Podcast Episode 31 Transcript – Al Nocciolino
Ken: Hi, everybody, it’s Ken Davenport. We’re back on the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Today we are heading back out on the road. Several weeks ago, when we were talking to booking agent Steve Schnepp on this very podcast, I vowed to speak to one of the presenters of Broadway shows at a leading touring house. Well, today I am thrilled to have one of the leading presenters of touring Broadway in the country with us. Welcome to the president of NEC Entertainment, Al Nocciolino. Welcome, Al!
Al: Thank you, Ken. This is fun. Thank you for having me.
Ken: Al has been a presenter for over 35 years, putting up shows in theaters in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and many more in New York State and Pennsylvania. He’s been a producer of both shows on Broadway and on the road. He’s an extremely active member and beloved member of the Broadway League, he is the vice chair of the Road Committee at the League, he’s a founding member and chairman of the National Touring Council and is also a past president of the Independent Presenters Network, which he’ll tell you all about in a little bit. As you can tell from those credits, Al is a guy who eats, breathes and sleeps the road, and every time I hear him speak about it at a conference you can tell how much he loves it, which is why I’m so thrilled he’s here today. So, Al, tell me how you got started in the world of presenting Broadway shows.
Al: Completely by accident. First of all, I always had a . . . I’m going to use the word “passion,” which I’ll use several times, I think . . . I’ve always had a passion for entertainment and music and acting. As a young person, I thought I could do all of that, and found out very soon that I couldn’t do very much of it very well. But I did find my way, again, at a young age, to managing a band and putting on dances at the high school and then on to college, running a ticket agency and promoting concerts with a local concert promoter. But I didn’t think I would be pursuing a career and ended up with a major in finance and pursuing that initially, but that changed in a short time and I found my way to the venue business as the assistant manager of a brand new arena and theater and, a couple of years later, at the young age of 24, I realized that there wasn’t any touring Broadway in the theater, and I remember ushering in my home town at the local theater when touring Broadway would come, and I thought, “Well maybe I can figure this out and do it while I’m still getting paid for my job.” It kind of all started that way, and I went on to develop and to promote concerts, and a marketing agency where we specialized in handling some of the large family shows in New York State and Pennsylvania . . . Ice Capades and Globetrotters and Sesame Street and all of those things. You know, a way to find some business that was bringing in fees while we were learning to take risks. Eventually it evolved into more markets, and then producing and investing and raising money. I just covered 35 years in 35 seconds.
Ken: That’s it, that’s the end of the podcast. Thanks, everybody, we’ll see you next time! What was that first theater where you were working?
Al: It was a little place called the Capitol Theater in Binghamton, New York, which no longer exists, unfortunately, because they tore it down and put a brand new bank there, which happened in many of the older north eastern communities. For instance, Buffalo had over 20 theaters at one time, and places like Binghamton had seven or eight theaters, and Syracuse and Rochester and all of those north eastern cities that were the big cities of America at the turn of the century had many vaudeville houses and theater houses and music houses and they obviously . . . as time moved on, there wasn’t a need for all of them, and so there was this consolidation and we saw many theaters disappear in the north east, and this was one of them. Subsequently they renovated another one and that’s where I presented my very first show, which was Charley’s Aunt with Vincent Price and Roddy McDowall and Coral Browne. And it sold out and I thought, “Well, this is easy!”
Ken: Your first show, Charley’s Aunt. What was the second one?
Al: Man of La Mancha.
Ken: Did that do well as well?
Al: It did, with David Atkinson. I was 24, 25 years old and I thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll try to put a season together of four shows,” and the next season I did, with Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, Equus, A Little Night Music . . . and I’ve forgotten the fourth one already. Absurd Person Singular. So that was the first season, and then the reality hit home. I started trying to sell season tickets, and not all of those shows sold, and I learned very quickly that there’s substantial risk in our business.
Ken: Some of my listeners may not even know what a presenter actually does. We throw the word “producer” around a lot, of course, but can you explain what that means, to be a presenter? What that meant for you then and now.
