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.

Dreaming About The Future Of Streaming (thanks to Hamilton).

Oh, if all of my shows could be like Hamilton.

Sure, sure, I’d like the Pulitzer and the Tonys and the billion bucks.

But what I’m talking about now is the giant treasure they had tucked in a vault . . . that they pulled out in the midst of this pandemic.

Yep, I’m talking about the movie they released on Disney+ last week that increased downloads of the D+ app by 74%!

And what I’m dreaming about and proposing for Broadway’s future is that every single play and musical on Broadway films performances of their original cast in the week after opening (just like we record a cast album at about the same time).

And we tuck that sucker away in a vault.

Sounds easy, and I bet you’re nodding your head right now in agreement.

But it’s not that easy.

It’s expensive.

See, Hamilton could afford it. Not only did they have cash to burn, but they also knew there would be a market for their product in the future. (Little did they know what role the movie would play in keeping their brand and Broadway’s brand alive.)

Most plays and musicals do NOT have cash to burn when they open. In fact, most new shows are losing money when they open and therefore can’t afford to invest in a risky insurance policy like spending millions on a shoot.

Never mind that the shoot would have had to be planned months before. (We could try to build this cost into the capitalization, but that might increase the budget by 10-20%, and it’s not like raising previous budgets were a piece of cake.)

So what to do?

In order to capture all of the new shows for posterity and for future revenue opportunities for everyone, including the actors, musicians, and stagehands, we must lower the costs of the capture themselves.

I mean, I’m kicking myself for not having ALL of my shows in a vault right now. I could roll them out and everyone involved would get a check.

But it was too pricey to record Spring Awakening, Once on This Island, Gettin’ the Band Back Together, etc. (And I know that for a fact because I budgeted them all.)

We must reinvent this model in how the labor is paid for video capture (especially since a capture doesn’t require any additional work on behalf of the labor) and then give the labor MORE if/when the capture is distributed.

Think about it this way . . .

It costs a few hundred thousand dollars to record a cast album. And the cast/musicians have to spend a day in a studio, on their day off, recording it. It’s a lot of work. (And most cast albums aren’t making any money, btw).

It can cost 10x as much to capture a show on video. And the labor is paid more than they get for a cast album. . . even though no additional work is required.  For video shoots, the show could be recorded during a regularly scheduled performance (or several).  (If any additional work was required for the shoot – additional rehearsals, etc, then the labor should be paid).

If we lower the cost of capture (please note that I’m saying lower, not eliminate), then every show could put their product in a vault. And then, if the show is a hit and Disney+ or Netflix comes around, then EVERYONE gets paid.

Or give the Producer the option . . . pay the Hamilton model, or pay the bonus-back-end model.

We’re going to need a lot of new models post-pandemic. This is one that could provide an all-important revenue stream for everyone in the future.

Call it COVID-insurance.

And I just kicked myself again for not having it.

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Want to hear more about streaming from people who know more about it than me?  Sign up now for our 3 part video series about the 3 subjects most on your mind, including streaming . . . featuring the heads of BroadwayWorld and BroadayOnDemand.  See here.

[Update] What You Told Us Were Your Top 3 Concerns About TheaterMaking.

A few blogs ago I announced that we’d be taking our Fall conference virtual this year and asked you for a favor – to tell us what two burning questions you had about creating theater in the new world.

We got hundreds and hundreds of very passionate responses (I’m not surprised).  And there were three subjects that were far and away the most important to you TheaterMakers out there right now.

And I was also not surprised to see what they were.

Can you guess?

(I’ll wait while you do . . . go on, guess, and then scroll down.)

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The three issues about TheaterMaking in the new world that are top of your mind are:

1. SAFETY. How can we ensure the safety of audiences, actors, and creators going back into theaters?

2. EQUALITY. How do we raise the voices of people of color and other underrepresented minorities not only on stage, but behind the table and in the offices where decisions are made?

3. STREAMING. How can we create a sustainable business model to be able to stream shows worldwide?

 

How’d you do?  Guess them all?

I can’t thank you enough for filling out that survey and for helping us understand what is on your minds so we can make sure that we curate our conference accordingly and feature these three issues (and many more) in our content line-up.

But it was also clear to me from the overwhelming majority of people who mentioned the three subjects above that we shouldn’t wait until November to start conversations about these important issues now.

