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How to Swing Back from a PR Disaster: Lessons from ‘Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark’

While on vacation in New York City last month, I made sure to carve out time to see the Broadway musical Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark. I love Marvel, and I love musicals, but neither of these were the reasons I went. Why? Because of the huge amount of buzz generated over Spider-man’s many negative reviews and setbacks.

What exactly happened?

alternate spiderman

What started as a dual-enemy, love-triangled, existential mess…

It was expensive: Production on the Spider-man musical started in 2007. By early 2009, the musical was already $25 million in debt and there was no firm book or score. The show stopped production while producers raised more money. When the show opened in June 2011, the budget was over $75 million.

It was dangerous: Multiple cast members suffered injuries due to the high-intensity acrobatics and flying stunts of the show. One actress received a concussion, another injured her neck, and an actor playing Spider-man fell from the stage when his safety harness wasn’t connected.

This prompted the New Yorker to run a cover of a hospital filled with injured Spider-men, and more Saturday Night Live parodies than I can count.

It was delayed: Spider-man was originally set to open in February 2010. But after budget setbacks, cast member injuries, and massive rewrites, the show’s opening was delayed six times. After being in previews for months, the show opened in June 2011.

How did the cast and crew react?

Quite simply, they pressed onward.

They took their constructive criticism to heart. After many scathing reviews about Spider-man’s awful songs and script, the production shut down (again) to rewrite the majority of the second act. The producers ousted their director, Julie Taymor, who was given too much money and didn’t want to dilute her show to expand their potential audience.

They poked fun at themselves. Producers, directors, and actors gracefully took the jabs from comedians and pundits and never lashed out from their bad publicity.

They showed the public that they can deliver. Once back in production, many critics responded favorably. Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark was also one of the featured musicals during the 2011 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

How is the show doing now?

thumbs up spiderman

…ended up a blockbuster, family-friendly hit.

The show is doing amazing financially. They pull in $1.3 – $1.5 million per week (They’ll have to perform on that level for five years to make up the $75 million budget, but let’s not nitpick) and consistently place in the top three grossing shows on Broadway each week.

The show is gaining more positive reviews. Instead of a snarled, dark mess, the show has transformed into a less-intense, family-friendly event. The general consensus is that the production design, acrobatics, and visual effects are breathtaking, but the book and songs are mediocre. (Author’s note: I totally agree.)

What’s next?

There are speculations that once the hype about injured actors dies down, the show won’t be strong enough to stand on its own. Spider-man doesn’t seem to be a musical that people will want to rush out and see again, like Wicked or The Lion King.

Don’t worry, though, the producers have prepared for that! In addition to increased online advertising and social media efforts, the producers are hoping to generate word-of-mouth buzz by partnering with radio stations across the country. Listeners from all fifty states will be flown to New York to see the show in exchange for gushing about it when they return.

But the most interesting idea under consideration is that new scenes and songs will be penned and injected into the show every year. The show wants to play on the musical’s serialized comic book origins all while encouraging fans to see the show again.

What any business can learn from Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark:

  • Plan, plan, plan! Make sure your ideas are fully flushed out and you’ve budgeted for surprises before diving headfirst into a project. It might save you from a similar disaster!
  • Address your upset customers, and do your best to understand their anger while keeping a level head. Ignore the haters and keep going.
  • Slowly regain the trust of your customers. Consider offering discounts or giving them unexpected bonuses on their orders.
  • Sustain interest and support positive PR. Once you’re gaining favorable news, make sure that people know. Broadcast it on your social media, reach out to local news outlets, and keep your content nice and fresh.

In a perfect world, you won’t ever have to worry about dealing with bad publicity. But if you find that your company has gone the way of Spider-man, at least you can learn from their mistakes and swing back a little faster.

Have you heard about the Spider-man musical and their setbacks? Would bad publicity be enough to generate interest in a brand for you? Have you ever had to bounce back from your own public relations disaster?

IMAGE CREDIT TO MANDY KILINSKIS, EWEN AND DONABEL, AND MATTGROMMES.


Mandy Kilinskis

Mandy is proud to be a part of QLP’s content team. A self-professed nerd, her interests include video games, sitcoms, superhero movies, iPods and iPhones but never Macs, and shockingly, writing. Her claims to fame are: owning over forty pairs of Chuck Taylor All Stars, offering spot-on coffee advice, and knowing an unbelievable amount of Disney Princess facts. You can connect with Mandy on

Comments

  1. Jen

    This Broadway musical sounds pretty amazing. I didn’t know about it until recently, and I thought it would be a hit from the get-go. It seems like a Spider-Man show would appeal to a broad audience, but if it’s not well written and is getting bad publicity, then I can understand why it would do poorly.

    It’s great, however, that the writers are listening to the customer feedback and fixing the problems. Good for them!

    I really like your business takeaways from this show Mandy, nice post.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Thanks, Jen!

      The musical was definitely off to a rocky start, but I’m glad that they were able to turn it around. In addition to being a decent musical, they’ve also added tons of new technology to stage performance! Regardless of reviews, they’ve made a huge contribution to live theatre!

  2. Jaimie Smith

    I never knew that Spiderman had a broadway musical, that seems really cool actually.
    Its crazy all the injuries they had while doing this musical. I just watched the yotube video you attached.
    Your business takeaways were awesome, as always! Especially the ones to understand your customers, and to regain their trust. Awesome business advice.
    Cool post, Mandy! :)

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Thanks, Jaimie.