Al: I just used the word “risk” a couple of times. We tend, in the theater business, to find nicer words to represent what we do. In Europe they call us “impresarios,” here we say “presenters.” In the music business it’s a “promoter” and I think that word better describes what it is we do. It’s the same thing, we’re the ones who decide to present/produce/promote a show, and we pay for it. We buy it from an agent who’s representing a producer and we bring it to our community, and then we do everything that’s necessary to put that show on . . . let’s set aside a subscription for the moment, but the individual show . . . from renting the theater to staffing the theater to marketing it and getting all of the writer requirements, and hopefully get enough bodies in those seats when the lights go out and the curtain goes up to cover those expenses or maybe make a profit because, the next day, we . . . those of us that do what we do . . . our asset has no value tomorrow. We live in a business that’s no different than selling TV commercials or radio commercials or airline seats or hotel rooms. We can’t add another thousand seats to the theater to make up for yesterday. So we’re the ones taking on all of that local risk and hoping that we can generate enough excitement and demand to sell tickets.
Ken: This is why I love doing these podcast, because I’ve never thought about it in that way. I think of New York producers having such an amazing amount of risk, but at least we have a bit of the ongoing property going forward. Not only are we selling tickets and hopefully have a long, open-ended run, but even when we close we have a little piece of that show when it’s done elsewhere. You don’t, you get it for a week, you get it for three nights, that’s it.
Al: That’s it and that’s the risk that we all take and what evolved in our business and maybe this would have been a question of yours, which provided for a lot of stability on the road, and it came over many, many years and we can go backwards to talk about it, is the subscription model. And so many of us, all of us now, have substantial subscriptions and make commitments to building those subscriptions and spending a lot of time and money on retention and new efforts to hang on to those subscribers. Learning about what their needs are, what their wants are, developing new audiences and expanding the audiences so that we can keep our subscriptions and grow our subscriptions and reduce our risk.
Ken: So let’s talk a little bit about the 35 years of presenting that you’ve done. How has it changed? What’s the biggest changes you’ve seen in those three decades?
Al: I think the obvious one is the economics, but that change is there for everybody . . . the cost of shows, the cost of producing shows, the cost of presenting shows. I think, for me, two of the biggest changes . . . and I’ll start with what we call the “product,” which I don’t like. I hate that word. But our shows . . . the quality of the touring theater industry is so much better than it ever used to be, and it started about 15-20 years when the big blockbusters started to hit the road and there was this commitment to deliver the shows, as much as possible, to mirror those shows that were here on Broadway. Cats did it, Phantom did it, Les Mis did it, most recently Lion King, Wicked, Jersey Boys. You can go on and on and on. But also it was the same with Kinky Boots now or Drowsy Chaperone eight or nine years ago, because there was a time when the “bus and truck,” as we used to call it, was very different, and what you saw on stage wasn’t necessarily very good, at least physically . . . maybe not from an acting standpoint, but physically. So the quality of the productions has really improved, which I think has attributed to the stability of the subscriber and the new theatergoer. Then, I think the other significant part of the business that’s changed, that came along with the commitment to these quality shows, is what happened to the theaters and their communities. We call it the “Phantom back wall syndrome.” When Phantom hit the road, most of the old theaters in America couldn’t fit the show, so they all decided to do what they had to do, and that’s blow out the back wall. Well, with blowing out the back wall, a lot of things happened, at least from my perspective. Not only did you physically change the theater, other parts of the theater became important . . . the seats, amenities, bathrooms, carpeting . . . so there was a serious commitment to restoring and renovating these magnificent community assets that existed all over the country, and then, with that, came the embracement of it by the local people . . . local citizens, local community, local politicians, local leaders. Because it became a focal point, particularly in the heart of the old urban cores, and with that came everything the redevelopment of a lot of downtown areas came with that. So, for me, the combination of those two things is really what’s changed over the years.
Ken: I remember reading about Cameron saying, “I’m not sending Phantom of the Opera out on the road until I can deliver what it is in New York, the same experience.” Do you think it’s a result not only of producers like Cameron saying things like that but, I’m just thinking . . . people come to New York more often now than they used to, so the demands of your audience . . .
