Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The one place “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” seems destined to run forever is on the wall at Joe Allen’s Theater District bistro. It’s adorned with posters from Broadway’s most notorious flops and, absent a miracle, “Spider-Man” will be joining them.
Here’s why: Forget everything you’ve read about “Spider-Man” doing great business at the box-office.
In fact, it’s not doing great business. It has no chance of recouping its $65 million cost on Broadway, let alone earning a profit. The numbers don’t lie.
After years of delay, changes of producers and postponed openings, “Spider-Man” finally began previews on Nov. 28 at Broadway’s biggest theater, the Foxwoods.
By that time, its capitalization costs had soared to $65 million. That was by no means the end of spending for lead producer Michael Cohl and his partners, who include Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Although the show was playing to paying audiences, it was far from ready for prime time. “Spider-Man” began performances without a finished second act and before working out all the kinks of its complex and dangerous technology.
Director and co-author Julie Taymor was not about to be pushed around by a bunch of producers. Not when her “Lion King” had taken in more than $4 billion at the global box office, with no end in sight.
“There was no guidance from the beginning,” a key player in the show says. This person insisted on anonymity because people involved in the show don’t want to be seen as rat finks. “Nobody said to Julie, ‘You need to fix this before we move one step more.’”
So the show staggered along, postponing more openings, sacrificing actors to serious injuries, becoming a punch line for comedians and making the cover of the New Yorker magazine. The songwriters, U2’s Bono and The Edge, were AWOL for weeks at a time.
“We kept coming back after delays while changes were supposedly being made and nothing had changed,” the person in the show said. “And you can’t really make major changes on a show this big. We only have eight hours a week for rehearsal, so it’s pretty obvious that nothing major will change before the March 15 opening.”
Will the musical, in fact, open then? Rick Miramontez, the show’s spokesman, said that as of Friday, the March 15 opening was still in place. “I’ve heard nothing to the contrary,” he said.
Another person, familiar with the financial side of “Spider-Man,” says $1.1 million to $1.2 million is an accurate estimate of the show’s weekly running costs. According to figures released each week by the Broadway League, “Spider-Man” has been taking in $1.4 million. That’s 75 percent of its potential sales.
Empty seats are a sure sign that the show is not generating the kind of word-of-mouth that builds and sustains a long-running hit like “Wicked” or “The Phantom of the Opera.”
To be a hit, “Spider-Man” needs to sell every seat in the 1,930-seat Foxwoods Theatre, at every performance. That’s hard to do even with a blockbuster, and so far, “Spider-Man” hasn’t even been coming close.
And while some “Spider-Man” tickets are selling for upwards of $300, the average price paid is $104.63. Go to the show’s website on Ticketmaster, and you can see fields of empty seats available, especially on weeknights.
To the $1.1 million in weekly operating costs, add the overtime being paid to union labor for extra rehearsals; lost revenue from canceled shows; payouts to injured actors; and, most recently, the hiring of various show doctors to fix the thing, and that $1.4 million quickly disappears.
The show requires more than 20 stagehands to handle the backstage work, including the complicated flying and assorted machinery to move the huge sets.
Seven stage managers (one a standby) and 18 dressers are needed for each performance, along with the company of 42 actors and 22 musicians, all of them paid union wages and benefits.
Two years ago, the League changed the way it reports grosses in order to make the business look better than it actually is. Previously, the reported box-office income was the amount producers took home after credit card fees and certain other fixed costs had been deducted.
Beginning in June, 2009, those fees were no longer subtracted from the weekly tally.
The true amount available to the producers is nearly 10 percent less than the published figure. In the case of “Spider-Man,” the real weekly gross is closer to $1.26 million.
So with $1.1 million in running costs, the producers net $160,000 per week. Forty percent of that goes to the creative team and others in the show’s profit pool. That leaves about $100,000 for divvying up among the investors.
At that rate, “Spider-Man” will have to run for 650 weeks -- 12-plus years -- before turning a profit. Even if the producers’ net doubled, they still face six years to recoupment. (Not real recoupment, of course, since that would have to account for the profit that money would have made had it been invested elsewhere.)
Cohl, through spokesman Miramontez, declined to comment on these figures.
The “Spider-Man” backstage crew has been working long days beginning at 8 a.m. to deal with the demands of getting the show on while minor changes are being made. They’re not the only ones dripping flop sweat.
Hello, Joe Allen.
“Spider-Man” is in previews at the Foxwoods Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; http://www.spidermanonbroadway.com
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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