Are you a college student or a young professional?
If so, when was the last time you attended a classical music concert, an opera, a ballet, or a symphony? Not recently I bet.
How about a museum, gallery, or theatre production? Maybe a different answer here.
Did you attend on your own accord? Or instead, were you influenced or forced (either by necessity or social pressure) by a parent, professor, or co-worker?
At some point in time while you were dressing in your Sunday church attire, did a smug grin come across your face when either you or someone else uttered “Oooh, how cultured!?” in a cringeworthy highfalutin tone?
That smirk, while fun and lighthearted to you, is a problem of nightmarish proportions for arts administrators across the country. To them it means that certainly now, and likely in the future, it is not a typical activity or purchase decision from your wallet. The fact of the matter is, all arts organizations — fine, traditional, mainstreamed, and avant-garde — not only want, but fiscally need the youth demographic. Whether through special outreach programs, additional programming, or subsidized ticket pricing, organizations see less naturally colored hair everyday. They’re slowly drowning in a sea of gray and blue hair. While many may be getting by at the present moment, all are concerned about their futures, fearing no one will replace your grandparents; few young people in attendance today do so on their own volition. Instead, they’ve looked to alternative outlets more accessible, trading in the mezzanine for a Macbook.
Prominent former New York Times business and culture columnist Judith Dobrzynski disagrees in a recent article from ArtsJournal. “Many people,” she believes, “don’t have the time for art or the inclination for it until they reach a certain age, which — anecdotally — seems to be somewhere in the 40s, give or take, after most people’s children have developed some independence.” Dobrzynski goes on to cite a recent Euro RSCG study which suggests that 63% of consumers around the world believe society’s obsession with youth has gotten out of hand. An article from MarketingCharts appears to support her conclusion, indicating 6/10 Millennials themselves believe too much marketing value is placed on them and their purchasing habits.
A bet you there are a good few marketers, like myself, who disagree with this thinking, citing brand and product loyalty studies. Many will cite exposure and experience with a product while young to be vital in purchasing decisions as people grow into their consumerism. In the age of today’s Millenials with more productions than ever before and technological alerts of offerings outside of a once-restricted sphere-of-knowing, tapping consumers while young is even more important. Building an affinity early is key, especially given this apparent advantage. Unfortunately, arts have consistently struggled capturing youth in the new long-tail landscape. The landscape has changed.
With the shift of arts and entertainment from experiential to digital, this becomes an even more pivotal and time-sensitive concern. With less and less young people provided with primary exposure of live arts every year, the target has already begun to shrink. Today, the emphasis is instead on a digital equivalent, largely due to cost, convenience to attain, and ease of continued, repeated use. While the digital arts and entertainment revolution has changed the experience from stage to screen, it has also largely impacted the economics behind it. In today’s economy, businesses based on technology continue to become more affordable every year with increased innovation, while those associated with labor only become more expensive (due to inflation and inability to increase efficient production), known as Baumol Cost Disease.
In fact, there is reason to think the situation could soon get worse. As the cost of admission climbs ever higher, the advent of supply-and-demand-based “dynamic pricing’’ ensures that tickets to hot shows [insert: the only shows these “casual viewers” are interested in seeing] are as expensive as the market will bear. On Broadway, there’s the additional scourge of “premium seats,’’ which for “Death of a Salesman’’ and “The Book of Mormon’’ have commanded nearly $500 apiece. Theater, an inherently expensive art form to make at the professional level, is in danger of becoming a boutique business. – Don Aucoin, Boston Globe
With a generation of Millenials suffering from student loans and postgraduate expenses, those without exposure or a cultivated interest in arts will not be motivated to spend the little leftover from each paycheck on expensive arts. When those tickets can be afforded ten to fifteen years in the future, a lack of interest and motivation will steer many away to spend elsewhere, likely on the more economical digital entertainment. To those who say there is too much focus spent on shifting demographics, I say look to fine and traditional arts over the next decade. Those sad negative outlooks you see year after year will spread across across the industry unless a major pivot is made.
It’s been a busy past few days for me here in Boston. With a production of Spring Awakening opening tonight, several large projects, and my “final finals,” the last three weeks of my time at Boston University are quickly coming to a close. That’s not even counting the ever important job-hunt — which, by the way, I’m still accepting applications for, so send along an offer for the perfect position.
