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This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Broadway has always been a risky business: Only one in four shows turns a profit, and it can cost anywhere from $2 million to $4 million to produce a straight play and $10 million to as much as $25 million to produce a musical (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with a budget of $75 million, is an outlier).
With investments like that, producers seeking a slice of the industry’s $1 billion-plus annual box office always are searching for guarantees. In recent years, thanks to an infusion of Hollywood star power deployed strategically along the Great White Way, theater’s moneymen (and -women) finally might have developed a winning formula: Sign a Hollywood star (or two) for a strictly limited run of three to four months, and count on ticket sales — especially premium seats that go for hundreds of dollars above regular prices — to pay off the investment with a little profit left over. Until recently, producers insisted that stars sign yearlong contracts to appear in plays, so they could recoup their production costs. While that wasn’t a problem for Broadway stars like Bernadette Peters (Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun), the long-term commitment made it hard to attract Hollywood stars given Broadway’s modest paydays. But thanks to premium pricing, an A-lister-driven vehicle can now recoup in as little as two months, making even short runs long on profits for producers and stars.
This trend took off in 2006 with Julia Roberts in Richard Greenberg‘s Three Days of Rain; the show got a rocky critical reception, but audiences flocked to see her onstage. Other notable sold-out, limited-run star turns included Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in the 2009 cop drama A Steady Rain; Denzel Washington, who won a Tony Award for August Wilson‘s Fences in 2010; and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2012’s Death of a Salesman.
Most of the 2012-13 season’s 11.6 million audience members saw musicals, still the biggest draw on Broadway: Matilda, Pippin, Kinky Boots and Motown have proved smash hits. But such stars as Tom Hanks, Bette Midler, Cicely Tyson and Sigourney Weaver have garnered big buzz for their current productions, all straight plays. And early in the season, Al Pacino, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Chastain and Paul Rudd appeared in limited runs.
Producers, who often seek safety in numbers (it’s not uncommon to see 10 to 20 names listed above a show’s title), constantly look for ways to hedge their bets, especially as competition for audiences grows. “[Theatergoers have] so many options for plays and musicals, especially in the spring. And then there are other things in life that aren’t theater,” says producer Arielle Tepper Madover, who has three shows on Broadway including I’ll Eat You Last, a one-woman play about the late talent agent Sue Mengers, starring Bette Midler. “You have to find a way to stand out from the pack. Having a name in your show definitely helps do that, and a limited run creates a sense of urgency.”
Although Midler was not nominated for a Tony, ticket sales for the $2.4 million play — in a 13-week run at the relatively small Booth Theatre on 45th Street — have been strong, with the show breaking house records. I’ll Eat You Last recouped its investment within two months.
Lucky Guy, the late Nora Ephron‘s final work starring Tom Hanks as tabloid journalist Mike McAlary, likewise had a two-month recoupment of its $3.6 million investment. Says producer Colin Callender, “Clearly the premium ticket is a contributor to that.” While regular prices range from $87 to $152 for Lucky Guy, premium tickets — adjustable to audience demand through dynamic pricing — go for $225 to $350. And Callender, a former president of HBO Films, says there has been unusually high demand to see Hanks: “From the first preview the house was full, and people were buying standing-room tickets.” Still, he adds, opening a 14-character play on Broadway cold (with no out-of-town tryout), even with Hanks, was a risky proposition: “It was no sure thing, either that the play would be fully financed or that it would actually work financially.”
A look at some of the season’s disappointments proves Callender’s point. Craig Wright‘s Grace, which had been produced to acclaim at several regional theaters and starred Rudd, Michael Shannon and Ed Asner, flopped. And, in probably the season’s biggest disappointment, Johansson’s $40,000-a-week turn as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof failed to catch fire and closed taking a financial loss. On the other hand, a revival of David Mamet‘s Glengarry Glen Ross starring Al Pacino, who had a $125,000-a-week guarantee, got mixed reviews but sold out its run and made a profit.
For film stars at the center of this business model, even a weekly guarantee that’s large by Broadway standards doesn’t compare with a big feature paycheck. Eight performances a week is “a beast … formidable,” says Hanks, who adds that he enjoys the challenge, especially with an ensemble that includes Maura Tierney, Courtney B. Vance and his former Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari. “It’s like we play a furious basketball game every night in Madison Square Garden.” Published reports say Hanks has a $75,000-a-week guarantee, though Callender declines comment beyond, “It’s not in the same league as what he would get if he was doing The Da Vinci Code or whatever.” Still, with 12.5 percent of the show’s gross, Hanks is earning more than $150,000 a week in his Broadway debut — and has a good chance of winning a Tony, too.
Although Hanks originally was scheduled to appear in Lucky Guy through June 15, his run has been extended — but only through July 3. “One would love for the play to run on, and there’s a demand right now that exceeds the number of performances that we have available. So, in that sense, it’s a mixed blessing,” says Callender of the star-power-fueled formula. “There are no sure bets.”
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