3 Reasons Why Lion King Made a Billion Bucks.

Lion King Broadway billionBroadway hit another milestone last week that made the business world (and a whole lot of potential Broadway investors) perk up and take notice.

The Lion King announced that it would be the first Broadway show to gross $1 billion . . . from its Broadway production alone.  The news was so big it got picked up by publications all over the world, from the usuals, like Entertainment Weekly, to “serious” outlets like Time Magazine (Fancy us!).

The Lion King‘s success is of special interest to me, as I was right across the street when it opened, working as the Associate Company Manager of Ragtime.  The Lion King vs. Ragtime matchup was more intense than Hulk Hogan vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper in WrestleMania I.  And we all know what happened there.  (Ok, maybe only dudes who were 13 in 1985 know what happened there.)

What happened was that Lion King went on to make a billion bucks.  Ragtime, which I’ll go to my grave saying is one of the greatest musicals of the modern era, lost the Tony and closed way too early, and its lead Producer would up in jail.

So what did it?  What made Lion King the richest musical in the county . . . and counting?  (It was the highest grossing musical last week (in its 16th year) with a take of 1.8 million bucks.)

Here are my three reasons why Lion King made a billion dollars at its box office:

1.  “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It!”

That’s the thing I heard the most from audience members way back in the day . . . and what I’m still hearing now.  As I preach all the time, in product development, in marketing . . . unique sells.  The Julie Taymor puppetry was so unbelievably unique, and so “new,” that it became a “talkable topic” – fuel for word of mouth.  And the unique qualities of the design and the artistry made the show feel like it belonged on a stage, not like it was a cheap ripoff of a movie.  It felt new.  If you look at all the Disney musicals so far – it is by far the most unique – and, surprise, surprise, it’s still crushing it at the box office.

2.  The Circle of Disney

The Lion King is a new classic.  Parents who saw it as a kid are now showing it to their kids, who no doubt will show it to theirs, and so on.  That’s the magic of a classic Disney movie.  Because of the circular re-exposure it receives, entirely new audiences are created every year.  And when a tourist comes to NYC, with family in tow, seeing the musical becomes part of the journey of the brand.  While it can be scary to try and musicalize something that is such an important part of pop culture, if you can find a property that continues to generate new audiences year after year, snatch it up.

3.  Cross Promote This!

The first bullet points in this list are something that we can all apply to our producing careers.  This one, however, is a little most challenging . . . unless you own a ton of theme parks and a movie studio.  Yes, yes, one of the reasons Disney has made so much money with Lion King is its ability to cross promote the property with the theme parks (there is a mini version of the show in Orlando) and the television networks (it’s no coincidence that ABC affiliates are happy to do nice long feature stories on the show when it comes to town) and so on.  Ok, ok, so you don’t own networks or swamp land in Florida.  But that doesn’t mean there’s a lesson to be learned here.  You do have something.  Maybe you have a real estate company in addition to your theater company.  Or maybe you have a book club . . . or a blog?  Those folks could come to your shows and vice-versa.  Connect the dots of everything you’re doing.  Disney never lets people escape their world.  And you should endeavor to do the same.

4.  BONUS:  Disney Datafication

Here’s an extra reason why I think LK has done so well over the past decade and a half . . . they’ve got so much data at their fingertips and are so great at crunching it up (because they’ve been doing it in all their other industries for so many years), that they are the best at squeezing every dollar out of a consumer, without the consumer feeling like they are being squeezed.  From knowing when their customers are here, to knowing exactly how much they’ll pay for a premium seat, they know how to maximize their revenue . . . even if it means spending more money to do it.  Read this article to see their latest data-driven venture at their themeparks.  Your mind will be blown.  And your consumer experience will be improved . . . as will Disney’s bottom line.


We can’t all be Disney.  Actually no one can be Disney.  It’s no surprise that they’re the first company to produce a billion dollar musical on Broadway.  So don’t try to be Disney (Actually, that’s what Garth Drabinsky did at Livent, and he ended up in the clink as a result).  I don’t want to be Disney.  I don’t want to be Apple.  And I don’t want to be Obama.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the things they do well (and the things that they don’t) so I can be the best Producer me.


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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.