Would you pay to have your show reviewed?

As if people weren’t talking about the future of theatrical criticism and reviewers enough . . .

In today’s Yelp-ian society, legitimate theatrical criticism has waned, with a number of critics at various publications ousted from their posts, only to be replaced by blogs, tweets, and user reviews.

And there’s no sign of it slowing down.

In fact, here’s a prediction . . .

See, the theater audience is older than the everything-else audience.  So Yelp isn’t the #1 place to get info about Broadway shows, because, well, to put it simply, my mom isn’t on Yelp.

But if Yelp sticks around?  Tomorrow’s audience will be more dependent on Yelp and the like because that is what they have grown up on.  They didn’t grow up on the NY Times.   In 10 years, sites like Yelp will be as important to theatrical advertising as the NY Times.

But that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about a brewing scandal brought to you by Bitter Lemons, a site dedicated to the LA theater scene.

Bitter Lemons is now offering theaters and productions a guaranteed review of their show . . . for the low price of $150.

Yep, they are charging shows to be reviewed.

Now hold on, don’t let “your head explode,” as the site’s statement reads.

According to the site, they are charging to make sure shows get coverage, and more importantly, to make sure shows get quality coverage.

Why sure, they could probably wrangle someone to write a review of a show for free, but they’d be taking whoever they could get, instead of being able to choose a person appropriate for this important task.

About now you’re probably saying, “The site should just pay the reviewer!  Why should the show?”

Good question.  I don’t know their economics, but as a guy who runs several niche websites, I can tell you first hand that making money from a website, especially one that needs to hire people to provide content, is, well, almost as challenging as keeping Donald Trump out of politics.

While I wish they didn’t have to resort to this new business model (and I hope that they will still review plenty of shows for free as well – and even tell productions – “Hey, no need to pay because we were planning on covering you anyway”), the fact is . . . we live in a new theatrical world.  And they are a business like any other.  And if they find themselves without the money to pay their people, then they are only doing what all businesses, and all people, should do . . . adapting to try and balance their books.

The question is . . . is charging for reviews better than the site going out of business altogether?

What do you think?  Are they in the right?  In the wrong?  Would you pay for a reviewer to come if you weren’t getting the coverage you wanted?

Comment with your thoughts below.

Oh, and a Post Script.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the second major story to come out of the LA theater scene in the last several months.  First, it was the minimum wage for actors debate, and now this.

Something interesting is happening on the West Coast.  The scandals are signs that things aren’t going so well, but I do applaud all the parties involved for coming up with creative solutions to try and keep the theater thriving in a city obsessed with cinema.

 

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Comments
  • I’m here doing the Hollywood Fringe and I did not pay for a review, but over 30 fringe shows have paid. Note, this initiative was launched at the same time when Hollywood Fringe productions needed press and reviews the most. BL did offer 75% off for Fringe shows, but if you’ve read the reviews thus far, you’ll see they are all over the map in terms of quality, journalism and theater critique standards. Not that many here in Hollywood read fringe show reviews, but a good pull quote can help with the future life of the show.
    My show “Late with Lance!” responded by offering free reviews to all Hollywood Fringe shows, sight unseen. There are 15 “reviews” already under the Better Lemons banner at http://www.LanceShow.com. What I learned from this marketing scheme was that many performers and theatre companies don’t know how to write a great review for their OWN SHOW, as they were asked to simply send in a self-written, three-sentence review. Hi. A blurb isn’t a review.
    If this practice moves to NYC, it will certainly get some press. And sadly, the Bitter Lemons people here haven’t gotten quite as much press for this “controversial” practice as they (or I) wish they had…because, Hollywood. Cheers! Pete

  • Ken:

    As background, you know I’m an active theatre blogger in Southern California, and active as an audience member in the pro99 group. I’m also picked up as a reviewer by Colin and Bitter Lemons as part of the LemonMeter, although I am not part of the Bitter Lemons Review Brigade. I tend to support Colin as a person (he’s gotten a lot of personal attacks on this), and so have been thinking about this issue a lot (especially considering who I work for in real life and the ethics rules I have to follow). More on that in a blog post at http://cahighways.org/wordpress/?p=10360 )

    I’m not sure this is as much of a scandal as an idea that wasn’t completely thought through. The concern — which isn’t just Southern California’s — is that journalistic support of drama critics and theatre reviewing is going down. Such organizations tend to focus on the reviews that draw in the eyeballs — the larger theatres. I’m sure you’re seeing this in New York as well. The vibrant small theatre community — all the membership and staff driven companies — or those theatres off the beaten track — never seem to get the review attention. Colin’s intent was a way to try to get reviewers to those theatres by allowing the theatre to pay to get the attention. This was also critical as we went into the Hollywood Fringe Festival (look at http://www.hff15.com — around 300 productions in a month! wow!).