Al: I think that’s a really good point, particularly from where I live and work in the north east, many of our patrons come to New York to see shows so, yes, there’s an expectation. But I think that expectation, even with those people who are further away, the Midwest or the west, who don’t get to New York that often, when they see a quality show like Cats or Phantom or Les Mis or any other show, they expect similar quality with other shows, and they respond when they’re not. They can respond both ways. When they are, you get their support, and when they’re not, you can hear them loud and clear. So I think you’re right, and I think the combination of all of that helped . . . but clearly, look. We’ve set a record this year on Broadway, and the biggest growth we’ve had is, of course, in our tourist business, not necessarily from the tristate area. The combination of domestic and international tourists. So, yes, I think that’s right on.
Ken: What’s also striking me now is that you’re not very different than the artistic director of a non-profit theater, in that you have to pick a season for your subscribers and you are going to get the wrath when they don’t like and, hopefully, the benefit when they do. So how do you go about choosing those?
Al: I think that’s probably the single best question that’s ignored by a lot of people who don’t really understand, even people who work in it every day. If you don’t know your market and you don’t know your subscribers and you don’t know how they buy and what they respond to, you can’t hang on to them, and so you have to find the right balance of shows. Clearly, our subscribers now, the ones who are committed, want the best of the new shows. They know what’s going on. They pay attention to Broadway. The want the best new shows. They also want family shows because our demos are higher than New York. Our demos are 55-plus, and many of them have grandchildren and older children, so they want shows that they can bring their children or grandchildren to. I think the biggest surprise, with the utmost respect, this past season was the success Cinderella had on the road. It was a huge, huge hit. Everyone said, “Oh, your subscribers aren’t going to like it.” Well, guess what? They bought additional tickets, brought family, brought grandchildren and that, for us, becomes a bit of audience development too, because once you get one of those young people into the theater, with their mother, with their grandmother, they’re coming back. They’re coming back. If they’ve got an experience at Lion King or they’ve got an experience at Cinderella or any of the other type of show that’s friendly and familiar and comfortable for them, they’re coming back. Maybe they’re not coming back next year, but they’re going to remember the first show they ever saw, because that’s what happens when you go to the theater. I heard someone say this at a conference this spring and I wish I could remember . . . Lin-Manuel, I think, said it . . . “You don’t remember the first movie you saw, but you remember the first Broadway show you saw.” So we try to find balance. I don’t like the word “revivals.” I like the word “classics.” We try to find shows that are the classics, that handful of shows that you can bring back so very often, the new shows and the family shows, and finding the right balance is key and we work very hard at that. And also knowing the landscape, knowing, “What’s coming up for next year versus this past season? What do I save for next year because I might have too much this year?” And balancing that over the course of a couple of seasons.
Ken: Have you ever run into a situation where you’ve seen a show on Broadway and been like, “God, I love this show so much. I just can’t book it.”
Al: No, not me. I’ve come close to that, saying, “I love this show so much, I know it’s not going to sell, but I have to bring it,” for many reasons. One, it might have won the Tony Award. Two, it might bring a whole new audience to the theater that don’t normally come. Or, three, most importantly, it’s important for people to see it because it’s a big, beautiful piece of theater, knowing full well it may not sell. So we call that “realistic expectations.”
Ken: I love it, it’s a very fancy MBA phrase. Let’s talk specifically for a second, because I’m very curious about this. So Fun Home obviously, the big Tony Award-winning musical this year, I expect it will tour. I’m very exciting about the possibility of that story getting all over the country. Is that a show that you will book?
Al: Well, in an effort to be completely forthcoming, I’m involved with the show. I have an investment in the show and I’m in love with the show, so that’s going to maybe taint my opinion a little bit, in order to be forthcoming. Yes, I think there are several reasons why. First of all, when a show wins a Tony Award, eventually everyone will find out about it. That idea that they don’t . . . they will. Will it appeal to everyone? Maybe not. Is it a show that I think is going to sell as many tickets as Cinderella? Of course not. It’s a small little theater. That’s not insulting the show, that’s completely realistic. Is it a show that I think my patrons will enjoy? I think they’ll cry like I did, love it, and leave there remembering this incredible piece of theater. So, yeah, if I can find a way to do it. The only concern that I have . . . and this is a small one. It’s very selfish and, Kristin and Mike, I apologize if you’re listening . . . in a 3,000 seat theater, I’m a little concerned as to how it’s going to play there. But I have complete confidence they’ll figure that out, because it is going from in the round back to proscenium, and we’ll have to figure that all out and, once we do, I think it will really, really work well so, yeah, I think they’re going to have a very successful tour.
