Hollywood’s Big Bet on Broadway Adaptations
LOS ANGELES — To understand why Hollywood is moving aggressively into making musicals for Broadway, just look out the eighth-floor office window of Jimmy Horowitz, the president ofUniversal Pictures.
On the studio lot below, along a route where trams of tourists roll by, is a black-and-green poster for the hit musical “Wicked.” Universal is the majority investor in the show, which has grossed $3 billion since 2003 from productions in New York, Chicago, London, Tokyo, and dozens of other cities. More to the point: “Wicked” is on track to become the most profitable venture in the 101-year history of Universal, Mr. Horowitz acknowledged in an interview, more lucrative than its top-grossing movies like “Jurassic Park” and “E.T.” The show is an open-ended juggernaut, charging 10 times more per ticket than movie theaters do.
“ ‘Wicked’ opened our eyes to the possibility of what can happen when you have a show that becomes a perennial,” said Mr. Horowitz, whose studio initially planned to make the 1995 novel “Wicked” into a film instead — and now expects to make a movie of the musical someday, expanding the franchise. “I don’t think we’d appreciated what those revenue streams could be.”
Now Universal is turning “Animal House” into a musical, and “Back to the Future” and“The Sting” may be next. Twentieth Century Fox is eyeing “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Waitress.” Sony is developing “Tootsie.” Warner Brothers has “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in London and is talking to producers about a possible musical version of the Channing Tatum flick “Magic Mike.”
And once again this season on Broadway is dominated by screen-to-stage adaptations like “Rocky,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Big Fish,” all of which have varying degrees of studio involvement. The musical “Aladdin” is coming this winter, adapted in-house by Disney, which has the biggest screen-to-stage hit of all : “The Lion King,” with its worldwide gross of $5.4 billion.
If the Hollywood frenzy raises questions about originality — has theater become just a derivative cog in brand machinery? — the stage adaptations may simply be too financially rewarding for the studios and Broadway to cut back. And adaptations can be artistically creative: The new musical “American Psycho” (based on a book that became a film) is about a serial killer, while this year’s Tony Award winner for best musical, “Kinky Boots,” is based on a little-known British movie and has the first Broadway score by the pop superstar Cyndi Lauper.
But what does it take for a movie to become a blockbuster musical?
That’s the puzzle that Hollywood executives are trying to crack as they mine their movie catalogs to squeeze more profits from them, a hands-on strategy that represents a significant shift, after decades in which studios passively signed away film rights to theater producers who did most of the work. What Hollywood is finding is that there are no easy formulas: No “Wicked 2” or other sequels; no surefire star vehicles (Nathan Lane’s departure killed the “Addams Family” musical on Broadway); and no superhero action fluff that is easy to stage (hello, Spider-Man). In other words, don’t expect to see the biggest moneymakers go to Broadway anytime soon, studio executives say — no “Avatar: The Musical,” no singing Wookies.
“We’re looking through our 4,000 movies for the stories with the strongest emotional resonance, for stories that feel like they want to be sung onstage,” said Lia Vollack, who oversees theater for Sony and is also president of the company’s worldwide music division. “And I wouldn’t rule out any genre — though a horror musical could be challenging, and superheroes really do rely on certain types of visuals that are pretty cinematic.”
What the studios are confronting is the tricky alchemy of stage adaptation: finding films and books that have the DNA that might spawn a musical, then matching them with artists who have a vision for delivering quality onstage and quantity at the box office.
Most Broadway musicals throughout history have been adaptations, although complaints about the movie-turned-musical have been a relatively recent trend. (The latest, by the film critic of The Telegraph in London, appeared last month under the headline “Can We Please Stop Turning Great Films Into Musicals?”) The first nine winners of the best-musical Tony were based on books and plays, starting with “Kiss Me, Kate” in 1949; the first best-musical Tony winner inspired by a movie was “Applause” in 1970, drawn from the 1950 Fox movie “All About Eve.”
Not that relying on a brand-name movie has ever been a guarantee. Roughly 75 percent of shows lose money on Broadway, including many beloved popular movies that were turned into musicals, like the recent flops “Ghost” and “9 to 5.”
“Sometimes you don’t get artists who jell,” said Mark Kaufman, one of the executives overseeing theater ventures at Warner Brothers. “Sometimes the material doesn’t translate to stage. Sometimes audiences complain, ‘Why aren’t there original musicals?’ What’s happening now is, Hollywood and Broadway are trying to make better shows together.”
To that end, Universal invested in the recent Broadway musicals “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” to cultivate ties with their rising-star directors, Alex Timbers and Diane Paulus. Last summer, Sony executives bought a stake inthe company of the Broadway producer Scott Sanders (“The Color Purple”) to give him a first-look deal for their film catalog, beginning with the “Tootsie” project. And last month, Fox announced a partnership with one of Broadway’s most successful producers, Kevin McCollum (“Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “In the Heights”), to help turn 9 to 12 movies into stage musicals. Fox executives also tapped Isaac Robert Hurwitz of the New York Musical Theater Festival to advise them on their projects with Mr. McCollum and on theater producing strategy.