    The problem was that it wasn’t thought through, and landed with a gigantic splat of a turd hitting the ground. There were no guarantees of journalistic independence, there were concerns about charging theatres that couldn’t pay (coming on the heels of saying they had no money, which was an affront)… I’m sure you’ve read the articles and know the concerns. The initial reviews were poor quality, which also hurt; the later reviews are demonstrating more independence.

    I certainly believe that Colin should publicly abandon this effort and acknowledge it as a failure. He also needs to clearly mark the reviews that came from the effort. I’m sure that will be discussed at a panel he is hosting on theatre criticism at the Fringe this Saturday.

    However, I think the intent of the idea recognizes a valid concern — and perhaps a concern to be debated on the Perspective. Theatre is more than Broadway, and how to the smaller theatres get the reviews and writeups? Should a blogger’s reviews (such as mine, which I’ve been doing for 10 years) be given as much weight as a trained critic? What about the weight of audience reviews on sites such as Goldstar? I’m sure the question of what makes a professional reviewers is as complicated as what makes an actor professional. It is more than just a card in a wallet.

    Just my 2c. More later if I think of it.

  • This has been the trend of all news media. It is called ‘native advertising’. A way of sponsoring content stories written as news items. Where, instead of paid graphic advertising, journalists find a news story relevant to the product being advertised.

    People know when they are being advertised to and they shut off even if you are advertising something great and of value. The challenge of marketing is finding new angles from which to market your material.

    Paying a review company to come in, find a story worth telling, and then publishing it is simply following the trend all media is following.

    Jon Oliver had a segment on Native Advertising on his show:

  • Ted says:

    “almost as challenging as keeping Donald Trump out of politics.”

    All due respect to ‘Clinton, the Musical’, but ‘Donald Trump, the musical’ would be even better.

  • Perhaps this issue has already been addressed, but how could paying to GET a review be separated from
    paying to get a GOOD review? I know I have had plays done in situations that merited coverage, but there was none arranged or expected. The audiences were standing up cheering, and there is no record of that at all, except on my website which, somehow, doesn’t count. Sure, I would have considered paying someone who had visibility to come and have a look at my play, and write it up. But would these paid reviews have been worth anything, if the readers had known that the playwright had arranged for the review? This is almost a Catch-22 situation, it seems to me.

    • Rich Mc says:

      MJS, you are absolutely correct, the idea of ‘paid reviews’ occurring at any level of theater distribution is absolutely awful and antithetical to theater ethics, which I would expect Ken to be in the forefront of upholding. The fact this practice made it into Ken’s blog without wholesale condemnation I find both puzzeling & disturbing..

  • Having a Press Agent almost guarantee’s some press coverage, as earlier in my career without one, much of my work was unseen. Paying for a “review” seems unseemly. Yet these days hyper press promotion with huge budgets enable musicals to run for decades. Plays close with a whimper, following raves for (lets say) The Elephant Man, Trip to Bountiful, Glass Menagerie all seemed to galvanize the press yet close almost unnoticed before I want to see them.
    Broadway is the cradle of the rich or foreign tourists now, and almost no one else. So spending “money” on a review could just become part of the pr budget.

  • Dan says:

    Been going on under your nose for quite some time. Right there in NYC…..but for music, not theater.

    http://nyconcertreview.com/review-request/

  • Lester says:

    Knowing a review was paid for would — and should — arouse some suspicion in the mind of the reader. If it’s a good review, what credibility does it carry? If it’s a bad review why am I paying for it. The cost of the review should come from the reader, who is, after all the customer buying the product. Or in our advert driven world, free media means the customer is the product. So shows take out ads to reach those interested readers.

    On the other hand, one asks, is it such a huge leap from hiring a press agent who gets the reviewer to come?

    I would say that there is a significant difference. I hire the press people to get coverage. I know they cannot guarantee the reviewer’s opinion. Everyone wants the Times (it is believed) because of their power and prestige. And I agree that model is changing, but for now, if my press agent gets The Times, I think he’s great even if the review is less than I might have hoped for. It is assumed by the reader that the paper paid the critic to write an honest review. Subscribers and advertisers pay the paper to stay in business and hire critics.

    Over time, the reader develops a relationship with the critics. They know that writer’s taste and biases. And they trust the reviewer’s independence.

    Who are these Bitter Lemon reviewers? Have they been vetted? By whom. If it’s just a collection of anyone’s opinions, my friends can post like they can on some other theatre sites.

