5 Ways to make your Off Broadway show work.

Off Broadway is dead.

I’ve heard that from so many people in the last five years (irony in my use of that phrase, intended).

And the good news is that it’s not dead.

Is it sick?

You betcha.

And to extend that metaphor, if you had someone that you cared about, someone that you loved, that was sick, maybe even dying, would you just take the standard prescribed care if your loved one wasn’t getting any better?  Or would you try every experimental drug and treatment to try and bring your friend back to her former self?

That’s what I thought.

Off Broadway isn’t dead.  It just needs a new prescription in order to work in today’s cluttered entertainment market.  Yesterday, I talked about those challenges as evidenced by the number of commercial Off Broadway shows appearing on the boards this spring.

And today, I’m going to talk about how to overcome those challenges with your show.  Here are five tips on how and why to produce your show Off Broadway.

1.  UNIQUE ISN’T A CITY IN CHINA

In today’s Off Broadway climate, your show has to be so unique that it can’t just stand out from the crowd.  It has to JUMP out from the crowd and say, “Look at me!  I’m not like any of the others!”  Different gets attention from ticket buyers and even more importantly, from the press.  Remember that full page article/review that Sleep No More got from the New York Times when it arrived in town?  Or take a look at Blue Man Group or Stomp or even Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding – before their debut no one had seen anything like it.  (If you want a simple lesson in being unique, read the bible on the subject – it defines my strategy in product development and marketing.)

 2.  MAKE IT A TALKABLE TOPIC

Your Off Broadway show isn’t going to be able to afford television commercials, or other major media buys, which is why it needs to be about or involve “talkable topics.”  You have to be able to get attention from the press.  You have to let them advertise it for you.  Maybe that’s in the subject matter (like it is for the show that I’m general managing and executive producing that will go on sale this week), or maybe it’s because it includes a new form of storytelling (My First Time was the first example of Theater 2.0 and got an article in the Times as a result – and people thought it was a review – and it sold more tickets than the review).

3.  IT’S A SPRINGBOARD

It is rare that a show sits down for a long and profitable life Off Broadway in today’s times, which is why you need to have other potential paths for you to follow if you aren’t one of the lucky who sustains an Off Broadway run.  Could you go to Broadway?  Are you branding for a tour?  For subsidiary rights?  Doesn’t matter to me, but it better matter to you.  Investors are savvy about how hard it is to recoup Off Broadway, so when you’re raising money, it’s essential to provide them with your potential off of Off Broadway.

4.  WHO CARES IF THEY CALL YOU CHEAP

When an agent wants more money from me for doing an Off Broadway show, you know what I say?  “Name one Off Broadway show that has recouped its investment in the last 20 years.”  They usually can’t.  Why?  There are only a handful (and yeah, I’m proud of the fact that three of them are mine).  If you’re producing an Off Broadway show in today’s times, you’ve got to, got to, GOT TO keep your operating expenses as low as possible.  Remember, you’re not producing a mini Broadway show.  You’re producing an Off Broadway show and all of the players on the team have to sign up for that experience.  Otherwise, they shouldn’t do it.  Some of your expenses will be out of your control (advertising, union rates, etc.) which is why you have to control the others.  About five years ago, the stat was that 89% of all commercial Off Broadway shows close within six months.  Get past the six months and you’ve got a great chance at success.  Remember, production budgets don’t close Off Broadway shows.  Operating budgets do.  (And don’t be afraid to negotiate with your theater or anyone else on your team – you never know what they might do.)

5.  ONE PERSON CAN AND MUST DO THE JOB OF TWO

My first Off Broadway show was The Awesome 80s Prom and I was the Producer, the GM, the Groups Sales Agent, the Box Office Guy, oh and I wrote and directed it too.  Broadway shows have big staffs, but Off Broadway shows have to be lean and mean.  You can’t afford super big teams.  Yes, you will need help, but keep your staff lean.  To save money, yes, but also to save time.  See, Broadway shows are like giant steam ships.  You put ’em in the water, and they are off . . . and they hit the iceberg or they don’t, and there’s not much you can do to turn ’em once the audience has chimed in.  Off Broadway shows are like rowboats.  The good news is that one guy with a paddle can turn ’em.  The bad news is they sink a heck of a lot faster. That’s why you can’t have big teams that take longer to make decisions.  Slim down the fat, and make your team lean.

