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From Producers Who Dial For Dollars to the President of Disney Theatrical: On Broadway, No One is Too Big to Fail

The producers of Spider-Man, The Lion King, and Grace describe their careers in CNBC's Betting Big on Broadway. logo

A scene from The Lion King
©2007, Joan Marcus
"I think we're somewhere between idiots and true believers," said Michael Cohl, one of the lead producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Cohl and fellow Spider-Man producer Jeremiah Harris were featured in a 30-minute CNBC special, Betting Big on Broadway, which aired on Monday night. The program was hosted by CNBC's Closing Bell anchor, Maria Bartiromo, who spoke with several industry high-rollers to discuss the risks and rewards of investing in Broadway shows of varying shapes and sizes.

The program began with a substantial segment devoted to Spider-Man. It described the show as "the biggest bet on Broadway." It logically follows that Cohl and Harris are Broadway's biggest gamblers. They helmed the ship of the most expensive Broadway show in history, with costs reaching approximately $75 million by opening night and weekly production expenses exceeding $1 million. On top of this extreme financial burden, Spider-Man had numerous other hurdles to overcome. Actors were hospitalized for injuries, machinery malfunctioned throughout previews, and Cohl and Harris became embroiled in a bitter legal battle with departed director Julie Taymor. Bartiromo recalled The New York Times referring to the show as a "national joke." In her interview with Cohl and Harris, she mentioned that Spider-Man had to cancel its production four times, to which Cohl responded with a correction: "Um…maybe five times."

And yet, despite its catastrophic beginnings (or perhaps thanks to the notoriety it brought the show), Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has managed to turn a profit, making it the most expensive show ever to do so.

Meanwhile, productions that most would assume to be "safe bets" lose millions of dollars every year. Bartiromo spoke with Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, who has turned a profit on 71 percent of his shows -- in an industry where roughly 80 percent of all shows are financial failures. Disney currently runs a large chunk of the Great White Way: Mary Poppins, Newsies, and The Lion King, which has been running for 15 years, surpassing The Phantom of the Opera as the highest grossing show of all time. However, On CNBC, Schumacher compared the industry to "venture capital." "When you hit it, you hit it big," he said. When you don't, well, even the seemingly immutable Disney name is not immune to failure.

During his interview, Schumacher showed Bartiromo an elaborate costume from the 2008 Broadway production of The Little Mermaid. "I wish we hadn't spent so much, since The Little Mermaid didn't really work," he said. Disney's 2006 musical Tarzan also flopped, losing Disney Theatricals around $15 million, according to Schumacher. "I think there was a myth that Disney would keep anything running," he said. "That there was a pipeline of money coming in. But…the shows live and die on their own merits."

And then there are the shows without a big name like Disney behind them, nor a daily scandal to keep their names on the tip of The New York Times' tongue: The mainstream Broadway shows with independent producers who hunt for investors to get them to the stage. Debbie Bisno, lead producer of the Broadway comedy Grace, which closed last month, was also featured on Monday's program, providing the perspective of this large contingency of the Broadway industry. Bisno describes the process of "dialing for dollars" she went through to raise the roughly $2.5 million needed to bring Grace to Broadway, a budget very close to the average budget for all Broadway shows: $2.4 million. Her motivation to aggressively pursue investors comes from the harsh reality that, in her own words, "If you don't have the rest of the money, you don't put up the show."

Bisno tells potential investors that they can double their money within 16 weeks if the show sells well. However, she follows this optimistic message with the warning: "Don't do it if it's your last $25,000…I don't want that stress." In an industry with a 20 percent success rate, for a Broadway show to recoup its investments is not only a huge accomplishment, but an anomaly, so investors must know that they are playing at their own risk. And these risks are not always calculable. Hurricane Sandy, which devastated much of the East Coast this past October, temporarily tanked Broadway ticket sales, which threatened premature closings to Grace and other shows of similar size.

CNBC's Betting it Big on Broadway provides a behind the scenes look at a temperamental industry where profits are rare, circumstances are unpredictable, and a storm cloud could mean the difference between success and complete and utter failure. After watching it, you may be inclined to believe that those who choose to partake in this Broadway business are neither "idiots" nor "true believers" as says Spider-Man's Michael Cohl. However, the program did illuminate a certain democratic justice inherent in the very fabric of Broadway: It provides equal opportunity for everyone to lose or make a lot of money.