Britain’s biggest theatre chain is in negotiations with New York and regional US impresarios. Ambassador Theatre Group, which controls 39 theatres across the UK, wants to create a “Hollywood-style” network, joint CEO Howard Panter tells me. The idea is not just ship ATG hits such as A Little Night Music across the pond, but import successful American shows here. Traditionally, most theatre productions move between London and Broadway. Panter wants to widen that exchange to include regional US theatre hubs.
“This is going to be a new way of doing things,” Panter says. “It’s much more like a movie business model, creating titles and productions which can flow through the network in either direction.”
ATG is having a good run with Legally Blonde, which it imported from Broadway. And it has just opened its musical La Cage Aux Folles in New York. Having a UK/US network means that shows can be developed for transatlantic audiences much earlier, Panter says. It will also create more opportunities for playwrights to have their work seen in America – not just on Broadway.
ATG plans to open hit London show Jerusalem in New York this autumn, followed by The Mountaintop, which recently won the Oliver Award for Best Play. Woody Allen’s sometime producer Jean Doumanian is co-producing The Mountaintop with ATG.
Because it is such an old form, it is easy to overlook how profitable theatre can be. Providing you have a hit. The movie business has been compared to a bucket with holes in it because of the number of people who all take their cut before the producer sees a cent. With the theatre on the other hand you can stand at the box office counting the number of tickets sold. Disney is estimated to be grossing £260 million ($400 million) a year from the productions of The Lion King it has roaming the world. The Lion King made £32 million last year in London alone. ATG’s recent 800-seat production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, starring Keira Knightley and Damien Lewis, recouped its £400,000 production cost within five weeks.
The group bought 16 additional theatres from Live Nation for £90 million from Live Nation last November. Two of them are in the West End – housing hit musicals Wicked and The Lion King – and 14 are regional theatres. ATG now controls nearly 50,000 theatre seats across the UK – nearly five times the closest competition.