Friday, July 20, 2007

Film Musicals: The $50 Million Answer

The key to any successful business venture is to produce a product at a low enough price without resorting to amoral manufacturing methods (such as exploitative labor) to achieve that low cost. You figure out what you think you can make, then produce the item for less than that amount, keeping in mind the all-important profit margin.

Fortunately for Hollywood, there is actually a simple mathematical equation for producing live-action film musicals. While I am no mathematician, I am hoping to get a portrait in Sardi’s someday for this genius discovery of Pythagorasian proportions.

In surveying the recent past, the almost sure-fire gross of a musical film (provided there is adequate advertising and decent reviews) is $50 million.

(Pause for effect.)

The problem has been that a number of recent live-action musicals have cost that much to produce, so they essentially are only earning back their production costs in their theatrical run and are still falling short in earning back marketing costs, though I’m sure they all generate a profit on DVD and when taking overseas grosses into consideration.

Evita, which had mixed reviews back in 1996, brought in $55 million. Moulin Rouge, which had stronger reviews, pulled in $57 million in domestic gross in 2001. Interestingly enough, despite having comparable budgets, meaning nearly equal profit or loss, Moulin Rouge was seen as a big hit and kick-stepped the recent interest in film musicals. The Phantom of the Opera earned $51 million in 2004.

There are two aberration in my sound scientific, mathematic, afro-tastic, and philosophic theory—The Producers and Rent. The film of The Producers made only $19 million. That gross must be tempered, however, with its lack of marketing. In my city, there were a lot of theaters playing it like any other wide release, but the marketing was so anorexic, you’d hardly have ever known it was playing. Rent garnered only $29 million in 2005.

However, when musicals are successes, they succeed big-time. Chicago and Dreamgirls both made it to the $100 million mark, with Chicago at $170 million and Dreamgirls at $103 million, also having high-selling soundtracks, getting Oscar nominations and wins, and doing very well on the DVD front.

It’s interesting to look at critics’ views when analyzing box office data. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Evita was 66% fresh, Moulin Rouge was 78% fresh, The Phantom of the Opera was only 33% fresh, Rent was only 48% fresh, and The Producers only 52% fresh. Dreamgirls was 78% fresh, while mega-hit Chicago was 87% fresh. Today’s debut, Hairspray, no shocker, is at 94% fresh.

This year there are at least three big musicals coming our way. Opening today is the awesome adaptation of Hairspray, which I have a feeling will be a big hit. Then there is an all-new musical, Disney’s Enchanted, which features Broadway’s own Idina Menzel (let’s hope this is a big hit; perhaps Idina could have a big enough name to take on Amneris in the Aida adaptation). These will be followed by Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which, with Burton and Johnny Depp attached, is sure to garner a considerable amount of buzz.

So, if studios can keep budgets in line and produce a strong film, they can seem to count on a $50 million gross. One way to keep budgets in line is to hire top new talent who don’t require huge salaries. For example, Disney could keep costs down of their planned Aida film by using a major talent like, um, let’s just say Heather Headley as an example—who has name-recognition in the African-American community and could do the part better than anyone else and deserves to—rather than tapping a big music star who cannot act the part and will cost several millions more to cast. Look at The Phantom of the Opera. There was only one named minor star, Minnie Driver, and it did $51 million in business.

Looking at this burgeoning boom of musicals on film, I can’t help but become thrilled. When I was a kid, I remember lamenting the lack of new film musicals. I loved Newsies so much, I managed to see it twice during its blink-and-you-missed-it run. By the time Evita was released, I was in college, and I think I saw it four or five times because I knew seeing it on the big screen could never be repeated at home.

I never believed the industry pundits who said people wouldn’t buy a musical today. When musicals that were done well were played on television—Mrs. Santa Claus, Cinderella, South Pacific, and Annie—they were monumental hits on television and on video. One success could be a fluke. But more than one, no way.

And yes, if my remembrance serves me correctly, Gepetto, The Music Man, The Christmas Carol, and Once Upon a Mattress weren’t such mega-hits, but they also weren’t very good.

So, I can’t wait to see how Hairspray does this weekend. It’s crucial that everyone who can goes out to see it because as musicals grow in popularity, the more studios will make. Plus, for kids like me for whom attending a Broadway show was as unreachable as flying like Peter Pan, it is great musical films like Hairspray that will help create more generations of Broadway attendees and creators.

To see my spoiler-free review of Hairspray (“The Beat Goes On: Yes, They Got Hairspray Right!”), just look for it on the index to your right. I would like to make one addition, which is that I did see Ratatouille and found it extremely enjoyable; however, Hairspray is the best movie I’ve seen all summer.

the Broadway Mouth
July 20, 2007

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