Cirque du Soleil: New Global Phenomenon

June 29, 2008–This fall, Cirque du Soleil will open productions in Macau, Las Vegas and Tokyo, at an estimated total cost of close to $500 million.

The first is on August 28, “Zaia,” Cirque's Asian production bowing at the Venetian Macao Hotel. Theater/film director Gilles Maheu oversees this journey of a young woman through space.

“Criss Angel Believe” opens September 12 at the Luxor in Vegas. It represents a rare instance of Cirque uniting with a solo performing artist, in this case, illusionist Angel.

On October 1, “Zed” arrives at the Tokyo Disney resort, with filmmaker Francois Girard creating a show based on Tarot card characters.

By November, there will be 17 different Cirque du Soleil productions performing around the world; by the end of 2010 that number will rise to 23.

There's a lot of money and a lot of artistic reputations on the line and — with the global economy proving unpredictable these days — there's literally no margin for error.

A situation like the delays and budget overruns that plagued Robert Lepage's production of “KA” in 2005 — which opened nearly six months behind schedule and a rumored $40 million above the planned cost — would be disastrous on Cirque's current frenetic schedule, not to mention in today's economic climate.

On the other hand, Cirque has proven reliable, against the odds. At a time when Las Vegas is feeling the economic pinch and gambling is down 3%, Cirque's five resident Sin City productions (with a collective gross potential of $10 million a week) are running 8% ahead of 2007.

A tight-knit executive triumvirate is key to the company's strategy.

“There are only three people who are involved with every show we do,” says Daniel Lamarre, CEO of Cirque du Soleil. “Guy Laliberte, Gilles St. Croix and myself. Management here has stayed very tight and very stable.” The individual creative teams for each show work independently, reporting only to the troika at the top. There are currently 250 creators (not counting cast and technicians) working on nine shows.

“It takes three years from conception to opening to bring a Cirque show together,” Lamarre said. “Each creative team is built like a little cell, and no one can interfere with what they do. Creators need freedom.”

Each show has a fresh creative team, and a different central theme, varying the lineup of acts, the Cirque toppers appear untroubled by the threat of over-saturation or public fatigue with the omnipresent and much-imitated brand.

And while Vegas has proven to be a difficult market for narrative-based Broadway musicals, the Cirque model remains a perfect fit for an audience for which the theater component is merely one part of an intensive leisure package.

From being a street performer in 1984 when he founded Cirque, Laliberte's fortunes have soared with the organization's, especially after he bought out virtually every other partner and now owns 95% of the company. Last year, Forbes estimated his personal worth at $1.5 billion.

Recent permanent shows have been expensive: “KA” cost $220 million, “The Beatles Love” at $175 million and only the smaller-scale, X-rated “Zumanity” hovering just under $100 million. But all of the shows have recouped “within a year or two,” says Lamarre, “except for 'KA,' which took a little longer.” After recoupment, he continues, all shows are budgeted to break even at 50% of capacity.

Cirque has also reconfigured some of its older tent-style touring shows to play in giant arenas that host rock superstars.

The company's initial venture into that market, “Delirium,” was No. 6 on Billboard's top-grossing tours for both 2006 and 2007, pulling in $138 million over 24 months. The North American tour of “Saltimbanco” that began this year “has opened 100 new markets on North America to us,” according to Lamarre.

Cirque's gross revenues have climbed from $550 million in 2005 to $630 million in 2007. The company has been the subject of numerous takeover rumors, including an investment consortium from Dubai that supposedly put $2 billion on the table in recent weeks.

In 2009, a new touring show will open in Montreal, a second resident show (this one variety-based) will open in Macau and an Elvis Presley project will be the opening attraction at the new Las Vegas City Center. The following year will bring a movie-themed show at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, one at the Palm Resort in Dubai and a touring version of the Elvis show to play Europe.