A gross statistical seasonal wrap up. Part I

The official Broadway season finished up on Sunday, and with that comes the release of the highly anticipated season stats.

How did Broadway do during the last 12 months?

Total gross was $943.3 million, up 5.8 million or an itsy-bitsy .6% from last year’s tally of $937.5 million.  Not so bad, in light of the current economic climate (my favorite hackneyed expression).

But don’t stop at the dollars.  Let’s look deeper.

Attendance at Broadway houses was 12.15 million, down 120k or 1% from the prior year’s 12.27 million.

So there was more cash in the till, thanks to our usual increase in full price tickets, no doubt, but our audience got smaller.

Should we celebrate?  Or should be be concerned?

While I am thrilled that we managed to pull out a squeaker last year, despite a gas crisis, a stock market crisis, and a credit crisis, and a crisis on the overuse of the word crisis, there’s a trend emerging that has me a bit on edge.

As I wrote about in this post regarding whether or not discounts are eroding our full price sales, we’ve been on an attendance plateau of the last 8 years, despite an increasing gross.  And this year that trend continued, as we slipped backwards another 1% in attendance, while the gross barely inched forward.

But more importantly, this is the second slip in attendance we’ve had in a row.

In the 25 years of seasonal statistics available, a decrease in attendance over 2 seasons has only happened once before.  The last time we’ve seen this sort of negative pattern started with the 1988-’89 season . . .  and continued for three seasons in a row.

And I’ll predict that in the upcoming season, 2009-’10, we will see yet another decline in attendance.

While it is true that one of the current ‘seasons of slippage’ included the stagehands strike when we went dark for 19 days, which explains the drop that season . . . how do we explain how we’ve fallen from there???

In my opinion, these statistics and this trending plateau are continued evidence that we’ve hit a ceiling for the Broadway audience.  My concern is that if the attendance remains flat (or slips), and our expenses increase (which they automatically do, thanks to labor contracts, etc.), it means that prices must go higher in order for shows to operate.  We all know that the answer to economic challenges can never be as simple as raising prices, which could lead to even more attendance attrition, etc.

These trends mean that just as every other industry in America is examining how they operate efficiently in this new economy, we must do the same . . . or our real crisis may be yet to come.

We can break through this ceiling. There is more growth that can occur.  But just like the last steps up a mountain, it is going to require a new set of tools and a lot more effort than ever before.

Tomorrow we’re going to break down the last 11 weeks of the season, to see if we can make a prognosis for the summer tourist traffic.

Until then . . .

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  • Odd question: Are the same trends visible in (a) off-Broadway income or attendance, or in (b) the regional income and attendance figures. True, regional tends not to have the long runs, but it would be interesting to see those numbers. In terms of what I have seen, I’ve had mail from the Pasadena Playhouse emphasizing how they are cutting costs, but no cuts in the season yet. Similarly, no cuts in offerings, but Cabrillo Music Theatre has done a 2-for-1 in the balcony subscriptions. I believe I’m seeing fewer 99-and-under houses putting seats on Goldstar or LA StageTix, and we know the Ahmanson/Taper has done some cutbacks for next season. But the overall Southern California picture I don’t know. So how is the overall state of the theatre marketplace, for the health of regional theatre and Broadway is intertwined.

  • Richard says:

    A theatrical crisis? You couldn’t call it The Fabulous Invalid without one.
    But seriously, at the risk of just saying the obvious, if you believe that labor costs will continue to rise, even as margins gets stretched and attendance thins, are we talking about GM?
    My beef with the UAW is that for decades auto union leaders and workers were in denial: It was all about getting the maximum dollar they could all the while paying no attention to the health of the industry that was paying them. And voila! Now everyone expects the taxpayer to bail them out. Basically, the auto workers cashed in on future earnings at an earlier period. I hope they saved a lot of money.
    This is the same. There’s some tolerance for rising ticket prices, even in a recession. Remember the late 1970’s? But–it’s not a time you can expect the audience to expand, certainly. People are complaining now about how high ticket prices are on Broadway. As the recession continues and prices continue to increase, well, it’ll just get harder. Someone needs to ask the present head of IATSE what he thinks of that statement. And if he’s stupid enough to essentially say that it’s not his problem, well, then, it’s time to stop playing cutesie, take off the gloves, maybe forego two seasons of shows and revenue, and bust the unions once and for all. (After all, part of the problem is that the unions know that the producers will often cave because they want the show to go on.) If the League doesn’t have the guts to do it during a recession when growth will be minimal, when will they have the guts to do it?
    Unfortunately, if the American people are a little unsympathetic to bailouts for banks and car makers, producers are going to need more than a wish and a prayer if they expect a bailout for theater.

  • I don’t think we have reached the audience ceiling yet (frankly there is a lot we can do to work on new audiences). I think the balance has been thrown out of whack in that there are way to many new shows.
    This spring is so full of new shows that are GOOD that there are just too many to see.
    My post yesterday looks at are there just too many good shows – and linked back to your analysis here.
    I hate to add a link back to mine, but I think in this case I will break my rule because after re-reading your post this morning I think they do go together.
    Off-Stage-Right: are there too many good shows and not enough audience members? http://tinyurl.com/pn3qfo

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