What “The Queen’s Gambit” Taught Me About How To Market Broadway.

Nerd alert confession time:
In 1991, I was a member of The Manhattan Chess Club.  
I was a decent player, although I did get beat by an 8 year old once. (In my “defense,” my coach told me the kid was the next Josh Waitzkin). 
I gave it up. Not because the 8 year old slapped my ego like a hockey puck. But because I got hyper-focused on becoming a “grandmaster” in the theater . . . a journey I’m still on, by the way!
But chess is one of those things that I say I’ll get to someday. You know, like when I retire. (Ha!) And every once in awhile, when chess appears in the news, I’ll click.
So, when I noticed that a new Netflix series called The Queen’s Gambit was trending, I couldn’t help but watch.
There were seven episodes.
I watched them in two “up-until-2AM” nights.
There were a ton of marketing lessons from this series:
– It felt like a true story, but wasn’t (a strategy more typical for horror films, like The Blair Witch Project).
– The “#X in the US” banner on Netflix uses social proof to give you a solid dose of FOMO if you do NOT watch.
– The series was “limited” giving you both a desire to finish it, and also want something more. (Google “2nd season of Queen’s Gambit” to see what I mean.)
But the biggest marketing lesson of all is the simplest, most powerful, and it’s right on the surface . . . but also hidden from view.
What am I talking about?
Put it this way . . .
What do you think I wanted to do after watching ONE episode of watching The Queen’s Gambit.
That’s right.
I wanted to play chess.
The Queen’s Gambit wanted me to play chess.
And . . . here’s the ding-ding-ding . . . I bought a chess set within 24 hours.
Now, I understand marketing enough to know that if this happened to me? This happened to a lot of those people who made the series #3 in the US.
The lesson?
The best way to sell something is to create a story around that something.
It’s long-term strategy. No question. But if someone asked me how to market Broadway?
It’d be encouraging more movies about Broadway and the theater. More TV shows about the theater. More books, poems, and stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the theater.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to buy a course on how to play better chess.
(Have you seen The Queen’s Gambit?  Did this happen to you?  Are you playing more chess now?)
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Do you have a show but need some help in marketing it, without hiring a high-priced marketing company you don’t need?  Click here for lessons on how to market your show from Broadway A-listers for less than you pay for your gym membership.

If I had a show running pre-pandemic that was going to come back, I’d do this.

Boy did I need something to distract me from CNN today.  You?

When I need some misdirection from something that is causing me a lot of anxiety, I play “Fantasy Broadway.”  I put myself in the hypothetical chair of a decision-maker on Broadway . . . a Producer, a Theater Owner, a Director or any kind of TheaterMaker . . . and then I put myself in a tough situation  . . . and  I ask myself, “What would I do?”

I’ve played this game for Tony Award campaigns (how would I convince voters to pick my show?), staffing questions (what designers do I think are best for this project?), and more.

Here’s what I toyed with today:

One of the things I am grateful for is that I didn’t have any shows running on Broadway when the covid-curtain came down.  (The four musicals that I have teed up- Broadway Vacation, Joy, The Neil Diamond Musical and Harmony- were just about to go into the workshop phase.)  So I asked myself, “If I did have a show running on Broadway, what would I do to keep that show top of mind before our return?”

I came up with a bunch of stuff, but here’s the one I liked the most.

I’d put it on sale.

“But how, Ken?  If you don’t know when Broadway is coming back, how would you know when to put the show back on sale?”

Let me be more specific.

I’d put ONE performance on sale.  And that performance wouldn’t have an exact date attached.  But it would be a guaranteed ticket to the VERY FIRST PERFORMANCE back.  🙂

See, at a time when so many things are unknown (including who will be our next President – although that seems to be relatively clear to everyone except ONE person), there is one certainty in my book . . .

When we’re given the “all clear” and Broadway reopens again?  The very first time a curtain is raised on a show is going to be one of the most magical nights in the theater . . . EVER.

Just imagine for a moment . . .you’re sitting in the audience of your favorite musical.  The house lights go out . . . the orchestra strikes up . . . the curtain rises and an actor appears.  And then she sings . . .

I mean, people are going to go ballistic!!!!

It’s going to be historic.  And fans are going to want to be a part of that incredible, sob-inducing, standing-ovation-that-may-last-an-hour, moment.  They’re going to want to be a part of it so badly, that they’d buy a ticket for it now.  Even without knowing exactly when it is!

Don’t you think?

And if you don’t think . . . tell me below why.  And then YOU PLAY THE GAME!  Come up with your own way that you’d keep your audience talking about your show while Broadway is shutdown and put it in the comments!

And then you can go back to watching CNN.

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Marketing is going to change in the post-pandemic world.  That’s why we have a marketing panel at the TheaterMakers Summit, which starts in just SEVEN DAYS!  Get your ticket here and see some of the 100 (!) speakers we have ready to help you in your theatrical pursuits.  Click here and join us now.

3 Reasons This Week Would Have Sucked On Broadway Anyway.

I’d give anything to have Broadway up and running again.

Wait.  Hold the cell phone.

I forgot the #1 lesson about making wishes like that.  You have to be veeeeeery specific.

Take #2.

