All the World’s a Stage Disneys theatrical arm has nearly unparalleled global reach
story by Gordon Cox
“Is Disney Theatrical Productions a major part of Disney? No,” says Thomas Schumacher, president and producer of the live-entertainment arm of the company run by Bob Iger. “We’re very successful within the realm of theater, but within the giant scale of Disney, we don’t move the Wall Street needle.”
That may be, but DTP has yielded a string of big-money stage hits; the most recent, “Aladdin” has a total Broadway gross of $210 million and counting in New York alone, while “The Lion King,” the still-running global smash that premiered in 1997, is the top-grossing title of all time (well over $6 billion worldwide).
DTP is currently producing 22 shows around the world, all running alongside a crowd of licensed productions at professional theaters, amateur companies, and schools. The busy international activities of the Disney on Ice skating shows only enhance the division’s profile with the public. DTP keeps mum on total earnings, but estimates put 2015 revenue at $600 million.
“That’s a giant amount of exposure globally,” says Schumacher, the former president of Disney Animation who has been the solo head of DTP since 2001. “I know Bob recognizes that.”
With access to a catalog of titles that have a nearly unparalleled reach among international audiences of all ages, DTP can operate with an unusual nimbleness in a Broadway environment that is largely populated by independent producers who could never have the bandwidth or infrastructure to handle Disney’s plethora of ongoing stage projects. In addition to its highest-profile titles for Broadway — including potential juggernaut “Frozen,” due to open in spring 2018 — there are the works being developed solely for a licensing market hungry for Disney’s well-known properties. (The most recent example: “Freaky Friday,” which premiered in October in Washington, D.C.)
"We’re very successful within the realm of theater, but within the giant scale of Disney, we don’t move the Wall Street needle.”
Thomas schumacher, president, DTP
In addition, the global demand for Disney stage shows has allowed DTP to retool Broadway disappointments like “Tarzan” and “The Little Mermaid” into strong sellers abroad, and its New York footprint allows the company the flexibility to upgrade an unexpected licensing success to a Broadway engagement, as it did with “Newsies.” Originally intended for regional and amateur troupes, the stage adaptation of the 1992 movie flop raked in more than $100 million during a two-and-a-half-year Broadway run before going on to a robust touring and international life.
Disney’s theatrical division, launched by then-CEO Michael Eisner with the hit 1994 stage adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” is very much on Iger’s radar.
“Bob has been with us all over the world,” says Schumacher, who describes the Disney chairman and CEO as an integral, influential presence at key points in every big-ticket stage project’s development.
Iger made multiple visits to rehearsals and performances for the Mandarin-language production of “The Lion King” that bowed in Shanghai over the spring, Schumacher recalls. The Disney chief stopped by New York workshops and Toronto rehearsals as “Aladdin” made its way to Broadway, where he attended the first preview. He was there, too, for an important early reading of the developing “Frozen” musical last spring.
“I would never think about doing something like that without him in the room,” Schumacher says of the “Frozen” reading.
The head of DTP describes a corporate culture at Disney where leaders of every division are in constant communication. Schumacher, for instance, saw a rough cut of “Frozen” prior to its release, and immediately recognized the potential for a stage version. “I texted John Lasseter from the lobby of the Disney screening room and said, ‘When do we start?’ We began thinking about how we would do it long before the public had seen the movie, and long before it became a phenomenon.”
DTP is just one of the divisions whose far-ranging activities Iger keeps in view. “Bob seems to understand every moving part of this company in a way that is pretty profound,” says Schumacher. “He knows all of it. It’s crazy.”