent of a slam dunk?

"You can only do so much with marketing," he states flatly. "At the end of the day, I don't care if people say, `They're so clever over there [at Disney].' We're not a marketing machine. We're a bunch of people who are passionate about our art."

Mr. Schneider's point, to paraphrase another savvy theatrical marketer, Shakespeare: The show's the thing. If "Aida" hadn't proved a satisfying theatrical experience, all the Elton John power ballads in the world could not have saved it from a quick-and costly-demise.


Instead, the show has ranked No. 2 behind "The Lion King" every week since its debut in March at the Palace Theater. Net receipts for "Aida" are hovering around $850,000 per week.

"Our goal was to convince people that the music was important," Mr. Schneider explains. To this end, he took pains to forge an adult-oriented identity completely distinct from Disney's other musicals via a radio and targeted e-mail campaign.

Only after the show opened to nearly four months of packed houses did Disney allow "Aida" to be grouped with "Beauty & the Beast" and "Lion King," and touted via "Disney on Broadway," the theme of its primarily print marketing campaign. The "Disney on Broadway" tag is now so successful it's considered by the marketer to be a potential new arm.

Mr. Schneider, despite his overarching responsibilities as chairman of Disney Studios, is a natural fit to oversee theatrical marketing. Before joining Disney in 1985 as VP-animation, he directed dramatic plays and musicals in Chicago, London and New York.

He directed the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, which marked the beginning of his professional relationship with Thomas Schumacher. Together, they oversees all of Disney's theatricals.


"To me, `Aida' confirms that Disney clearly cares more about the quality of the product than the quality of the marketing," says Eileen LaCario, VP at Broadway in Chicago. Ms. LaCario was VP-marketing for Fox Theatricals, Disney's marketing agency for the show while it was in Chicago in 1999 running under the title, "Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida."

Mr. Schneider acknowledges that Disney has its critics within the tight-knit New York theater community.

"There's always some jealousy when people are successful," he says. He is quick to note marketing "Aida" required as much skill and tenacity than any other Broadway production. First, there was the issue of whether to celebrate, or even acknowledge, the show's connection to the famed Verdi opera.

"There was this concern that `Nobody goes to see an OPERA!' " Mr. Schneider says with mock hysteria.


"People say that opera is anathema to the box office like Shakespeare is, but then something like `Shakespeare in Love' comes along and blows away that line of thinking," says Nancy Coyne, CEO of Serino Coyne, New York, an independent entertainment advertising agency that handles Disney's Broadway properties.

When Disney research revealed that relatively few people were familiar with Verdi's work-and that those who knew it were receptive to a new musical interpretation-the opera issue ceased to be a major concern.

Mr. Schneider also had to figure out how to present "Aida" to adults while two other Disney shows were playing on Broadway. Unlike "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Lion King," "Aida" was not based on an animated film and thus lacked a built-in audience moving from film to the stage shows.

Additionally, its songs and characters are distinctly less cuddly than those of its predecessors. Hence, the decision was made early in the marketing process to position "Aida" as sophisticated adult entertainment, suitable for older children but certainly not for 5-year-olds still clutching their Simba toys.

"We were thinking along lines of "Phantom of the Opera" or "Les Miserables," says Ms. Coyne.

To this end, the marketing team centered its efforts on the love story and the songs written by Messrs. John and Rice. Mr. Schneider launched an extensive radio advertising campaign in January. In addition, he sent an enhanced e-mail to "Aida's" target adult audience that contained a message from Mr. John and an audio clip of music from the show.

Mr. Schneider is sensitive-justifiably so, given the number of anti-Disney snipers that still exist within the tight-knit New York theater community-to the suggestion that "Aida" is little more than a marketing phenomenon, a triumph of spending over substance. Too, he bristles at the notion that Disney has bullied its way onto Broadway with little more than a checkbook and marketing chutzpah.

"The Disney name and brand helps you reach a lot of people-I don't think that's any secret," Mr. Schneider says. "But there's also a lot of responsibility to live up to what the brand means and what people associate it with. I don't think we spend much more [on marketing] than anyone else [on Broadway]" and points out that unlike other Broadway organizations, Disney is beholden to the toughest critics of all: its shareholders. "They tend to measure success in terms of profitability. You can't just market yourself to that kind of success."

Nor does he plan to try. Regardless of the Disney on Broad-way brand, Mr. Schneider promises that the marketing of the company's next theatrical production will be dictated by the show itself.

"You can't start until you know exactly what it is you have," he says. "With `Aida' we knew as soon as we heard the songs."

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