I’d give anything to have a healthy Broadway up and running again.  And by healthy, I mean safe from Covid.  And strong at the box office.

And we can’t come back, and I predict we won’t come back, until we have both.  (For my actual, to-the-day prediction of when Broadway will return, click here.)

Which takes me today’s blog . . .

Even though I’d consider giving up a toe to have audiences in our theaters again, I’m kinda glad I don’t have anything running this week.

Because this week would have been a @#$%-show at the box office.

Here are three reasons why.

  1.  Trick or Treat X 2 Halloween always puts a spell on our box office.  Last year in the same frame (remember last year?), grosses dropped 8.4% from the previous week.  And this year?  Halloween was on a Saturday, which means we would have been tricked TWICE:  once at the matinee and once for the evening?And the Sunday matinee wouldn’t have been so great either, as everyone rested the morning after the spooky revelry.Why is Halloween so disappointing at our box office?  It’s a combo, actually . . . between people going to parties, parades and taking their little ones to gather up candies and veggie crisps (the new Kit Kat, apparently), and people NOT wanting to go to parties and parades for fear of getting tricked themselves!
  2. Falling Back Makes Our Box Office Do The Same It seems like such a small thing. It’s one hour. And in the fall, you “gain” the hour, getting a touch more sleep.  So why does it screw us up so much?  It’s just as much psychological as it is physical.  Not only do our clocks feel a touch out of whack, but the fall daylight savings time screams to us that “winter is coming.”  And that drives us all inside.  There’s a subliminal “batten down the hatches” message that comes along with it.  And we’d rather stay inside . . . and not inside a Broadway theater.(And yeah, springing forward six months later has the same strange effect.)
  3. Is there something happening on Tuesday? And here’s the elephant and the donkey in the room.  The election.  Or should I say THE election.This is the biggest election we’ve seen in modern history in SO many ways, including sucking up any and all air space, and the ability of all of us to think of anything else.  I predicted that we were going to see a correction this year, and this was one of the reasons why.  But it would have been even worse than I imagined.One of the reasons why is the amount of advertising spent on the campaign, to the tune of 10.8 BILLION bucks.  Hard for any other advertising to get through when political ads are everywhere (and some scaring the you-know-what out of you – as they should).

    And what would have made it worse?  Everyone is predicting a count that goes on past election day, which would have paralyzed our audience’s mind and their desire to purchase tickets.

There are few blessings in the midst of this Broadway shut down.  But every morning I tried to find at least one.  Today’s is that I’m actually glad I don’t have any shows running this week.

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The good news is that when the election is over, the tension is released, and we start to focus on what we need to focus on again.  And in this case, that’s making theater in our new world. There’s only 12 days until The TheaterMakers Summit, when 100 of Broadway’s Best will talk about how we can do just that.  Will you be a part of that conversation? Click here.

Here’s what I think the Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity should do.

When Bernardo and Riff see each other at the “Dance at the Gym” in West Side Story, it’s obvious that at some point soon . . . there’s going to be a rumble.
This past summer, when TheaterMakers were struggling to figure out . . .
1) How to keep developing shows
2) How to earn to a living
. . . a question kept coming up that should have made me realize that we had our own rumble in the works.
That question?
“If the reading or production is on Zoom, how do we deal with the union?”
No one knew the answer. (I’m not even sure the unions did either.)
And that’s what has started the rumble between Actors Equity and SAG that made the NY Times this week.
I don’t blame the unions for not knowing what “the deal” is with streaming theater. It’s not like any one of us ever thought this would be a thing . . . that we’d have to solve . . . in the middle of a pandemic.
Not to mention that Actors Equity and SAG are like every other company in our industry. Producers, Agents, Regional Theaters and more. We’re all struggling to figure out how to keep our lights on . . . with less staff than we had since we started our business.
So, Actors Equity is claiming jurisdiction. SAG is claiming jurisdiction. And the actors? Well, they want to work.
And here’s the thing . . . Producers want to hire them.
My advice?
I’m advocating for The “Moonlighting” solution.
Remember that show? Bruce Willis. Cybil Shepard. She was his straight-laced boss; he was her wild-and-crazy detective. And they couldn’t have fought more. They fought so much . . . that you knew at one point . . . they’d make out.
Yep, I’m proposing that SAG and Actors Equity should make out merge.
This is an opportunity to not only solve THIS streaming issue, but a host of other issues that are going to come out of this crisis. Not to mention the issues that existed BEFORE all this. (Whenever our theater actors appear on TV (Morning shows, The Tonys, etc) there is so much extra paperwork that after over 25 years in the biz, I still don’t understand it!)
Wouldn’t it be easier to have the actors under one union roof?
You’d reduce friction for the hiring of these actors, which means more actors would get hired.
Or the unions could keep fighting.
But here’s what happens . . . when two people fight, everyone else avoids it so they don’t get caught in the melee.
That means, fewer people will get hired. Or they’ll get hired outside of the unions.
And no one wants that.

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TheaterMakers wear lots of hats.

Unfortunately, our favorite hat has to stay hung up in the closet right now, until this Covid nonsense is under control.

So for many, that means a pivot to one of their other chapeaux.  (Even we’re pivoting to producing online events as I mentioned here and here.)

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