Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking Broadway production, missed its shot at the big screen, but did it really lose out? The show was filmed with the original Broadway cast four years ago for a major motion picture to hit movie theaters in October 2021. But then the coronavirus pandemic happened, and Disney decided to abandon its big screen plans and premiere the movie on its streaming channel Disney+ instead.
We don’t know the full story behind the pivot (in other words, we weren’t in “the room where it happened“), but there are a few things digital marketers and theater lovers can postulate about the streaming success of Hamilton.
Was it a success?
Disney+ has yet to release numbers on how many people watched Hamilton on their streaming service. What we do know is that it prompted a 74% increase in Disney+ app downloads in the U.S. alone (47% worldwide), and that doesn’t include new subscriptions via smart TVs, Roku, Amazon Fire TV Stick, and online.
Now that sounds huge but, as entertainment industry expert Gene Del Vecchio says, “Disney would need to add about 3.2 million new Disney+ subscribers to sign up for an entire year because of Hamilton” in order to achieve what he thinks would have been at least a $225 million box office profit for the company. It’s not likely that will happen. Or maybe Disney has a different gauge for success in mind.
“Perhaps Disney also conducted fresh audience research and analysis and discovered that one added Disney+ subscriber in 2020 was worth much more long-term than one added butt in a movie theater in 2021,” Del Vecchio adds. “Or perhaps Disney simply needed instant, financial gratification for a dismal 2020 and could not wait until 2021 for added cash.”
Is this the (even temporary) future of theater?
Broadway shows are shuttered until 2021. Can more of these shows be transferred to streaming, too? Short answer: Not really.
“I’m seeing a bunch of threads begging for all Broadway shows to be released to streaming services the way Hamilton was,” tweets New York Magazine/Vulture Columnist Mark Harris. “As someone who has sat in those archives, I can tell you that in terms of visual quality, 99 percent of them are cave paintings compared to Hamilton.”
It all has to do with production quality. No current show has already been filmed the way Hamilton was filmed (with six operator-controlled cameras, three fixed cameras, one dolly and a Steadicam, a crane and two angles capturing each performance). It may be a great backup plan for the future, but simply not possible at the moment.
“In recent years, a handful of shows have been well shot—and by ‘well shot’ I mean maybe there were 3 cameras during the performance instead of 1. But closeups? Camera movement? Forget it. And the sound is that bad, echoey, B-roll that makes people think stage actors can’t act,” Harris laments, adding in a separate tweet, “I wish the idea of a treasure trove just waiting to be freed were true, but it’s not.”
Hamilton proves that viewers are interested in stage productions being brought directly to screen without elaborately being reproduced as movies (ahem, Cats). That takes a lot of financial pressure off studios, and it makes theater more accessible, for sure. But it won’t regularly happen until we can get back into theaters and grab that footage. And when we’re back in theaters, one could wonder, will productions even want to release footage out into the wild? The overriding question here is whether seeing the production at home diminishes the desire to see it in person—or can it, instead, be a valuable promotional tool for the live theater experience?
It Was a Perfect Storm
Hamilton was already “winning the marketing game” long before its July 3rd streaming debut. Demand was high. A strike-while-the-iron-is-hot moment also existed of home viewers hungry for streaming content along with Miranda’s challenge on racial stereotypes, immigration, and the exposing a few of the faults of our historical figures aligning directly with #BlackLivesMatters and other current movements.
Hamilton’s run on Disney+ has given both the streaming service and the theater, in general, a much-needed boost. It certainly blazed digital trails, but how soon others will follow—and how the gamble financially paid off—remains to be seen.
Feature image source: Wikimedia commons