Cirque du Soleil Inc.
Cirque du Soleil Inc.
Sales: $204 million (1998)
NAIC: 71119 Other Performing Arts Companies
Part circus, part theater, Cirque du Soleil Inc. produces avant-garde entertainment shows staged at permanent locations and presented to a worldwide audience through an extensive touring schedule. In 1999 Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) had four productions touring throughout North America, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific region, and four productions appearing at permanent locations in Las Vegas; Orlando, Florida; and Biloxi, Mississippi. Headquartered in Montreal, the company operated offices in Las Vegas, Amsterdam, and Singapore. During the late 1990s, the company was diversifying into new business areas, including operating retail locations that sold Cirque du Soleil merchandise, producing films and television shows, and negotiating for licensing agreements.
Cirque du Soleil came from the street, its creation the inspiration of a group of street performers gathered in Baie Saint-Paul in the province of Quebec. Among the street performers entertaining passersby in the rural Canadian town were fire-eaters, mime artists, jugglers, and stilt-walkers, who banded together in 1982 to form the “Club des Talons Hauts,” or the “High-Heels Club.” The troupe, who chose their name because most of the members performed on stilts, decided to organize a festival that could serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas and techniques among street performers. The festival, called the “Fâte Foraine de Baie St-Paul” (Baie Saint-Paul Fair) was the precursor to Cirque du Soleil, which was organized two years later with Guy Laliberte, a fire-eater, as its founding president.
Founded as a nonprofit organization, Cirque du Soleil received financial backing from the Quebec government, which was sponsoring celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Jacques Carrier’s arrival in Canada. Cirque du Soleil’s first performance was held in 1984 in the small Quebec town of Gaspé, where patrons entered a blue-and-yellow big top tent and witnessed a unique form of circus entertainment. More theater than circus, Cirque du Soleil purposely strayed from the conventions of a traditional circus, blending the talents of street performers with original music, extravagant costumes, and special lighting effects. There were no animals in any of the acts and the show did not depend on the talents of a star performer, both of which were common characteristics of traditional circuses. Further, the militaristic marches and fanfares heard at traditional circuses were replaced with an original music score, providing a sometimes haunting, sometimes ethereal soundtrack that threaded the performances together. Cirque du Soleil was intent on being different, and from its start the organization achieved its goal. A Cirque du Soleil performance was “utterly otherly,” as one theater reviewer described it; another characterized it as “commedia dell’arte as restaged by surrealists in a birthday-party mood.” The public, drawn to the curious spectacle, applauded, their numbers increasing as the performers took their show on the road and developed Cirque du Soleil into a global phenomenon.
After first being staged in Gaspé, Cirque du Soleil traveled throughout Quebec in 1984, appearing in ten cities and playing to audiences of 800 at each performance. The following year, the troupe took its first steps outside its home province and began performing in neighboring Ontario, where audience reception provided further impetus to expand Cirque du Soleil’s touring schedule. By 1986, the seating capacity of Cirque du Soleil’s big top tent had been expanded to 1,500, during a year in which the troupe earned national and international attention. The company performed at Vancouver, British Columbia’s Children’s Festival and at Expo ’86, the World’s Fair hosted by Vancouver. Internationally, Cirque du Soleil earned accolades and awards at several competitions and festivals held overseas. By the end of 1986, Cirque du Soleil officials were convinced of the concept’s broad-based appeal. Two years after its birth in the small town of Gaspé, Cirque du Soleil’s avant-garde form of entertainment was primed for exportation on a broad scale.
1987: Touring Begins in Earnest
In 1987 Cirque du Soleil made its debut in the United States, creating a themed production named Le Cirque Reinvente, which earned the company its first major critical acclaim. The company performed at the Los Angeles Festival and appeared in San Diego and Santa Monica, attracting crowds that prompted company executives back in Montreal to quickly organize a second tour in the United States. For the second tour, Cirque du Soleil returned to Santa Monica and added performance dates in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City, where among other unusual acts, audiences witnessed the spectacle of a Cirque du Soleil performer conduct the 1812 Overture in ski boots while strapped to a trampoline.
While audiences collected under Cirque du Soleil’s performing tent in New York City’s Battery Park, in Montreal the company’s choreographers, costume designers, and other artists were developing new conceptualized formats to take on tour. The goal was to create new productions to stimulate and to perpetuate audience appeal. Thematic, the productions ranged from lighthearted to somber, each distinctly different and each distinctly Cirque du Soleil. The company’s managers were forward-thinking and objective-oriented, formulating and then pursuing successive five-year plans. The shows themselves were expressions of artistic and athletic ability, but the stewardship of the company was conducted in a businesslike way. This approach fueled the geographic expansion of Cirque du Soleil’s touring schedule, diversified the company’s activities into new revenue-generating areas, and, eventually, developed the strength of the Cirque du Soleil name to a force equal to a popular consumer brand. Although the maturation of the Cirque du Soleil concept into an eccentric yet formidable marketing force did not gain momentum until the mid-1990s, some lucrative projects were started during the late 1980s. In 1988 the company began negotiations that would proceed for the next four years for an Asian tour. In 1989 Cirque du Soleil sold its concept for European performances to Circus Knie, which subsequently began producing its own version in Europe.
