Ads for 'Spider-Man' raise legal questions

Tom Zahner, of Cologne, Germany, leaves the Spider-Man

Tom Zahner, of Cologne, Germany, leaves the Spider-Man box office after purchasing tickets to a preview of the Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." (Dec. 21, 2010) (Credit: AP)

Now there are legal questions about the advertising for "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."

Bill de Blasio, public advocate for the City of New York, is urging the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs to make producers tell theatergoers when they are buying seats to a preview instead of a finished show.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Commissioner Jonathan Mintz, de Blasio cites the troubled $65-million musical as a "clear example" of a show that "may be in violation of consumer protection laws."

Although the much-delayed, injury-plagued musical has been in previews since Nov. 28 and does not open until Feb. 7, the show’s website says nothing about “Spider-Man” being a work in progress. Nor are previews mentioned in phone sales.

“Theatergoers deserve to know what they are buying,” de Blasio said in a statement to Newsday. “The industry must be forthright with its consumers. Make no mistake, there is a difference between a finished product and a preview performance that could be stopped at any time to iron out new material."

De Blasio points to 1991 preview-labeling rules established by Mark Green, then-Consumer Affairs commissioner, that called for fines of up to $500 per ad and restitution to aggrieved consumers.

"I believe the Department of Consumer Affairs is both within its rights — and obligated — to undertake similar measures today,” de Blasio said in the letter.

He also said the department should “determine whether the current rules are sufficiently explicit with respect to theatrical performances.” If they are not, he continued, the commission should “consider revising the rules to require producers to disclose a show’s preview status to potential consumers.”

The issue goes beyond "Spider-Man." Websites for two upcoming shows that promise to be hot tickets — "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (starring Daniel Radcliffe) and "Catch Me if You Can" — also do not make any mention of preview performances. However, Michael Hartman, a spokesman for both shows, said Thursday that leaving the preview label off the websites was an "oversight" that would be changed immediately.

Asked why the issue is ignored by many productions, Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League since 2006, said that producers she's talked to feel there was more of an "understanding" than a regulation.

She said she intends to remind members about that understanding, which, she said, "is definitely going to make them more conscious."

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