There’s no question it’s harder to produce Off Broadway than it was even when I started ten years ago.  But there’s no question that’s why it is more important than ever we all continue to do it.  It’s a place to challenge the art form.  It’s a more accessible place to produce.

Now we just need to find an easier way to make a profit.

But I have confidence in you.

 

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Comments
  • Walt Frasier says:

    I totally agree with the past two statements. I did not notice the change in commercial shows until you mentioned it yesterday. But I will say that may be one explanation why our pseudo Off Bway improv Comedy show has done so well in recent months. Lack of commercial competition.

    Lets face it, many non-profits are projects that do not have a wide spread appeal. They may or may not find an audience. But that is a secondary purpose to getting new playwrights, obscure works and otherwise non-commercial appeal outside our community.

    Many of us prefer the more obscure, less commercial works. And there are enough of us to run one of those shows a few weeks/months. Those of us that see theater regularly can only see the Cast and Phantom types so many before our artistic taste totally numbs out.

    But many of the theater goers I talk to – and fill our seats with – say there is a lack of appealing inexpensive options. Especially for a family from out of town. There is “KIDS” theater for those that want but no great off Broadway family options that appeal to all ages. You can only afford so many Disney shows on one trip.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    Great post.

    As the son of a truly GREAT producer, what startles me is that even the “niches” that use to work – gay, Jewish – don’t anymore.

    When OLD JEWS and ASHER LEV, two great shows, both of which got raves and had significant ad spends, can’t even recoup…wow. Same thing happened to Charles Busch’s last commercial play, THE DIVINE SISTER.

    Now it seems to be the “sex shows” – 50 SHADES, SEX TIPS, the new one at your theater, NAKED BOYS, done cheaply. Oh well, Sex sells.

  • A big problem is getting press and industry people to shows off Broadway anymore .

    Press will mostly pass over non Broadway productions if there is not a big name attached to it.

    Or you will be told now that listings which used to be free now can add up to a bigger chunk of your production’s budget .

    I am finding some direct mailings pinpointed to certain press people gets a response plus there are some producers who say that they will still come to see non Broadway Equity plays .

    Shows like Sleep No More (which is wonderfully unique)came to town with a bit of advance U.K. press plus taking over an entire building for an environmental production . To produce a good more traditional play takes a lot of brainstorming to get the word out .

    -Kevin G Shinnick
    Director: Diversions And Delights
    http://www.tetcny.org

  • Anna says:

    Ken,

    Great points you made here. Thanks so much for your very informative (sometimes daunting!) blog. I’m currently attempting to attach a name actress to my new play. Planning an Off-Broadway run. So far the response has been extremely positive but it’s getting the commitment without the funding. Chicken and the egg syndrome.

    Just wondered if you had any thoughts on attaching a name actor to raise funds for Off-Broadway ?

    Thanks again!

    • David Merrick Jr says:

      Anna,

      i say anythinb\g that helps you raise money is a good thing.

      Here’s hoping Kim Kardashian responds to my offer. She’d make a great Medea….

  • Our show, running four years – once a week, consistently draws, but just over the break-even point. I heard about APAP yesterday – too late to be included – but just wondering what Ken Davenport thinks of APAP.

  • Dara says:

    I really identified with point 2 about making your show “a talkable topic.” A great subject matter will get your free advertising in print, online and social media – it’s literally priceless.

    In a similar vein, with all the free social media options, a little bit of creativity can really help an Off Broadway show build steam. People love seeing anything they think is exclusive, insider or behind the scenes. Even if it’s being broadcast to the world, people still feel like they’re getting something special for them, it’s just human nature.

    It’s one thing for the show to produce such content, but it’s also huge if you can get your stars to buy into it. A lot of performers have built great social media followings and a few photos or tweets can absolutely bring interest to the show. And those performers don’t have to be huge names – it will build up over time with a well-orchestrated campaign. People will start to feel a deeper connection to it. This is a bad example because she’s a huge star but just for argument’s sake – an Instagram post from the If/Then PR account is nice, but a backstage photo from Idina Menzel is priceless.

  • Thanks Ken,very informative as I’m taking a show Off Broadway next March/April…just a 2 week run to start…its called Celtic Nights—Oceans of Hope….song..music and dance of Ireland and her Celtic cousins…fingers crossed as we’re coming over from Ireland ..we go on sale Dec 15th…Sheen Center…Bleeker Street…would love yo have you come along for opening night March
    Thanks for your insights
    Michael
    Michael Durkan

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