By 1990, the seating capacity for Cirque du Soleil performances had been increased to 2,500. Prices ranged between $6 and $33.50 per ticket, accounting for nearly all of the company’s annual revenue. The company’s touring schedule had been expanded greatly by this point, with a number of different troupes performing a 214-show tour, typically stopping in cities for a four- or five-week stay. The tour launched in 1990—covering 13 cities in the United States and Canada—started in Montreal, where the company’s new production debuted. Called Nouvelle Experience, the new production was greeted enthusiastically by audiences throughout the 19-month tour, by far eclipsing all previous ticket sales records. By the end of the tour, 1.3 million people had seen Nouvelle Experience, while audiences in London and Paris were introduced to the genuine Cirque du Soleil through a tour of Le Cirque Reinvente.
At the end of the 1990-91 tour, preparations had already begun for what would prove to be a year of significant achievement. After years of negotiations, Cirque du Soleil embarked on its first tour of Asia, financed by a $40 million investment by Fuji Televisions Network, which handled ticket sales and promotion for the tour. The production, whose budget rivaled that of a major Broadway musical, featured 72 international artists and musicians, their performances a collage of previous Cirque du Soleil shows, particularly the company’s groundbreaking Le Cirque Reinvente. Called Fascination, the production debuted in Tokyo, beginning a 118-performance, eight-city tour that was staged in venues with seating capacities ranging between 4,500 and 9,000. While the four-month tour in Asia was under way, Cirque du Soleil also began a tour organized in partnership with Circus Knie that presented shows in 60 towns in Switzerland. Busy on all fronts, the company also appeared in Las Vegas for the first time, bringing Nouvelle Experience to the Mirage Hotel for a year-long engagement in a tent behind the hotel. The year also saw Cirque du Soleil add to its portfolio of productions with the creation of Saltimbanco, Italian for “street performer,” which began a 19-month North American tour after its debut in Montreal in April.
Acclaimed by an audience of over 18 million worldwide, with numerous prizes and distinctions to its credit, Cirque du Soleil is a unique organization which has reinvented and revolutionized the circus arts. Since its beginnings in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has been pleasing the public with a novel show concept that is as original as it is non-traditional: an astonishing, theatrical blend of circus arts and street performance, wrapped up in spectacular costumes and fairyland sets and staged to spellbinding music and magical lighting. There are no animals in a Cirque du Soleil production —only sheer human energy is put to work!
Of the numerous achievements in 1992, perhaps none was more important to the company’s financial well-being than the one-year engagement at the Mirage Hotel. The success of Nouvelle Experience enraptured casino owner Steve Wynn, turning the one-year engagement into a permanent engagement. Further, Wynn agreed to construct a more than $20 million permanent facility for Cirque du Soleil at the new Treasure Island resort, scheduled to open in 1994. The addition of its first permanently placed production was a dramatic change for the otherwise peripatetic Cirque du Soleil, but it provided the company with a major and reliable stream of revenue. Moreover, the relationship with Wynn proved to be highly advantageous for Cirque du Soleil, leading to other arrangements for permanently placed productions in the years ahead. In addition to this budding success story, the company could claim victory with its new Saltimbanco production, in the midst of its 19-month North American tour in 1993. The $20 million production, featuring 40 artists and a traveling company of 110, was attracting near-capacity audiences. For the production to break even financially, 70 percent of the 2,500-seat big top needed to be filled, a percentage Saltimbanco far surpassed by averaging nearly 93 percent of capacity in paid attendance and 98 percent of capacity in total attendance. By the time Saltimbanco had finished its North American tour, 1.4 million people had seen the production, with more to come, as the production embarked on a six-month run in Tokyo in 1994. On top of the revenue obtained from ticket sales, the company also was gaining revenue from its merchandise line sold at the performances and through a mail-order catalogue, which was attached to the program for individual performances. Cirque du Soleil’s growing legions of fans could buy CDs of the production’s music, as well as a full range of merchandise that included inexpensive items, such as $5 buttons, and decidedly more expensive items, such as a $350 Cirque du Soleil leather jacket. As Cirque du Soleil developed into a recognizable brand name, the marketing forces behind the company were becoming increasingly ambitious.
