The Disney Director . . . dare I say . . . formula?

Disney has had a great run on Broadway . . . they’ve produced seven shows, and five have (or will) recoup (I’m putting Newsies in the win column already).   That’s a 71.4% (!) recoupment rate, in an industry where about 20% – 30% is the norm.


And when they win, they win big.  I’d guarantee that the profits from The Lion King alone have made up the losses for the two losers (Tarzan and Little Mermaid).

Business 101 tells you that if you want a successful business, you should study other successful businesses to see what makes them tick (there have been a ton of books on the Disney biz model, including this one).  So, I thought it was time to take a look-see for a trend or two.

Sure, there are the obvious takeaways of the Disney model, many of which can’t be duplicated by mere mortals:

  • Produce highly successful animated feature films first
  • Have several shows running at once so you can share marketing costs
  • Have a retail store in Midtown with huge billboard space

And so on . . .

But are there any others that may not be so obvious?

I was strolling past one of the three Broadway theaters that The Mouse occupies and I stopped for a moment to take a look at the houseboard (you know, that thing that looks like the title page on a playbill) . . . and before you could say “Supercalifragalisklalkh;lkhkjahjhdf”, a trend hit me smack in the face.

Disney has produced seven musicals.

That means they had seven Directors for those musicals.

Of those seven helmers, how many of them do you think directed a Broadway musical before they directed their Disney musical?

How about . . . 2.

Of those two, one of those was Julie Taymor, who had only directed one “musical” prior to that . . . Juan Darien . . . which was certainly not a conventional musical to say the least, as it was billed as a “Carnival Mass”.

The other was their most recent ship captain . . . Jeff Calhoun, who had five shows under his belt . . . making him the only veteran Broadway musical Director to have been chosen by The Mouse (and . . . if you believe the Shubert Alley scuttlebutt, Newsies was never intended for Broadway).

Pretty amazing, don’t you think?  Entrusting a multi-million dollar musical, and more importantly, a multi-multi million dollar brand (remember those movies?) to a first timer?  Now that’s trust.  That’s believing in the artist.

And, it’s working.

(It certainly helps that Disney doesn’t have to worry about raising money on the back of anyone’s name.)

Sure, it’s not the only reason, or even the primary reason, why Disney’s recoupment rate is what it is, but it’s certainly a trend worth looking at, especially when conventional wisdom tells us that if you want a musical to work, you better have a director that has been down the bumpy road to Broadway before.

Disney has proven that it’s not important that a Director has been down the road before . . . it’s just crucial that a Director has a crystal clear vision to see the end of the road before they start their trip.

(BTW, Disney is not the only Producer out there who has had industry-standard-busting success using first timers.  Click here to read this blog from 2008 about two other Producers who have also established a trend or two that are worth studying.)


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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.