Hollywood Studios Now Scrambling to Replicate 'Lion King's' $6 Billion Worldwide Gross

Honeymoon in Vegas Art - H 2014
Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown

Honeymoon in Vegas Art - H 2014

Major players are placing bigger bets on theater as the Disney adaptation hits a milestone: "When's the last time a movie made that?"

This story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Not long after Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Grey formed Plan B Entertainment in 2002, the company set up its first project at Warner Bros., a film based on Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But a funny thing happened on the way to the big screen. Warners took the tale of a teenage autistic savant to Broadway instead (Pitt still is attached to produce the film). After a successful London run, Curious Incident opened Oct. 5 to rave reviews.

The project's path signals Hollywood's sharpening focus on Broadway: Most of the studios are expanding their theater ventures, including Universal, which on Oct. 7 realigned Universal Stage Productions under NBC Entertainment chairman and Tony-winning producer Bob Greenblatt. The 11-year-old division, which spawned the megahit Wicked, will continue to be run by Universal Pictures president Jimmy Horowitz, but insiders say Greenblatt's involvement reflects the studio's bullish attitude toward theater.

Disney has made a two-decade commitment to theater (see page 38). 20th Century Fox, too, is ramping up, and by year's end will have four high-profile plays in active development, including a musical based on The Devil Wears Prada.

See more Hollywood on Broadway: Denzel Washington, Daniel Craig Among 2013-14 Season's Stars

For risk-averse studios, the economics of theater development, particularly musicals, increasingly are becoming attractive. Consider that a veteran writer, lyricist and composer each typically will earn between $50,000 to $100,000 for a first draft. Compare that with a top film writer commanding $2 million to $3 million for a first draft. The workshopping stage costs about $300,000 to $500,000, often followed by a low-cost regional run before an investor would make a $10 million to $15 million initial Broadway commitment. "It's not like Avatar, where you're making an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars based on a script," says Bob Cohen, who oversees Fox's year-old Broadway operation. "With a show, you've had years of live experience with it before making that $10 million to $11 million investment. It's an entirely different analysis of risk."

In addition to Curious Incident, Warners has Doctor Zhivago, Honeymoon in Vegas and potentially Gigi on Broadway this season, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory slated for the 2016-17 season. "With a movie, you make all your money the first weekend," says Mark Kaufman, executive vp at Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. "With theater, it takes longer to recoup. But for us, Elf has proved to be a big brand on Broadway. And now we have the tour. It feels like the thing is going to run forever."

Read more 'Doctor Zhivago' to Sing on Broadway in Spring

For the musical adaptation of Honeymoon in Vegas starring Tony Danza (in previews Nov. 18 and opening Jan. 15), Dan Farah, a lead producer, has corralled a group of investors including reality TV heavyweights Thom Beers, Leslie Greif, Jim Berger and Brent Montgomery. "It's a lot of the same skill sets that you use in film and TV development," says Farah of the growing Hollywood investment and input on Broadway. "Finding good commercial material, developing it, putting together a great creative team."

OddLot Entertainment head Gigi Pritzker, whose latest film is Jon Stewart's Rosewater, continues to invest in theater through her Relevant Theatricals. Coming off the success of Tony winner Million Dollar Quartet, now on tour in Las Vegas and Chicago, she is developing Cumberland Blues based on the music of the Grateful Dead. "Both [theater and film] can be risky, and both can be very profitable," says Pritzker. "But with theater, there are a lot of ancillary streams of revenue down the road with touring, both internationally and domestically, with subsidiary rights, regional productions, merchandising. There are a lot of ways to bring revenue out of a successful show."

Farah points to Disney's The Lion King, the highest-grossing show of all time with a global haul of more than $6.2 billion: "When's the last time a movie made that?"

Email: Tatiana.Siegel@THR.com
Twitter: @TatianaSiegel27