      For awhile, it seemed like you couldn’t go two weeks without hearing about another injury in the show. Luckily there weren’t any fatalities, and it forced the production to ease back on the intense staging and revisit their safety protocols.

      Which, hey, sometimes you need a breakdown to figure out what’s really not working with your production/company. It’s not the best situation, but if you rise above it, you’ll be in a better place than where you started. :)

  3. Rachel

    Huh, that’s interesting that they’re thinking of adding new songs and scenes to entice people to come back. I’ve never heard of that being done before in a musical … is it unusual?

    It seems like this show personifies the whole “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” adage. I wonder how successful it would have been if not for all the news about cast injuries and major rewrites. Also, I like your point about planning for surprises — very true! Great article, Mandy. :)

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I think that there have been some rare cases where they’ve done that in longer running shows: either cutting scenes and songs that don’t perform well or adding in a new song for a character. I’m not a giant Broadway history buff, so that could be complete conjure on my part. I DO know that sometimes they will add or cut material in revivals, but that’s definitely not the case with Spider-man right now.

      Actually, in the case of “Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark,” I think the bad publicity saved the show. If this show had opened without problems it had, probably only critics, Broadway buffs, and comic fans would’ve gone to see it. Now that so much of the country recognized it as a joke, that’s additional fans flocking to see the show. Without rewrites, I think Spider-man would’ve died an early death thanks to scathing critic reviews.

      This has been: “Broadway Thoughts with Mandy Kilinskis.”

  4. Brad Ellison

    Honestly? I didn’t even know the show was still running on Broadway!! Of course, I have a couple friends that are starring in Newsies and Peter and the Starcatcher, so I haven’t been paying much attention to the other shows that are running right now.

    Great post, Mandy. The show’s response to all the setbacks are stunning…maybe some business people really do “get it.” I think it’s silly that they spent so much money in the development, but once the money was spent, the fact that they are sticking with it and trying to keep it unique and fresh to the point of profitability is awesome.

    Great tie it to our businesses as well. Keep up the good work!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Hey Brad! Thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

      But yeah, Spider-man is still running and still going strong! Who would’ve guessed? I can’t say that I blame the “suits” for wanting to see their investment succeed. $75 million is a crazy amount of money, and even if they can’t make it all back, at least they can try and minimize the damage. I’m pulling for the changes, if only because some new songs could really help the show.

      And thank you! I strive to relate everything I do back to business and marketing. :D

  5. Amy Swanson

    I heard all about the injuries from this show, but hadn’t heard any updates. I’m glad to hear they got all the bugs worked out and the critics and fans are responding more positively to it now.

    Great business takeaways, too! I love your statement, “Ignore the haters and keep going.” Do the best you can and explain yourself, but realize that you won’t win over everyone. Some people will never like you, no matter how many hoops you jump through to impress them and make them change their mind. It sucks, but that’s life sometimes.

    Wonderful post, Mandy! I’m glad to hear you had such a fun time in New York :D

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      It’s true. As much as we want to be loved by all, there will always be people that just aren’t a fan of what you do. You can’t please ‘em all, so focus on pleasing your fans, customers, and brand advocates. That’s definitely a better use of your time. :)

      And I did have an amazing time. I need to save up my money and vacation days to go back later this year!

  6. Jeff Porretto

    I had NO idea that these production cost THAT much to produce! At what point do you cut your losses? And at what point are you in too deep to do that? Obviously this production was part of the latter, but I wonder how close they were to just giving it up completely…

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Actually, most Broadway musicals only cost about $5-$10 million to produce, so at almost ten times that, it’s no wonder they’re fighting for this show to live on.

  7. Andrew Kardon

    I’m actually seeing this show on my birthday next month. (Present from my wife). And I never bought into the whole “bad publicity” is still good publicity thing. If it’s handled correctly (like with Spidey), it can be spun in a positive light. But in general, I think bad publicity can really squash your brand, especially these days with the super short attention span of consumers.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      You’re absolutely right, Andrew. If Spidey hadn’t seen multiple accidents and the show went to Broadway before rewrites, I imagine the critics would’ve teared the show to pieces and the audience would leave with a general “huh” reaction. I don’t think it could bounce back from that.

      In this case, I think the consistent negative publicity (along with prompt, positive spin and reactions) probably saved the show. Bizarre, but hey, that’s Broadway for you.

      But enjoy the show! Let me know how you like it – we can compare notes!

  8. Jill Tooley

    A hospital filled with injured Spider-men? That sounds epic! I pictured the Joker as the nurse, too, for some reason. ;)

    On a more serious note, your points are all spot-on. I’ve heard a few horror stories about this show, but mostly that it “sucked” (their words, not mine). I didn’t know it was having so many financial problems! I’m glad they’re doing better now, and hopefully they can break even at some point.

    Your second bullet point/takeaway is great, because it’s important to note that addressing concerns and addressing haters are two separate entities. It’s best to respond to legitimate feedback, but it won’t do a bit of good to address the haters. Leave them behind where they belong! As they say, haters gonna hate…

    I’d love to see this musical if it ever comes a bit closer! I’m a sucker for musicals, especially ones that involve superheroes. :)

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I can’t imagine why… ;)

      But you’re right, haters gonna hate, and there won’t be anything that you can do to appease them. At that point, it’s best to cut those losses and focus your efforts on reaching new customers.

      I know that they’re focused on keeping it in New York for now. But hey, if it gets popular enough, Chicago might be able to snag their own production!

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