The Pirates of Penzance


by Ben Fong-Torres
Linda Ronstadt in Pirates of Penzance

Pirates of Penzance, starring Linda Ronstadt, will be the first major motion picture to have its premiere directly in American homes. In a tale that parallels the swashbuckling duels of Pirates, Universal Pictures has parried theater owners' claims to first-run exclusivity.

On February 18, 1983, film and television history, millions of dollars, and several enemies will be made with the release of the film Pirates of Penzance. Universal Pictures will present the movie in exclusive runs in selected markets. That's nothing new. But on that same evening, the film will be shown, through pay-per-view television, in upwards of 2 million households at $10 a pop. That's where the history, the millions, and the enemies come in.
Pirates of Penzance follows in the recent tradition of Broadway plays brought to film (e.g., Grease, Annie, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). But as the $12 million production was being edited, Universal began thinking of Pirates as something more than just another movie adaptation of a Broadway play.

"Pay-per-view television is something that the film industry has talked about for a long time now," said Jerry Hartman, vice president and marketing director at Universal Pay Television. "People were talking about it two years ago. It was something that was coming, and it had to happen sooner or later. We decided- early last year­ that we wanted to do it, and in looking at our lineup of pictures, we decided that Pirates of Penzance had the best chance of succeeding. It was a picture that, while being for the whole family, had an adult orientation- without being pornographic. It had had enormous exposure. It had a very successful Broadway run, went off Broadway all over the country and was successful. We'd have the same cast that was on Broadway. Broadway on pay TV has been a big thing; Showtime started it years ago. We decided it had all the earmarks of our best movie."

From the beginning, this production of Pirates has broken new ground. When Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, decided to put on the Gilbert and Sullivan light opera in Central Park during the summer of 1980, his intention was, in fact, a put-on, a send-up of the century-old musical. The idea, says Papp, was "to bring this classic into a more popular arena, and bring in certain performers who would attract people who would not ordinarily go to Gilbert and Sullivan."

So, in the midst of a stageful of veteran British actors, there were two pop singers, Rex Smith (being seen these days as co-host of Solid Gold) and Linda Ronstadt.

Ronstadt does not ordinarily go to Broadway plays- the only one she ever saw before Pirates was Equus- yet her presence guaranteed the show massive media coverage. Her performance, along with those of the rest of the cast, combined smoothly with director Wilford Leach's loose and wacky, yet faithful version of Pirates. The show was a smash, and shortly after the summer run, it hit Broadway, where it won, among other honors, three Tony Awards (along with a nomination for Ronstadt as Best Actress).

Pirates of Penzance
Ronstadt scared no working actress with the reading of her lines; in fact, her acting chores were kept to a minimum. "I have six lines," Ronstadt said. "Two that I speak and four that I sing, that were supposed to have been spoken. Changing them made it easier. As soon as I sang it I knew what it was supposed to say." But she made substantial contributions, including the addition of a song from another Gilbert and Sullivan work. The idea was to get Ronstadt an additional solo.

"I suggested 'Sorry Her Lot' [from H. M. S. Pinafore] because I knew it from when I was about six. My sister did Pinafore in junior high and I always liked that song."

After meeting Joseph Papp at a party and, subsequently, getting hired to play Mabel in Pirates of Penzance, Ronstadt found another connection with Gilbert and Sullivan. "I took my score and my album to London- I was doing The Muppets Show, and my parents were with me, and we were staying at the Savoy Hotel. My father spotted this statue of Arthur Sullivan, and so he learned all about the Savoy Theatre. So I actually learned all those tunes completely not knowing that the Savoy Theatre was right there in the hotel until my father told me. But it was great. I was pleased that I had the ghost of Arthur Sullivan around me."

Atter Pirates' original-cast Broadway run, Papp began work on the movie version, shooting just outside London from late November 1981 through February 1982. This was Ronstadt's first film (aside from a cameo appearance in the long-forgotten FM, but, like a seasoned motion picture actor, she was bored goofy between takes. In full Victorian getup, she could be spotted strumming idly at an acoustic guitar, arguing amiably with Rex Smith about their comparative abilities at raising dogs, or, most often, reading various works by Henry James and thinking about home.

Less than a year before, Ronstadt could not have predicted that she'd be in this- or any other- movie. She was still getting used to being on Broadway.

"Acting is a funny thing," she said. "It's not anything I ever wanted to do, and it's still not anything I want to do particularly, but it's interesting." She laughed. "Boy, the music is amazing." Ronstadt earned rave reviews for her easy handling of coloratura, a light, agile, soprano voice. "A year ago I didn't know what that meant," she said, laughing again. "But yeah, I am one. That is my range."