Ken: Let’s speak hypothetically for a second. I just want to understand how important that Tony Award is. Let’s pretend you weren’t involved for a second, and let’s say American in Paris won the Tony Award. Do you think Fun Home would get out in the same way?
Al: I do. I think those are two questions. Would it get out? Yes. Would it get out in the same way? Maybe not, because, clearly, winning the Tony Award says Chicago, LA, Washington. It says you need and want that big show in your markets. It won the Tony Award. It’s important to those really dedicated, committed theatergoers. They want to see that show, they want to see the show that won the Tony Award. So I think it looks differently when it tours when you win the Tony Award. And for those of us in the secondary markets, the large secondary markets, we have a commitment, I have a commitment. When something wins the Tony Award, I’m bringing it. I’m bringing it, in some way, shape or form, we’ll play it. And that’s the luxury of have a subscription base too, because when you go back to that realistic expectation, if it applies to a specific show . . . and I’m not suggesting it does to Fun Home . . . then you have the luxury of saying, “Okay, I may not sell all of the single tickets like I would sell with another show that has a broader audience, but I’ve got a subscription base and they’re going to enjoy it and I’m doing what responsible for and to them.”
Ken: I have a feeling they’ll thank you for it, for bringing it. Have you booked in the past or would you book shows that don’t play in a New York theater?
Al: I have the reputation, unfortunately, of being one of those guys who says, “Well it hasn’t played Broadway. How do you put it on a Broadway season?” Having said that, I have done a few over the years. Sometimes reluctantly, because I’ve waited and watched how they’ve sold and thought, “Okay, something’s going on here.” But as a matter of course, I typically will only book and program shows that have played on Broadway, particularly, I think, because of the part of the country I’m working and their familiarity with what’s going on on Broadway.
Ken: What do you think about the whole non-union tour controversy, in that regard?
Al: I think there are lots of parts of that conversation. Having grown up and worked in the smaller little markets of upstate New York where the large shows just won’t fit in the theaters . . . they won’t fit in the theaters because the stage is too small or the capacities are too small. The Binghamton, New Yorks or the Elmira, New Yorks, or the York, Pennsylvanias . . . there’s a community that wants to see theater. The only way they’ve been able to see theater, right or wrong, is when a show gets scaled down and goes to a non-Equity or non-union production, because the economics come down and shrink with it and it becomes fiscally possible. It’s impossible to do a full production show in those markets for several reasons. Again, because of physical limitations, the size of the venue. But more importantly, the size of the markets. So you can’t go in there for a full week. So I’ve always felt, and I’ve been a participant in many dialogues with Equity over the years, that there is a need and we’ve got to find a way to serve it. Like it or not, we all should work together to do that, and I think we’ve had healthy dialogue about it.
Ken: Having been a company manager for a non-union tour . . . that was one of the first jobs I ever got. I played Harlingen, Texas, one of these small theaters. They didn’t have the number of people to fill the theater more than one night a week, and we barely filled that.
Al: The first two shows that I mentioned that I ever presented were one-nighters.
Ken: You just can’t tour that in the same way. There’s a place for it, it’s just where is that place?
Al: And how it’s done. Exactly.
Ken: How far out do you book? This is something I talk to Steve a lot about. How quickly can a show get on the road? Is it speeding up or slowing down?
Al: It is speeding up, it’s really speeding up. I think it’s speeding up for a lot of reasons, though. First of all, we’ve created these . . . I use business terms, unfortunately, more than I should . . . but these franchises around the country, and that’s these locations, city performing arts centers, that have these wonderful subscription series. You know, the combination of the independent markets and what BAA has done very successfully with their markets. And there’s high demand. As soon as a show opens on Broadway and there’s some sense that there’s going to a life after Broadway, they find an agent and that agent’s on the phone, long before, sometimes, the nominations have even come out for the Tony Awards. I mean I’m almost completely done for 2016-17.
Ken: Wow, that far in advance?