Diversification and Expansion in the 1990s
Cirque du Soleil celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1994, its management having devised and fulfilled two, five-year plans. For the next five years, management laid out a diversified blueprint for growth, the implementation of which would greatly increase the company’s financial stature. Construction of a $10 million “creation studio” in Montreal was planned to serve as an elaborate rehearsal space, an extensive European tour was planned, and, significantly, a television series was planned. The Saltimbanco production was slated for the European tour, but continuing with its tradition, the company debuted two new productions before the European tour got under way. Completion of the permanent theater in Las Vegas included the debut of Mystére in 1994, marking the beginning of a ten-year contract signed with Mirage Resorts. During its first year, the 1,541-seat theater registered an impressive sellout ratio of 98 percent, attracting more than 660,000 spectators. While Mystére settled into its permanent home in Las Vegas, the company finished development of a new touring show, Alegria, which began a two-year North American tour in Montreal in 1994.
Testament to Cirque du Soleil’s widespread recognition and appeal arrived in an unusual fashion in 1995, when the Canadian government asked the company to create a show for the G7 Summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While the company entertained the heads of state from the most economically powerful countries in the world, it launched its first, full-fledged European tour in Amsterdam, where the company established its European head office. From Amsterdam, the Saltimbanco production took to the road, appearing in major metropolitan cities in five countries. Saltimbanco stopped its run in London in early 1997, five years after its debut, and was replaced by Alegria, which began another two-year tour in Europe. Back in Montreal, meanwhile, yet another production had been unveiled in Cirque du Soleil’s home city, the company’s ninth production. Debuting in April 1996, Quidam, “anybody” in Latin, was intended to illuminate, in the show’s director’s words, “our frailty and angst at the dawn of a new century.” The production began a longer-than-usual, three-year North American tour after its opening in Montreal, appearing in 14 cities and attracting more than 2.5 million spectators.
The enormous attendance total for the Quidam production was representative of Cirque du Soleil’s overall growth, which began to accelerate rapidly as the company’s productions fanned out across the globe and new areas of growth were explored. Sales for the company were $30 million in 1994; by 1996, Cirque du Soleil was collecting $110 million, an increase achieved substantially by revenue obtained from its permanent production in Las Vegas. Mystére, by itself, generated $40 million in revenue in 1996, convincing Wynn to construct a second theater for Cirque du Soleil. In 1997, Wynn devoted $60 million for a new theater at his new Las Vegas resort, Bellagio. A third permanent site for Cirque du Soleil also was under construction in 1997, located at Walt Disney World, near Orlando, Florida. To meet the creative demands required to stage new productions at these theaters, and to create new shows for touring productions, the company had a new complex for its rehearsal and costume-design activities, the “creation studio” that had been planned several years earlier. Opened in February 1997, the $22 million facility in Montreal measured 150,000 square feet, serving as the company’s headquarters and the site where all Cirque du Soleil productions were developed.
The construction activity in 1997 translated into the debut of several new productions in 1998 and 1999. In October 1998, Cirque du Soleil’s second permanent production debuted at Wynn’s Bellagio. Named O —a play on the French word, “eau,” for water—the production was unique, even for the innovative Cirque du Soleil. The production was staged in, around, and above a 1.5 million-gallon pool, which, through a series of lifts, could rapidly be transformed into a dry stage. A $90 million production, O became the most expensive ticket in Las Vegas, with a seat in the 1,800-seat theater selling for $100. Two months later, another new production opened at a permanent Cirque du Soleil theater, La Nouba, staged at the Walt Disney World Resort. Concurrent with the start of the company’s second and third permanent productions, construction for a fourth permanent theater was under way, again sponsored by Steve Wynn. Alegria, back from its European tour, found a permanent home at Wynn’s $600 million, Biloxi, Mississippi-based Beau Rivage resort, debuting in 1999. Elsewhere, Cirque du Soleil was busy touring, unveiling a new production, called Dralion, for a three-year North American tour, and dispatching Saltimbanco for a three-year tour of Asia and the Pacific, which began in January 1999.
Cirque du Soleil ended the 1990s with seven productions performing in 22 countries in Asia, the Pacific, North America, and Europe. Looking ahead, the company intended to use its worldwide exposure to build the Cirque du Soleil name into an internationally recognized brand. Toward this end, the company released its first feature film, called Alegría, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. The film was expected to open in theaters in late 1999 or early 2000. The company also completed a large-format (IMAX) film entitled Journey of Man in 1999. For the future, Cirque du Soleil, displaying a penchant for market saturation, planned to produce television specials and, perhaps, establish a chain of merchandise stores, based on prototype units tested in Florida in 1998.
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—Jeffrey L. Covell