Hollywood’s Big Bet on Broadway Adaptations

August 4th, 2013

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 of Universal 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 in the 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.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.