Al: Yeah, and I’m starting to book some shows for 2017-18 right now, because some of them that are going out 2016-17, I just didn’t have room for. I just came from a meeting now, moving a couple of shows into the 2017-18 season because I don’t have any room in 2016-17. As an industry, we’ve talked about that because, with that also comes some fallout when you start so far in advance, because seasons get filled and then there’s not enough room for all of the shows. But I believe that that’s the process of supply and demand, and that stuff figures itself out and there’s a reason a show might not happen. But, yes, to your question, it has really speeded up and we’re all players in that equation right now.
Ken: You’ve also produced on the road, produced here . . . is there a difference from being a great Broadway producer as opposed to being a great road producer? Do you need different skills?
Al: Well that’s a great question. I think, certainly, being a great Broadway producer has an extraordinary set of skills and responsibilities going with it, but there are many great Broadway producers who do not know the road. And what they have learned, and I’ve been participant in this over the years, is that you need to find your way to people who do know the road. Good general managers, good agents, people who understand the landscape, know the marketplaces, know the players, know the deals, and try to do it and not go into any kind of a cavalier or blindfolded approach to it, because it is different. Because we’re taking on the weekly risk, whereas the producer is taking on the initial risk but once he decides to capitalize and build a show for the road, it immediately gets passed on to those buyers across the country so the question is always, “How much will I make? Will I recoup?” And the stability of the road has provided for at least almost most shows recouping and then, of course, you get a second year and you know what comes with that. Depending, once again, how big the show is. Let me say this . . . the creative process gets a little tricky sometimes, too, because converting from what’s on stage in New York, putting it into six tractor trailers, it can be very challenging. And getting your creative people to adapt to some of that, I think, has sometimes been challenging but I think there’s a better understanding of that now.
Ken: What do you think the current state of the road is right now? I often say to guests on the podcast, “If Broadway were a patient, what state would that patient be in?” Critical? Intensive care? Healthy? What do you consider the road right now?
Al: I think the road is very, very healthy and taking really good care of itself. I think that we did almost 14 million people in attendance on the road last year . . . that’s national Equity tours, not the non-Equity tours, just the first class tours . . . grossed about $1 billion. Healthy, very healthy. We had a meeting yesterday of what we fondly refer to as the entry industry and road presenters committee and did a little canvasing of how renewals are going and how subscriptions are going thus far in the season, and everybody’s renewal rates are up. Everybody’s growing at 3-4%. Yeah, we’re healthy, we’re very healthy right now.
Ken: What are the big hits out there right now?
Al: There are many of them, which is really nice. This past season there were several. I think you know them. Motown and Kinky Boots and Cinderella. A show like Pippin was, I think, an extraordinary surprise for our subscribers. I had never, ever presented a production of Pippin over the years. Just think about the last time that it was on Broadway. And if you go back to my little model, where I don’t do it unless it’s been on Broadway, of course it had been on Broadway many years ago. Our audience loved it. So there are a lot of big hits. Phantom, of course, is just killing again, booked very smartly, smaller runs than the last time, of course, it was touring. The big blockbusters continue to sell well. Wicked and Lion King have just been beautiful hits, and of course The Book of Mormon. I’ve got to be careful when I start naming titles because you forget somebody! But no, we have been able, I think, to measure very smartly the potential success and sales of our respective shows. Not all of them are going to sell out, but they are pretty much doing what we expect them to do, and the quality, again, is great. A lot of nice surprises this year.
Ken: Tell me a little bit about the Independent Presenters Network. I was the company manager on Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was when I first came across that phrase and that organization. Tell me a little bit about that.
Al: Well that was the first show, but the way, that we really were invested in. Several years ago, it became aware to us, for many different reasons, that, with the growth of the road and the road changing and the deals changing and the costs going up, that there was an organization called, at that time, something different than Broadway Across America, but they were very organized. And they were working as a unit and the independents were operating very independently, and once in a while talking to each other. So there was a need, a very simple need, to get people who worked on their own, either performing arts centers or independent presenters like myself, who didn’t have the ability to come to New York on a regular basis, to see and look at each other and talk about what they were doing and figure out a way to work as a group and find some way of helping each other. What became immediately clear was one of the things that we had to do, which Broadway Across America was already doing and which some of us were doing individually, was to commit to helping develop new shows and being part of that process and investing in shows and just being part of delivering new shows to the road, as well as sharing ideas and the classic networking and all of that other stuff that goes along when you learn from other people, which everybody admittedly did. And so we grew up, so to speak, by working as a whole, yet still being very, very independent, by helping each other and committing to this process of investing and co-producing and whatever else came along. And, of course, Millie was the first really big one we did.
