When you’re pondering “Hamilton,” it’s never clear whether you are talking about something distinct and unique in the realm of live entertainment, or a bellwether of future trends. But one thing’s for sure. Lin-Manuel Miranda knows how to make choices that pay off.
Take this week’s news that Disney has agreed to pay $75 million to license and distribute a filmed version of Miranda’s Broadway hit in the fall of 2021. In essence, the producer Jeffrey Seller decided to film two live performances at the Richard Rogers Theatre just before the exit of the original cast, replete with the show’s composer, writer and creator Miranda in the title role. At that juncture, Seller and Miranda had not decided what to do with the footage, which then was spliced together with some additional close-ups so it could be turned into a film directed by Thomas Kail. They just thought it behooved them to get it while they could.
Now, $75 million is a stunning amount of money for a home movie like that. Lots of live artistic events get filmed, and there is a loyal market for them, but it exists outside of the realm of big Hollywood deal-making. Not this time. And if you were Disney, you surely would see a colossal upside: “Hamilton,” with the original company, available at your local movie theater, or maybe on your own mobile device, for just a few dollars. There will be a market for that all across the United States and over the world. I’ll wager Disney will net a lot more than $75 million.
Once again, let’s marvel at the shrewdness of Miranda’s decision making (he has the ultimate artistic say on how this property will or will not be developed). He gets a big paycheck personally. He shares new revenue with his producer and with the original cast, who were also his trusted collaborators. He can tweet about his making this show accessible to people who could never afford to buy a Broadway theater ticket, or pay to get there in person, thus fulfilling his social mission while expanding his brand.
Think about that. Most of us make choices in life either to make the best living we can or, well, put aside the big bucks to make a difference. Miranda has figured out a way to do both simultaneously, by focusing assiduously on expanding his market while tending, person to person, to his fan base on Twitter with the care and shrewdness of Donald J. Trump, even if that it is where the comparison ends. In years to come, they’ll be making cases out of Miranda’s brand management at Harvard Business School.
You never see Miranda go after people on social media or make calls-out or attempt takedowns (maybe with one exception). He learned the skills of inclusivity from Barack Obama.
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And wait, there’s more. Nobody here has to do much more work.
In terms of the filming, it’s already done. You don’t have to coordinate schedules of people with busy careers and lives. (Kail, who also directed the Broadway production, currently is expecting a child with his fiancee Michelle Williams). It’s all in the can already. When doing the vast bulk of the filming, the actors were actually double-dipping, being as they were performing in front of a Broadway audience. Brilliant. For them, their share of the $75 million is found money while they do what they otherwise would already have done. All it will require is a few press junkets. To say these artists of more modest wealth will be even more appreciative of their friend Lin puts it mildly.
Even better, Miranda has frozen everyone’s ages! While there is (arguably) nothing inherent to “Hamilton” that prevents the show being performed by older actors, Miranda’s original vision was imbued with the idea of youth. The timing offers up another year or so of exclusivity for the live show, which has closed in Chicago after grossing some $400 million, but continues to tour around the country with several different companies, even as demand for the film builds. (Brilliant, again). Miranda has also ensured his own performance in the lead role, which I know he does not want to do as a middle-age man.
This way of proceeding also maintains crucial artistic control for team Miranda: Disney is their customer, not their boss. No new creative players with invasive clout.
And here’s the cleverest thing of all: this film does not preclude an actual feature movie. It just kicks that additional payday down the road. It could well be that Miranda and Seller have found a way to sell their show to Hollywood twice.
Sure, there are caveats. The failure in Chicago of “Hamilton the Exhibition” seemed to suggest that the show’s fans want the show, not related historical material. And it could be that Disney can’t find an audience. Sure. Could be. Disney might also have negotiated such a long period of exclusivity that the feature is so delayed that interest will so limited as to torpedo the viability of the project. Nothing is forever. People are beginning to move on, even from “Hamilton.”
But Miranda’s No. 1 talent is momentum — political, financial, personal. That’s because he is steeped in the theater, which is an art-form rooted in the idea of humans in motion, either embracing change or being bowled over by cataclysmic developments for which they were not fully prepared.
That course of study, when followed with human kindness, beats any MBA.