At the heart of the Fox deals is a recognition by the studio — and you hear this all across Hollywood — that most filmmakers don’t really know how to make great stage musicals on their own. The most successful one is Scott Rudin, an Academy Award winner who is one of the lead producers of the smash hit “The Book of Mormon.” Disney is alone in having an in-house theatrical division that makes its own musicals, led by another top producer on Broadway, Thomas Schumacher.
Studio executives say they are counting on Broadway veterans to tell them, among other things, whether characters like Euphegenia Doubtfire or Bluto Blutarsky can be made to sing — and if so, how that should be done. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for instance, has some approval rights in the musical version of “Rocky” over casting and certain production elements but left most decisions to the creative team, led by Mr. Timbers.
“They definitely never weighed in on content,” including the climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed, Mr. Timbers said of MGM. Given that the fight is a famous moment in the “Rocky” franchise, the stage scene could have risked becoming an embarrassment for the brand, but Mr. Timbers’s use of stage magic has drawn praise from critics and Broadway producers who have seen the musical’s world premiere in Hamburg, Germany.
Sony, too, took a collaborative approach with the film producers Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen on the musical adaptation of “Big Fish.” Songs by Andrew Lippa (“The Wild Party”) were performed for Sony executives, and they weighed in on script and production choices, ultimately deciding to invest in the Broadway run, which starts in September. (Sony executives and Mr. Jinks declined to specify the amount.) But the hardest work — making a musical out of a fantastical story of an old man unspooling one tall tale after another — was left to the producers and their team.
“A movie can have so many more scenes than a musical, and so much can be achieved with close-ups and other cinematic devices, so we had to think carefully about which scenes to keep and make theatrical and what other moments could be turned to song,” Mr. Jinks said. “In the movie, there’s a scene where time stops and the main character walks through a circus tent — a mesmerizing scene. For the musical, Andrew has a written a song called ‘Time Stops,’ and it hits you emotionally in a way only musical theater can.”
For Mr. Horowitz of Universal, the 2000 film “Billy Elliot,” about a British boy who wants to dance ballet, had several “key ingredients” that might make a good musical, like a lead character with buried emotions that could be rendered in song, and a plot full of big dreams and wishes coming true. But it took theater artists like the director Stephen Daldry and the composer Elton John to turn the movie into a wholly credible song-and-dance show, he said, by coming up with the juxtaposition of the would-be ballerinas and the struggling coal miners in Billy’s town.
“They took the underlying material and reinvented it so completely that the audience had a completely different experience than the one you had watching the movie,” Mr. Horowitz said. “Billy Elliot” opened on Broadway in 2008 at a cost of $18 million, won the Tony Award for best musical and turned a profit, but it ended up closing earlier than expected in 2012 because of its high running expenses and a decline in ticket sales.
Even if “Billy Elliot” fell short of commercial expectations on Broadway, Mr. Horowitz still said he views the musical as a model for Hollywood adaptations. While he declined to discuss “Animal House,” finding the right artistic team has proved a challenge. The musical group Barenaked Ladies recently left the project, replaced by Broadway composer David Yazbek (the movie-to-musical adaptations “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), and the playwright Michael Mitnick is taking another crack at his script, according to news reports. The director remains Casey Nicholaw, who showed with “The Book of Mormon” that he has a talent for blending raunchy humor with characters both outrageous and sweethearted — pure “Animal House.”
Putting together teams can be arduous, whether for movies or stage musicals, but the front-end development costs for musicals tend to be far lower, often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars compared with millions for movies. By Hollywood standards, too, stage musical budgets are small — $5 million on the low end, $20 million on the high, compared with $100 million or considerably more for movies.
Deep-pocketed studios are, meanwhile, a veritable godsend for musical producers, who are otherwise forced to line up dozens of investors who write checks of $50,000 or more. ”A very powerful financing partner — a multibillion-dollar company as a partial funding source — gives you a tremendous leg up to get work in development and get shows onstage,” said John Davis, a veteran film producer at Fox (“The Firm,” “Predator”) who is working with Mr. McCollum on the new theater venture at the company.
Mr. McCollum cited “Mrs. Doubtfire” as an example of the potential risks and rewards of studio-driven adaptations. Fox executives said they were eager to develop it into a musical and perhaps finance 25 percent or more of the costs, and Mr. McCollum noted that the plot seemed tailored for Broadway audiences, as a family-oriented comedy about a man who poses as a female British housekeeper so he can spend time with his children amid a custody battle.
At the same time, Mr. McCollum said, the movie had a memorable star turn by Robin Williams, and not so long ago (it was released in 1993), raising the question of whether audiences would warmly embrace another actor in the role.
That was one problem faced by the 1996 musical “Big,” spun off from the Tom Hanks movie without much impact on Broadway. And it is certainly a test for “Rocky,” a $15 million production that in some ways is one of the most surprising ventures of all. WhileTony winners like “Kinky Boots” and the 2012 musical “Once” are best-case scenarios for adaptation — no-name movies with the bones that could make for popular musicals — a beloved film like “Rocky” could stretch the tolerance and patience of theatergoers.
Even the original star of “Rocky,” Sylvester Stallone, who is one of the musical’s producers, acknowledged as much.
“Some movies work perfectly as movies, and you don’t want to mess around with them,” Mr. Stallone said in an interview after the Hamburg opening. “But I think the ‘Rocky’ musical is really original, not some derivative silly show. We know, and the studio knows, that audiences will have the final word, though.”