A shorter and slightly different post from me today, inspired by a conversation I had last night. Forgoing my typical structure, I want you to stop and think about a problem that have been feeding ourselves over the past fifteen years. While heavily discounted ticket prices make the arts affordable and accessible to the student and college-aged demographic, how do we transition this public into a traditional ticket-buying model and why haven’t we done it yet?
With my collegiate life coming to a close, it’s dawned on me that rather soon, my process, means, and methods for purchasing tickets will dramatically change. About a month ago, I wrote a post talking about the importance of full price tickets to a production’s bottom line. While moderate discounts on certain performances may help to fill a house, the additional income accrued from these seats does little to impact the bottom line — failing productions often often in the red by more than $10-15k a week. By and large, full price ticket sales are the lifeblood to sustain the industry as we know it. At present moment, the discounted ticket opportunities for college students are deep and widespread. Catering to student audiences began in 1996 when Jonathan Larson’s RENT opened at the Nederlander Theatre. Quick to becoming the hottest ticket in New York, irony set in; those who the story was about, the city-dwelling bohemians, could not get tickets or afford to see the show. The show’s producers, along with angel funding from the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), instituted a policy that twenty (20) front row tickets would be sold for $20, day-of-show.
Paving the way for the future, this policy has exploded to be the rule rather than the exception. Up until three or four years ago, the market penetrated with three types: general rush, student rush, and lottery. Geared toward students, some of which even require an ID, students pine over the twenty or twenty five tickets reserved for each show. As to be expected, these tickets are competitive; for popular shows like Wicked and Book of Mormon, hundreds may show up to put their names in. When many lose, it’s not off to the box office to buy regularly priced seats or even a walk to the Times Square TKTS booth. Instead, they dash down 9th Ave off to the next drawing fifteen minutes later, continuing on until twenty dollar front row seats are in hand. There are even dozens of websites and blogs dedicated to information, strategies, and tips to score these seats on Playbill.com, BroadwayWorld, and dedicated sites like BroadwayForBrokePeople.com This audience has grown up a) always being able to get day-of-show tickets to the hottest shows, and b) never having to pay full price. Slowly, producers have begun to realize this, but rather than addressing the issue head on, many are scrambling, trying to buy time and figure out a solution. The problem is, the longer they wait, the harder this obstacle will be to overcome.
When moving to college, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the first thought for many students is finding a fake ID or driver’s license. Now, for those arts-inclined, maybe the fake college ID business could prove even more lucrative. What other card do you know of that gives a 80-85% discount? With more accelerated programs and less students completing their studies in the traditional four years, many universities have forgone including expiration or graduation dates on IDs. Certainly box office managers recognize students hold on to IDs after graduation, continuing to press their luck walking up to the glass. Aged a bit since freshman year? The cost to get a new ID printed with an updated photo often only runs $20-25 — a deal that pays for itself fivefold with the first use. Many students consider this tactic as an easy way to get three, maybe even four additional years of these student prices reserved for high school and college students.
Arts administrators fear losing this demographic have found additional means to cater to them. But is this a good thing? This coddling only perpetuates the problem, allowing these recent graduates (now with income) to become even more accustomed to paying below face and sustainable value. Two years ago we saw these “student” programs transition to “young adults,” increasing the upper age bracket range to 25. While I would have like to see a push toward the more traditional, appropriate discount opportunities (specific codes, redirection to half-price TKTS booth, etc), I’m not incredible concerned by this change. Few recent graduates, especially those with an arts focus can afford to shell out $121.25 for a single seat. What does make me sweat is the recent, more alarming jump. Over the past few years programs like Roundabout Theatre Company’s HIPTIX and Huntington Theatre Company’s 35 Below, have increased the upper age another ten years, providing these heavily discounted tickets to those pushing forty. Wow.
Is a period of tough love the only away to flip this entitled audience base with unrealistic expectations? Should there be a hard, finite stopping point on these student discounts or should a more graduated approach be used, easing people into a more realistic middle ground? It’s a tricky situation — a passionate and engaged audience who cannot (and will not) pay retail price. What is a Broadway producer or regional theatre company to do?
It’s no secret New York theatre is expensive. Often in this blog you’ll see my write “$121.25′s” as a way to denote a single audience member. Right now this is the standard base price for almost all Equity theatre running in a Broadway house. The price for an orchestra or front mezzanine seat can only go up from there: add ten dollars if you’re looking for an aisle, fifteen if you’re coming on a weekend and so on. Let’s not even talk about so called “premium seats.”
I get it. Theatre isn’t a cheap endeavor. Producing and managing even at the amateur level has shown this to be true. Those numbers increase one-hundred-fold when moving to the regional or Equity realm as I’ve seen when working with LORT companies in Boston and in the West End last fall. Every week, there is an endless list of expenses producers must shell out before even thinking about paying back the initial investment to angels, not to mention even think about profitability: rights and royalties, actor salaries, crew and musician salaries, theatre rent, electricity, prop costs, union fees, benefits, etc. Based on size and scope of production, these weekly running costs can range anywhere from $250,000 up to a cool million. This number, or “nut,” of a production is the cost to keep the show afloat every week — the dollar and cents amount is to keep the actors onstage and the lights aglow. My question, is should base ticket prices for these Equity productions be proportional to the amount spent by producers? Should cost of ticket be dependent on the cost actually needed to keep a production open?
The scaling of ticket prices has been an age old debate, coming up every few years, often times when a small show is placed right beside a larger one with both tickets showing the same face value. Flash back to 2008 with the Broadway transfer of [title of show]. Infamously taglined with its own lyric “who says four chairs and a keyboard can’t make a Broadway musical,” the show was as barebones as could be. The cast were the writers and creators and none of the four had a past credit under his or her belt. The set was four IKEA swivel chairs, an almost empty stage, and a white wall. The pit orchestra was non-existant — the music came from a keyboard onstage played solely by the music director. The weekly nut of the show, rumored to be the lowest in Broadway history (with inflation accounted for) was $150,000.
A few doors down, we saw the smash hit Wicked playing at the Gershwin with a nut, cautiously estimated, at four to five times higher. Both shows were advertising a ticket structure based around the then-standard $101.25. Even with heavy discounting, [title of show] failed abysmally. It was the little off-Broadway show that couldn’t. Aside from the show’s subject matter being a deterrent, the second most common remark was that people “couldn’t see where their money was going.” The cast was small with no names commanding a high salary, the set was non-existant, and a lush orchestra pit was nowhere to be found. The intial investment was never published, but it was certainly basement level. With heavy discounting, the show’s attendance improved, but it ultimately closed several weeks later losing its full investment. People were simply not willing to spend over a hundred dollars a ticket for a bunch of no-names sitting in an empty room.
Whether it’s right or not, the casual theatergoer wants to see his or her money onstage. They want a B-list tv star, a huge ensemble cast, a lavish set, and a huge symphony orchestra sunk beneath the stage. And to be honest, at that base price, why shouldn’t they? If a producer is spending less to raise a production, what is the rationale in charging the high ticket price? Regardless of price, producers often only take in $50-70 a seat, save for the megahits — just look at average ticket prices in the weekly grosses. Why not instead lower ticket prices to an acceptable, more suitable level based on the production and people are willing to pay for it. Theatre follows the rules of supply and demand. For many shows (a third of them at any given time), there is little to no demand for a $100+ ticket — those seats are only purchased when discounts become readily available.
Maybe it’s because there are only a few producers controlling a large majority of productions, but why should they band together to monopolize the price of “theatre.” Why, instead, can it not be based on a singular production? I’d love to see a producer mix it up a little: take a smaller show and open it at a lower affordable price. This will get people in the door — fuller houses during previews – and ratchet up word-of-mouth surrounding it. If the show’s any good, this will increase demand, which would then warrant the increase in prices.
How would the public react to such an approach? Would people inherently think a cheaper show to be “not as good”? Should set ticket prices be a thing of the past and should the art realm move forward like the airline industry with a more fluid structure based on what is needed for each show and what you’re looking to see? Not only would this limit the effects of gouge scalping but also deliver the most cost efficient tickets to audiences depending on what they are looking to see and when. In my book, someone should never pay the same for Peter and the Starcatcher as they do for Spiderman – what you see presented in front of you is not financially equal, so why should the ticket prices be?
You’ve waited in a line snaked around the corner outside the theatre, seemingly always in the way of those entering and exiting ShakeShack. Finally making it to the main door, you hand your ticket to the usher and glance up to find a blue or black board, labelled “At This Performance.” On any given night of a large-scale Broadway production, there’s bound to be several cast substitutions due to injury, illness, or other production-related reasons (dance captain sitting out to watch the show, etc). An ensemble member might be filling the shoes of a supporting role and have a swing (understudy for an ensemble track, in layman’s terms) step into his or her place. Maybe a lead actor in the production has an alternate for matinees performances, generally reserved for the most vocally demanding roles. The general consensus among 98% (not scientifically proven, but certainly true) of theatre audiences is understudies are inherently bad; people assume they’re the second string or the “backup.” While most see the sign and exhale in disappointment, a smile comes across my face and my excitement intensifies — I love understudies.
Now, I’m not saying I think “Snow Day” when I see white slips of paper pour out of my Playbill, but in general, understudies get the most unfair treatment in theatre. They’re judged as inferior and insufficient before the curtain even rises. It’s no wonder you can often see them trembling the first moment they step onstage — impossible expectations on placed on them from the start. Instead of eagerly anticipating the performance, audience members are disappointingly texting their friends XYZ actress is out, already bummed.
That said, I would be lying if I didn’t preface this by saying that I often see particular productions more than once and through cast changes. One of the things I love most about theatre is seeing the different choices actors make as they navigate through the role on their own — how two different people in the same production (and with the same director) can interpret a role in two very different ways. It’s always thrilling to see those who originate roles onstage — if the actor’s been involved since development, the part is often times written around his or her own personality and strengths. Even having seen these incredible actors onstage so many times, I can honestly say I am often times more blown away and impressed by those with their single moment in the spotlight rather than by the actor who performs the role eight times a week for a twelve or sixteen month contract. I see a alot of New York theatre, but can only count on one hand how many times I’ve been truly disappointed with an understudy’s performance. Don’t even ask me how many award-winning actors I’ve seen not live up to the expectations set by reviewers, the media, and online fans.
A recent column in The Guardian sums my thoughts into one succinct sentence:
And it’s often been my experience that understudies perform as well or better than the much-hyped actors they replace – because they want it more, because they’re hired for factors other than looks or name recognition, because of the sheer adrenaline of playing a role they haven’t fully rehearsed.
There are tens of thousands of live theatre actors trying to make it in New York everyday. While the understudy was not the first person chosen, there’s certainly a reason as to why he or she was chosen ahead of all others. Often times, this is due to age or lack of experience — producers and casting agents are hesitant to put a show on the shoulders of an unknown entity — it’s easier and more comforting to rely on a recognizable name with a handful of credits under the belt. Seeing an understudy gives a sneak peak to the stars of the future. The big names you see winning awards and featured on marquees were not given those opportunities straight off the bat. They started, like everyone else, at the bottom of the heap, swinging, ensembling, supporting, and yes, understudying. I’m now at the point in my life where I’m seeing these transformations happen in front of my own eyes from Sutton Foster to Alice Ripley, Gavin Creel to Raul Esparza.
People place too high a value on the billed, packaged production rather than the performances in from of their faces — they want to see X show with Y playing the leads or else “it’s not worth it.” Somehow someone giving just as thrilling or honest of a performance is “not worth it,” often times when the audience member has nothing to compare it to. Seeing a show with the “Original Broadway Cast” with “the people on the CD” is for, too many people, more about something they can “check off” on a list no ones cares about.
Seeing the look of thrill on an understudy’s face after their first number is nothing short of astonishing. It reminds me of one of the reasons why I got into theatre myself. These understudies are the ones who are driving “the show must go on” mentality. Their performances are one-of-a-kind and thrilling. Nothing is stale or routine and the adrenaline is visible. In most cases, the audience forgets they’re seeing the #2 by the third or fourth number until curtain call when the actors onstage are showering their colleague with additional applause. Now, I’m not trying to convince you to search out these understudies like I do or follow the last-minute callouts on BroadwayUnderstudies.com/@Understudies. Someone like, Merwin Foard, for example, one of my favorite actors who’s made a career out of being a high-profile cover for the stars. I’m merely suggesting that you think twice before angrily marching up to the box office to refund your above-the-title ticket. Remember the age old adage that actors are real people too and need a day off and that there is someone just as dedicated and talented in the wings whose been waiting for months for this opportunity.
What are your thoughts on understudies and the bias toward them? Have you ever had any notable experiences, good or bad? Any future stars you’ve seen in their early days?
For most ingrained in the New York theatre scene, weekly box office grosses are something to look forward to every Monday afternoon. A composition of the previous week’s ticket sales, attendance, average ticket prices, percentage sold to full house, and profit potential, these gross reports give a good indication as to how every show running is doing. Generally, producers are forward with these numbers and almost all have no problem reporting them every week. With a quick scan down the table and comparison to the week previous, it’s a fast way to see the overall health of a show and its trends, both with its own history and compared to other productions running.