After the filming of Pirates of Penzance, Ronstadt toured Japan and discovered that her voice had had losses as well as gains. On her rock tunes, she said, "I couldn't belt as hard." But on a successful U.S. tour late last year, she seemed to have regained all of her voice, and at the tour's conclusion she went into the studio to finish an album of pop standards. In January, she was scheduled for a promo tour in Europe and there is talk of another stage role in New York. She still finds time, she says, for dance and exercise classes. "But mostly, I'm working. And the way the economy is going we're all willing to work six times as hard for twenty times less money."

Ronstadt was kidding of course and yet it's been reported that the five lead players in Pirates decided to help Papp launch his film by taking an equal, small salary. As things turned out, getting the film made was the easy part. After that, Universal had the real problem: figuring out how to plunge into pay-per-view while keeping the theater owners of America from becoming the studio's enemies.

Initially, Universal hinted that it would offer the film to pay-per-view operators one day before its theatrical release. In July, the company changed its mind: It would be a same-day release. By that time, a small but loud storm had built, with most of the noise coming from theater owners.

The idea was simple enough. Like the boxing matches, the Rolling Stones concert, and the showing of Star Wars (last September, five years after its original theatrical release) that preceded it, Pirates would be shown by STV and cable operators with pay-per-view capacities to an audience of as many as 2 million households, depending on the installation of necessary equipment and Universal's success in selling the film to pay-TV outlets. Universal was suggesting a minimum charge of $10 a subscriber, with $6 or 60 percent of the charge, whichever was greater, going to Universal.

MCA, the parent corporation of Universal studios and its pay-TV subsidiary, could conceivably recoup its $12 million outlay in one night by achieving a pay-per-view sellout. Given the recent history of pay-per-view TV events, however, that's not likely. Boxing matches have attracted as high as a 50 percent sign-up rate; the Stones scored about 25 percent; Star Wars managed over 30 percent; and, just last November, a live telecast of the Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies sputtered out at a little over 10 percent.

Still, by mid-November, Universal was already announcing that it had licensed enough operators to account for some two-thirds of its possible pay-per­view audience. Among the major commitments was one from Oak Communications, which owns ON TV systems in seven cities with a potential audience of more than 600,000. Oak, which produced the pay-per-view showing of Sophisticated Ladies, is an adventurous company. Art Reynolds, marketing vice-president, shrugged off its financial failure- "Someone had to try it," he said- and explained Oak's interest in Pirates succinctly: "It's a landmark. We're doing it just to see how it works."

Whatever business Pirates does, it's at the expense of the movie theater owners. At least that's what Richard O'Rear, former president of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), claimed.

O'Rear, owner of theaters in the Kansas City area, said his and other theaters were being reduced to "second-run status." MCA's move, he said, "threatens the continued viability of theaters as the primary market for motion pictures by subverting traditional time­tested and highly successful distribution methods. ... Each exhibitor will have to determine for himself how to respond to this threat."

While O'Rear was merely hinting at theaters refusing to show Pirates, Henry Plitt, chairman of the board for Plitt Theatres, said his houses would not darken for Pirates. "If the exhibition industry wants to absorb the cost of a film that can't be financed by pay TV, then they're financing their own funeral," he said.

"Well," sniffed Bill Soady, an executive vice-president at Universal, "he owns a few theaters, and he doesn't have a monopoly on all the good ones." But Vice-President Tom Wertheimer said most theater owners were calming down. As Soady put it, "The theater owners I've talked to are saying 'Show me the picture.' And that's not unusual."

In an effort to pacify the owners, Universal is doing much more than showing Pirates on TV and in theaters. "We want this event [the TV showing of Pirates] to go over so it'll help theater sales," Jerry Hartman said.

"All kinds of research shows that there are two different audiences for a theatrical event. The movie audience is eighteen to twenty-five. Older people go, but most of them have to be told by everybody they know that 'You'd better see this movie or you're gonna die.' It's very hard to get them out to a theater.

"The way we're presenting the event, we've got a half-hour TV show before the movie, with live coverage from New York, and a rundown of Gilbert and Sullivan, and what people are about to see, and why it's so special, etc. etc. Then, after the event, there'll be a wrap-up. Additionally, we're providing every subscriber with a libretto, with the story and all the words to the songs. We're doing everything we can to enhance the viewing experience, so that those who see it enjoy it, and the next day talk to their friends, and hopefully encourage people to the theaters. We spent a lot of money to do this." The marketing campaign budget for Pirates is nearly $1 million, in addition to the $2 million for theatrical promotion.

During the production of Pirates, director Leach waxed romantic about the philosophy behind the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. "It's goodwill and optimism and generosity of the spirit," he said. "It's the way things should be." But off the set and off the screen, it's another world, where all that matters is the bottom line, the protection of one's turf against piracy, real or imagined. The theater owners continue to talk tough; Universal is trying to talk peace. And everyone- chief among them MCA, Joseph Papp and company, and the cable operators- is crossing their fingers. All of them are waiting for February 18, 1983 to be history.