Ken: And you’ve done a number of shows since then.
Al: We have, and multiple shows in the same season. Two seasons ago we were significantly invested in Kinky Boots and Matilda, and to a lesser extent Cinderella and Pippin. Sometimes it’s not the aggregate. It could be five or six or eight or nine or ten that decide to invest in a show, and so we were committed to three or four shows for this coming season. All producers would love to have the road presenters, all of us, as part of their producing process, because with that comes a commitment to see it grow and come out there after Broadway, and sometimes even though it might not be financially successful in New York. We’ve toured many shows that haven’t recoupled here on Broadway. Many of us have. And hopefully you make a little money on the road or a lot of money on the road that goes back towards the mother company which, eventually, can help out a little bit. So we learned early on that it was important and we continue to work together.
Ken: You’ve made some good picks. That season alone sounded like it was a really good season.
Al: We’ve made some good ones and we’ve been some bad ones.
Ken: Haven’t we all, Al? Haven’t we all. You’re very active in the League. Every time I go to a conference you’re always up there speaking.
Al: Not anymore, I let everybody else speak.
Ken: It always looks like you’re holding court . . . you should hold court up there. The Broadway producers and presenters in the same organization, even though . . . “If I have a tour I want you to pay me more money for that tour. You want to pay less.” There’s a natural “adversarial” relationship in that, and yet we’re all in the same organization because we all want theater to be successful. What’s the relationship like right now? What do you think? Is it more adversarial, less contentious? How are things?
Al: I think we’ve come miles. First of all, you have nailed with the question the reason why I believe that there’s been this wonderful synergy that’s evolved at the League, where everybody now has a better understanding of what everybody else is doing. Not just Broadway producers and Broadway presenters, general managers and agents and everybody else. Our goal, 20 years ago, when we started something called the National Touring Theatre Council, we were members of the League of American Theatres and Producers, but nobody really knew or cared about presenters. They were the guys who were going to give us the money when we went out on the road, they didn’t care what we did and, oh, by the way, the deals were different then. They weren’t participation deals. They were just looking to get guarantees and some other money. They didn’t care. So, as the business changed, there was a need for everybody to say, “Hey, these are my expenses and these are mine. Don’t think you can come into my town and it doesn’t cost me anything to put on a show, because there’s a building with 3,000 seats and we have to pay the electricity and the air conditioning and the 35 ushers.” So, in a very simple way, our goal was to make everybody better educated about what each other was doing, and now I think we’ve had tremendous success in doing that. The CTI program devotes not only time to producers but bringing in presenters and general managers in. They want these young people who decide to take the course to know all about the business. There are producers today who will tell you they know so much more about presenting than they ever did before. I’ll make this a really simple answer to your question. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary at the Spring Road Conference, and part of our growth has been the extraordinary numbers. We had over 700 people there this year, and it was like, “There are all of these people coming in from the road. We don’t know how to manage them all.” So we dissected it. Of that 700 this year, 300 were from New York City. Think about that. So, exponentially, our growth has been the New York community coming to the Road Conference, which is wonderful, it’s great. It means they want to know it, they want to understand it, because the more they understand it better they can manage what they’re doing and the better they can negotiate and understand and have fair deals for everybody and, when that happens, everybody wins. I tend to make my answers a little long, sorry.
Ken: No, they’re perfect, and you just encapsulated what I’ve felt myself over the past 10-20 years of my time in the business, which is that it felt like New York producers were a little snobbish about how we dealt with the road. “Oh, yeah, we’ll give you this show when we’re ready and you’ll pay what we want you to pay, and feel lucky that we’re giving this to you.” And now it does feel like we’re so much a part of the same team and that Broadway’s not just right here in New York City. Broadway stretches across the country.
