How to succeed on Broadway without really trying? Start with a movie

On any given day at the "Crossroads of the World," tourists in Times Square will drop a bit of cash to snap a photo with SpongeBob SquarePants. But Nickelodeon and parent company Viacom (VIA) are betting New York theater-goers will ante up much bigger bucks -- the average Broadway ticket now costs $103 -- to see the sea sponge and his aquatic pals in "The SpongeBob Musical," expected to open on The Great White Way sometime in the next 12 months.

Trying to squeeze more money from the SpongeBob franchise appears to be savvy wager, given the practically built-in audience for the musical. The wildly popular cartoon airs in 185 countries and has been translated into 50 languages, making it the most widely distributed property in Viacom's history.

Money couldn't buy that kind of publicity. That's why movie studios that are hoping to wring more profits from their archives are increasingly transforming their better known films and TV properties into Broadway productions.

Warner Brothers (TWX) is craving sweet results from its staging of the movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," while Columbia Pictures' (SNE) stage division is hoping for financial deja vu from its the theatrical production of the classic film "Groundhog Day." By next year, "Frozen" is expected to blow onto Broadway courtesy of Disney (DIS), the king of the film-to-Broadway transformation.

Over the next two years, it's estimated that a quarter of Broadway shows could be the offspring of a movie, and that's leading some in the theater industry to lament the nepotism and its potential to stifle original works.

Disney envy and Wickeditis are driving the screen-to-stage trend. Worldwide revenues from "The Lion King" exceed $6 billion. A Universal Studios (CMCSA) executive has reportedly described Wicked -- with around $4 billion in global sales -- as the media giant's most profitable venture ever.

"Movie studios are looking for ways to exploit their existing rights," said attorney Seth Gelblum, a partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb who specializes in Broadway. "There can be big at money in upfront ticket sales."

Or not. Only around one in five Broadway shows turns a profit, and the theory is that a familiar title increases the dismal odds. Staging a show can be a relatively small risk for studios considering that producing a musical typically costs between $12 million to $15 million, while the average movie budget is around $100 million, driven up by the more than $200 million routinely spent on making sci-fi flicks and comic book-derived films.

"This is just an obvious line of business for us," said Bob Cohen, executive vice president of legal affairs for Twentieth Century Fox Films. "But we understand that it isn't the movie business, and we want to do it right."

Over the last three years, Fox hired Isaac Hurwitz, a co-founder of the New York Musical Theatre Festival to lead its live-stage efforts, and it inked a joint venture with Kevin McCollum, a Tony-winning producer of hits like "Rent," to present shows. Sony Pictures Entertainment bought a 20 percent stake in the production company run by Scott Sanders, the Tony-winner behind such shows as "The Color Purple" and "After Midnight," to collaborate on projects.

For some Broadway producers, the relationships can offer a direct route to corporate cash that's more typically raised from individuals in relatively small increments like $25,000 or $100,000.

"I think studio relations can be a great way to raise money," said McCollum. "They're also a great way to find source material."

The first product of the venture, a musical version of "The Wimpy Kid," was a hit when it opened in Minneapolis earlier this year. McCollum said he and partners at Fox are considering bringing it to Broadway and are also working on adapting "The Devil Wears Prada," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Night at the Museum" for the stage.

A version of the animated movie "Anastasia" is bound for Broadway this season. "Tootsie," "Mean Girls," "Dead Poet's Society" and "Pretty Woman" are also under development, according to sources and published reports.

However, some fear Broadway is morphing into a multiplex. Productions based on movies currently fill 15 percent of Broadway's 40 theaters -- and that count could rise to at 25 percent over the next 18 months. Those figures don't even count books-turned-movies-turned shows. Experts worry that cautious theater owners will choose to book well-financed movie-based shows over lesser-known original vehicles, diluting Broadway's originality.

"The movie studios are really on Broadway in a big way, and it's kind of sad," said one producer who requested anonymity. "Broadway has always been more artist-driven."

Others insist the fear is overblown. Theater owners have endured enough film-based flops to know such imaginings don't always fill seats. "Big Fish" sank. "Rocky" was KO'ed, and "Bullets Over Broadway" was shot down early in its run. Even Disney magic couldn't save "Tarzan" and "The Little Mermaid" from their disappointing runs.

"Theater owners are looking at the quality of the product," said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. "The more organizations that bring their scope and talent to Broadway, the better it will be."

The 70th annual Tony Awards air on CBS this Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT.