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?