Al: Yeah, I mean I give Paul Libin complete credit for this . . . Paul, who works for Jujamcyn and has been a stalwart in the business for many, many years. He says that Broadway is the longest street in America.
Ken: He’s 100% right about that. And one of the things that New York producers have to remember is that 65% of our audience comes from outside this city, which means they’re growing up on theater in local markets like yours.
Al: No question.
Ken: So how they’re getting exposed to it, what they’re learning, and them actually getting here is maybe a result of all the work that you’re doing in your markets.
Al: And because we all have so many subscribers, part of our commitment to them is to communicate with them. And today, with the social media ability, we can so easily tell them about what’s going on on Broadway, so easily tell them about what shows are coming out on the road or so easily tell them about the Tony broadcast. So we keep them very informed. They’re much more aware now, and they become better patrons, better educated patrons about the theater business.
Ken: Are deals changing at all? One of the arguments I hear constantly is, “Oh, we’re charging the same guarantees now that we charged 20 years ago. The guarantees haven’t gone up as our expenses have changed.”
Al: I stand up and get into many arguments with some of our producing friends about that, and for your listeners who might not understand this, I respond very quickly, “Yeah, it might not be the guarantees have gone up significantly, but now we have something called a ‘variable guarantee’ that used to try to hide under something called ‘royalty,’ and now you get 70% instead of 60%. So tell me what the company share looks like versus the old company share.” And when you start looking at company share, I think that’s where you see the growth has been and, to defend the producing side, that’s where they need to be because their costs have gone up as much as ours, if not more, but it’s come in different ways. Higher participation, the recognition that it’s not royalty, that it’s a variable guarantee . . . so if a show is getting a $300,000 guarantee and there’s a 10% variable guarantee, the guarantee just became $400,000 if you gross $1 million. So it might say $300,000 on the contract, but it’s really $400,000. And then they give the percentage afterwards. But we all know that. And as soon as I say that they sit back and they say, “Okay, let’s deal,” because it’s a reality. It’s numbers. They’re delivered differently, but they’re going up. And they need to and they should. I’m going to be careful about that, because I’m always trying to find the balance for all of us.
Ken: Okay, Al, last question, which is now being called the genie question by many of the listeners out there. I ask this of all of my guests. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin knocks on your office door . . . I imagine you will book Aladdin when it comes to your market.
Al: Absolutely, I’m waiting for it.
Ken: But when that genie knocks on your theater and says, “Al, thank you for booking us here and thank you for your incredible, dedicated service to the road over the past 35 years. I’m going to grant you a wish, one wish. What is the one thing that drives you so crazy about this business, the one thing that keeps you up at night, that gets you so angry? What is the one thing that you’d ask me to change or get rid of with the snap of my fingers?”
Al: That’s a great question. I guess I wished that the other half of our business, the creative side, would learn to let themselves learn as much about the business as the business side did, as the producers and presenters allowed each other to help each other learn. I wish we could get the creative side . . . and, to a certain extent, Equity, to their credit, has tried to do that. I wish we could get the creative side to understand some part of that as well, the risk that producers take, the cost that presenters take on. I mean I probably could come up with a better answer than that, but that’s one that’s, I think, completely frustrating for many of us. It drives me crazy because it’s passed on to all of us when it can’t be fixed or done better or correctly. But other than that, I’m particularly pleased, after all these years, Ken, to see how healthy the industry is at every level with the commitment to learning and understanding what we all do. I mean our presenters know more about producing now because they’ve invested, because they’ve become part of the process, and producers are better producers for the road because they’ve allowed themselves to learn about our economics, and so that’s all worked better for everybody.
Ken: Well one of the reasons that the road is in the current state that it is, which is healthy, is because of people like you. Ever since I attended my first conference and listened to you talk about the road and watched you talk to other people about it and get people inspired to learn more about it, you’re just one of the incredible leaders this industry has for the road.
Al: That’s very kind.
Ken: And thank you for it, because the road . . . as Paul Libin said, Broadway is the longest street in America. New York producers need it, our audiences need it, the theater needs it. So thank you so much for that. Thank you for being here. All of you true in next time. We’ve got some great guests coming up. Don’t forget to subscribe!