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Howard Sherman: Are indie films a smarter investment than theatre on Broadway?

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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Despite the difference in scale between theatre and movies, those of us connected to the stage can occasionally be forgiven for feeling a little schadenfreude when looking at the performance of some movie blockbusters.

While box office figures for big films are far beyond what most theatre productions could dream of, they also crash in ways far beyond anything a theatre production is likely to experience (forgetting the absurd amounts of money reportedly spent on Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, an anomaly if ever there was one).

It is worth noting that the summer of 2017 is on track to be the worst for US movie theatre revenue in 25 years. Consider Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which reportedly cost $175 million to produce and grossed less than $40 million in the US.

Its total gross worldwide was $143 million; that doesn’t even account for what the movie theatres themselves get, as well as the extensive marketing costs.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets cost $177 million and has grossed only $114 million worldwide. Of course, movies that were expensive to make have also grossed many multiples of their cost, such as Wonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast.

So why compare apples and oranges?

Because if you pore over the lists of hit films, you’ll come across a few such as Get Out, the surprise hit that mixed horror with social commentary and fuelled healthy conversation about race, at least in the US. Get Out has grossed $252 million internationally. Its budget? Somewhere between $4.5 million and $5 million.

That’s right, Get Out cost only a bit more to make than what it costs to produce a play on Broadway today, and about one-third of what a musical costs to produce. Yes, movies haven’t factored in marketing costs the way plays do, but by the same token the grosses for a film don’t even take into account ancillary revenue such as streaming and broadcast sales.

When hit movies and limited-run plays cost the same amount, it gives one pause about the future of financing Broadway shows

Certainly that most of the highest-grossing films are also the most expensive, the success of Get Out makes for an interesting counterpoint for commercial theatre endeavours. As investors are courted in both fields, there are certainly some who do it for love of the respective form, but there are others who are also interested in earning back their money and then some.

Low budgets are insufficient for many films, and horror has historically been fairly cheap to produce (the extraordinary performance of The Blair Witch Project is assuredly the greatest example). But when the costs are kept low, smaller movies likely have a greater chance of returning investments than most Broadway plays.

And with only 20% to 25% of all Broadway shows returning their investment, when the costs are comparable the risk may be comparable as well.

This isn’t to suggest that Broadway investors should all run out and put their money into indie films, because overall that sector has been flooded and it’s much harder for films to break out of the pack. But when hit movies and limited-run plays cost about the same amount, it gives one pause about the future of financing Broadway productions.

The commentary about the movies’ summer failings is that the field is experiencing franchise and sequel fatigue, and that the industry has been rehashing the same characters and series a bit too much. At least theatre has learned its lesson about stage sequels, which rarely work, as shows such as Bring Back Birdie, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public and Monday After the Miracle have shown.

Perhaps as a result, a sequel to the worldwide Abba-based jukebox musical has been announced as a movie. But if it hits, maybe it will follow the ongoing movie into theatre trend that has brought us everything from Waitress to A Bronx Tale to the upcoming Frozen. Broadway and the West End yet may see Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again.

This week in US theatre

Few careers in the American theatre compare with that of Harold Prince, who started as a stage manager but began producing almost simultaneously, with such hits as The Pajama Game, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof to his credit.

Then, in the 1960s, he transitioned into directing, staging the original productions of, to name a few, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and The Phantom of the Opera. At age 88, he directs his own career retrospective (co-directing with Susan Stroman), Prince of Broadway, opening Thursday at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Following a national controversy over a small San Francisco theatre that radically edited one of his plays without permission, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Adly Guirgis makes a very rare stage appearance beginning Thursday for 11 performances only. He’ll play Donny opposite Treat Williams’ Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont.

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