  • David Rigano says:

    I agree with those who say it sounds suspect. And what about the economics about the poor little theatre that’s scraping along, that has to budget an extra $150 into its Kickstarter campaign for a review, only to get a negative review which then has the potential to slow ticket sales? It all gets messy when you’re paying for your own reviews.

  • Jon says:

    Would I pay 150? What is their reach? What is their readership? What editorial control do I have? this is just advertising in a different way. So the best reason to have a review at all is so that you can use it in future marketing. This works because the critic supposedly has “credibility” as a frequent and outside observer ( and a way with words) to piithily state the benefit the viewer will receive. In a fragmented media world, with newspaper in decline ( market dependent) providing multi-bloggers free seats will have a similar cost. I say get your mother to review it, pick out a few nice things she says, and trumpet away ” “The Best Show I have seen this year!” Just make sure you open on Jan 1.

  • I’ve been reporting on this story for two weeks. My original report, with several updates:
    http://www.hesherman.com/2015/06/05/youd-like-your-show-reviewed-150-please/

  • Kimberly says:

    Excellent discussion I’d like to add to. I produce theater in LA, so this is a POV grounded in my reality…not the theoretical journalistic ethics of theater criticism, which, btw, I wholly support AND believe have been assassinated by new economic realities.

    First, I need some kind of evidence my production existed, or I’ve just flushed 10s of thousands of dollars down the zen toilet. (If a hand claps but no one hears it, does the hand exist?) Yes, actors and audiences had a good time, in real time (I hope) because we do quality product. But it’s very hard to get future funding or board members or audiences without some evidence the shows a.) happened and b.) were of any quality.

    Second, I hope (pray) someone will review it and give some intelligent analysis to verify the product quality. So…who’s going to do that? We have local bloggers that “real” critics love to scoff at as non-legit. But the fact is some of these bloggers are VERY dedicated to seeing a lot of theater and writing it up–good, bad or otherwise. Combine that with the shocking retreat of editorial commitment by First and Second tier media in our city to review theater (an art form that is hugely prolific in LA). And suddenly these long-term, very dogged bloggers’ reviews have become “first tier” coverage. “Real” critics are appalled at the elevation of these so-called “amateur” bloggers.

    It’s displaced outrage, in my opinion.

    There’s a quick explanation for why the LA Weekly cut its reviews coverage from 8 a month to maybe 1 or 2 > advertising income losses. So don’t kid yourselves: every super ethical, intelligent critic was paid to write up your show in the past because someone paid his/her publication advertising dollars. It was a very non-transparent exchange. It had the veneer of an arms-length, ethical transaction. But my day job is public relations (B2B, not theater) and, friends, the ethical separation of advertising and editorial fell long ago in most media outlets. So call me cynical, but I always had the lurking suspicion we were more likely to get a reviewer assigned by one of these pristine, journalistically wholesome publications IF we advertised. (Not at the LA Times. Forget it. But at other outlets…maybe?) And now: not enough advertising income = LA Weekly killing off most of its theater criticism. Correlation or causation? Am I paranoid or a prophet? Who cares…the net result is the same.

    So you get…Colin Mitchell’s business model at Bitter Lemons. Colin Mitchell is not the anti-Christ of theater criticism. (Yes, the hand-wringing here in LA gets quite hyperbolic about this topic.) He’s making transparent the reality of the proposition. He is not guaranteeing a good review. He is guaranteeing that someone with some criticism credentials (not your mom) will show up who — by declaration of the transparency — is taking an arm’s length view of the project. He is documenting the hand clapping.

    We can cry in our beer about the old days and the way it used to be. I’m the first to say “I want Bernard Shaw back!” — I’m THAT retrograde/nostalgic about all this. But the interweb has destroyed the old way. Mourn it, drink heavily at its wake, and get used to the new reality. Because Colin’s business is more likely to be alive 3 or 4 years from now than any of the other models…and it’s better than a pull quote from your mom or a Yelp-like solution being the last thing standing for reception documentation.

  • Just returned from the Hollywood Fringe where performers get %50 off. 30 shows paid for a review at the Hollywood Fringe. I did not. Instead I responded by offering free reviews, sight unseen. Check out the Better Lemons tab on http://www.LanceShow.com.

  • Francis Jue says:

    This is the same site that advocated to maintain the business model whereby LA theatre companies don’t pay professional actors at all for rehearsals, and sometimes as little as $9 per performance, for months on end, for the privilege of performing for them. This is the same site that said LA theatre companies don’t have the money to pay professional actors, but they should be allowed to use them anyway, for the benefit of the actors. If this is a creative new business model, then we’re all doomed. It is time for us all to give up on the notion that art and theatrical ambition are incompatible with professional dignity and respect for our work.