In some cases, the box office reports can tell the full picture. The Book of Mormon has 102.6% attendance, indicating it’s sold every place of standing room in addition to every seat in the house — it’s weekly intake is almost $1.5M a week. While the numbers for Broadway’s superstars are fun to look at, it becomes exponentially more interesting to investigate shows right on the cusp of profitability. Like when the average ticket price starts to dip because of discounts, leading to attendance percentage going up, but having gross sales go down. Even after synthesizing all of this, it’s still difficult to tell whether shows are truly making money.
The one number producers hide from the public is a show’s weekly operating cost, or “nut.” This number is the complete dollars and cents amount it costs to run the show every week: theatre rent, salaries (actors, musicians, ushers, and crew), performance royalties, union fees, electricity, insurance, consumable props, and so on. This number can range from $200,000 on a small show like Godspell to upwards of $1,000,000 on larger shows like Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark (which I always forget is still running…). Those who’ve been in the industry can often peg these numbers within $75k, but finding the exact is impossible (cast salary negotiations is one of the largest mystery, unpublished components). With the exception of a few mega-hits on Broadway today, most shows rarely post weekly grosses much higher than this nut — a majority of productions only make $40-70k a week over it, slowly works toward recoupment over a year or two, if it even happens.
Alright, so that makes sense. When a show starts to plateau right at the break even point, you close, right? If you’re lucky you’ve already made back your investment and pull out when the well starts running dry with a little extra cash in your pocket. If you haven’t recouped, you swear under your breath and post the closing notice even faster to minimize money lost. Well, sometimes there’s a bit more to the decision.
For Shows on The Cusp…
1) The Season: What months do you hate the most? January, February, and March. The holidays just ended, you’re feelingfat, you’ve spent too much money, the weather is vile, and nothing really significant happens. Producers feel the same way. Productions often see a huge surge the last two weeks in December and then hit a wall come January 1st — that’s why one of the most popular closing dates annually is the first Sunday of the year. Coming off a summer of tourism and a pleasant fall, it’s not at all uncommon to see percentages drop a full 20-30% into the 50s and 60s; attendance percentages coincide with temperature quite well. Sometimes when everyone around the table thinks a show has some more life left in it, producers will choose to stick it out through the rough winter months with heavy advertising campaigns and ticket promotions to minimize loses and shoot for break-even knowing that prosperity lies ahead with college spring breaks and St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
2) A Tour/2nd Production in the Works: Having a show running on Broadway can be a great tool for investors to build equity in a show name or certain production. From getting additional angels to underwrite the production to allowing actors to see it, it prevents the show from being forgotten. By keeping a show on the Great White Way, it keeps name recognition and desire to see the show high (people don’t see the half-empty houses in New York), creating demand for a tour stop or even a sit-down production. With this, producers can then negotiate better prices for national tours when booking venues.
3) Award Season: A critically-acclaimed show (read: financially-stifled) that may not be performing well may buckle down and try to survive for a few weeks until award season hits full force. Tony nominations and awards are big business — unfortunately, they’re often distributed unevenly to several shows with large sweeps by one or two plays or musicals. The two most popular closing dates after January’s first Sunday are the days following the Tony nomination announcement and Awards ceremony itself — getting snubbed leaves no doubt that a show on the cusp will continue to fall.
4) Movie or Other External Event: A film adaption in the near future can be a huge boost to box office receipts, so producers may be willing to take a few months of poor business if it means a large rush later on.
5) There’s Nothing Better: Due to Broadway’s economic climate during the winter months, few new productions are opening during those months. If the producer (a Nederlander, for instance), owns or manages the theatre a show is running in, running the show at a loss can often be more profitable than closing it completely due to rent and restoration fee costs — it’s better to have some money come in than leave a theatre empty. If this is the case, royalties to creative team will take a cut and the production will run its downhill course until something is ready to take its place in the spring. Think Priscilla Queen of the Desert keeping The Palace warm for the Annie revival.
6) Fear of/Not Wanting to Give Up
“No one wants to let go. And there’s always the hope that summer will be booming business. But there are so many new shows coming, things probably won’t get better for these three musicals.” – Emanuel Azenberg, a Tony-winning veteran producer
Even the smartest and most seasoned producers have a hard time posting that closing notice. The production has probably had years of development and endless passionate work to bring it to the point it’s at. Pulling the plug is hard sometimes, a hundred close friends in the industry will be out of a job, shifting back to unemployment. Sometimes a show will just trickle for six weeks with no signs of upturn as the producers come to terms with having to post a closing notice.