  • Walt Frasier says:

    So I would normally be the first to say “HELL TO THE NO!!!”

    But almost all online and a lot of print advertising include editorial as part of their package. And while we may be paying for ad space we are actually buying the review. Ads are ignored but reviews are taken seriously as 3rd party opinions, even though most reviews – unless in NY Times and similar outlets – are bought and paid for reworkings of PR releases. And many have called the big dogs out as being bought reviews. As it gets harder and harder to sell ad space, editorial is a nice bonus.

    In fact there are dozens of theater blogs out theater that just cut/paste my PR to add easy content creation for their own SEO marketing.

    On the flip side I refuse to buy ad space unless the media site offers editorial.

    HOWEVER, I refuse to pay just for reviews. A small NYC theater blog was trying this a few years ago and there was no way there review was worth $50. Who was going to see it? MAYBE off-off Broadway producers.

    BETTER than paying for ads or reviews, most bloggers will trade content marketing creation fro tickets. MOMMY BLOGGERS are huge for our family friendly shows. We have even given many their own dedicated discount link. Just having a deal for their subscribers keeps folks coming back to their website and get new followers – which allows them to sell ads to bigger fish – kid/baby toys, clothing etc

  • noach reshef says:

    Noooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They should pay meeeeeeeeeeee , for using my registerd name !!!!!!!! ahahahha

  • Sierra says:

    I would not be averse to paying for a review, if the reviewer was professional and took a great deal of thought and grace into critiquing my work. I would hope to learn something about my craft or my product. However, the Bitter Lemons reviews, those that I have read so far, are full of personal rants, mentions of bodily functions, and a desire for sensationalistic authorship. I can’t read any of them without coming up with a better understanding of how the writer lives than how the play worked or didn’t work. The exchange of my money for a review should result in a learning process, or at least giving the audience a well-rounded sense of what to expect going into the show. My money would be better spent on a press agent who could handle the work of finding professional reviewers.

  • Jared W says:

    Three words: conflict of interest.

    The selling point for Bitter Lemons seems to be that you are ensuring a trained critic arrives at your show, but any prestige that is brought by having a professional is immediately undermined by the fact that the production paid to have them there. If the review is positive, how can we ever truly know that the reviewer actually enjoyed the production and didn’t just feel obligated to say nice things because the producers are literally paying his/her bills? If the review is negative, then any benefit of the added coverage is undone, and the production has directly contributed $150 towards its own downfall.

    I’m not sure how we solve the problem of the lack of professional critics in the theatre, but this isn’t it. And I also think we need to do away with the old-fashioned notion that only reviews from “legitimate” publications can be of any value. There are some excellent reviewers in the blogosphere who do work on par with the better known publications, and there are some print reviewers that aren’t able to articulate their feelings for a show beyond liked it/hated it. Just like the whole Equity vs. non-Equity debate, the notion that one is innately better than the other just isn’t reflected by reality.

  • Jason Rohrer says:

    Of the thirty-something reviews Bitter Lemons has posted to date, I’ve written twelve. I review elsewhere too, as do all our critics. We were all pretty well established before Colin hired us. And to correct a misapprehension in your blog above: Bitter Lemons doesn’t face a choice of going out of business or charging for reviews. BL was a review-aggregate site for 6 years before getting into the critique business.

    We’ve been 100% transparent about where our money comes from and how it’s spent. And when we write a bad review, and a client asks us to take it down, we say no, because that’s not our policy. We have two masters: the production and the public.

    Our first couple Hollywood Fringe Festival reviews out of the gate could have avoided the controversy, but they chose to address it. Of those two critics, one is no longer with us. And so far, besides the bad press engendered largely by rival theater-critique outfits – many of whom have undisclosed relationships with PR, with theaters they cover, with donors – our biggest problem has been having to turn away business, because our supply of critics can’t keep up with demand.

    Of our reviews so far, about a third have been overt pans. Most have been mixed, and a few have been strong recommendations. You may read them here and make up your own mind: http://socal.bitter-lemons.com/learn/blog/7?. But remember, just about every critic from the NY Times to Bitter Lemons has friends in the theater community, has done business in the theater community (if no more than buying a ticket at some point), and therefore has potential conflicts of interest in the theater community. Nobody else critiques but theater people. When you read any review, you’re reading an opinion biased in some manner. At Bitter Lemons, we let you know up front where we stand, and our work speaks for itself.

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