So, I asked my staffers at The TheaterMakers Studio to develop a 3-part video interview series with an expert on each of the subjects above.

If you’d like access to this special (and free) video series, click here to sign up.

The videos will be released starting on July 7th and will only be available to those who request access – because I don’t want to send you more emails than we already do.  🙂

I look forward to jumpstarting these conversations now, so we can jumpstart the action to improve TheaterMaking for all of us.

Sign up here.

 

BROADWAY’S RECOVERY PART II: 3 Reasons Broadway Will Bounce Back . . . FAST.

Yesterday, I postulated that Broadway will come back fast and strong . . . whenever the @#$% we actually come back.

If that sounds like I’m frustrated, it’s because I @#$%ing am.

I mean, Broadway was booming like never before when COVID reared her ugly invisible head.  And not only will the theater be one of the last industries to return to full operation, but it has more hurdles than many of the other industries struggling to get back on their feet.  (I’ve actually said to myself a few times, “Why couldn’t I have fallen in love with making movies instead?”  FYI, right after I said that, I made my wife punch me in the face, so I’m fine now.)

All that said, I not only believe we’ll bounce back . . . but as I said (and drew!) yesterday, I believe we’re going to have a very swift comeback story . . . a story so good that it might be worthy of a musical itself.

Why am I so bullish?

Well, just like you, I’m pretty damn frustrated with how long we’ve been down.

But the fact is . . . the longer we are out, the stronger we’ll be when we return.

That’s right . . . #LongerIsStronger.

Here are three reasons why I believe we’re gonna bounce back fast:

1. We can watch the rest of the world.

As NYC remains on lockdown, other cities, states, and countries are loosening their lockdowns.  And we’ve got a front-row seat for their “opening night.”  We’re able to watch what works.  We’ll see what doesn’t.  We’ll learn from shows in Seoul, churches in Texas, and other gatherings all over the world.  It’s like a movie, where there’s a group of people staring into a dark cave . . . and we get to insist everyone else goes first.

Not only will this education assist us in making our shows the safest they can possibly be for audiences and for our employees, but as people gather around the world, they’ll start to become more comfortable with the thought . . . so seeing a show won’t be the first time they are in a group with others who they don’t know.

2. Making our audience wait, makes them hungrier.

While I’m concerned that we’ve got a “habit-problem” to address with our avids, our delayed return is also creating pent up demand for live entertainment.  Streaming can only go so far to satisfy our craving.

Scarcity of a product can make people want it even more (provided you stoke that scarcity with marketing – which the smart folks at the Broadway League are already doing with great skill, and they’ve only just begun).

How many of you have been drooling for a Starbucks?  Or just to sit in a Starbucks?  Same thing . . . but oh so much better.  Or remember how frustrating it was to wait for Game of Thrones to return?  People were legit angry . . . and they tuned in anyway.  When we return, Theater Fans are going to want to be at that first night of theatergoing more than any other place in the country world.

Which that brings me to . . .

3. We’re a word of mouth industry.

This is the big one.  See, by waiting longer, whether that’s September or later, we’re making sure that we can come back when we can fill our theaters, and ensure everyone the communal captivating experience that they want from a Broadway show. And that first night back is going to be one of the most thrilling in the theater’s history.

Can you imagine it?  Think for a moment . . . the curtain going up for the first time . . . and Rob McClure from Mrs. Doubtfire stepping on stage . . . or the wives from Six . . . or Evan from DEH or the ensemble from Hamilton . . . you can hear the ovation now, can’t you?

Now think about that . . . for fifteen minutes.  Because it will still be going on that long.

There will be tears.  And cheers.  And standing.  And many an actor breaking the fourth wall in the best way, and probably breaking down.

Have the chills yet?

It’s going to be magical.

And remember, we’re a word of mouth industry.

And everyone who is in a theater that night is going to tell EVERYONE they know they were there.  And that it was sensational.  And they felt safe.  And that they are healthy.

And that word will spread faster than a virus can.   (And imagine the press attention!)

And those people will want to be in a theater too.  They’ll want to experience that same joy.  That same thrill.

And they will.  We may not sell premium tickets like we did.  But we sell lots of tickets.

 

And that’s why the industry will bounce back and fast.

Because it’s a primal need to gather in groups and hear a great story told from master storytellers.

And by staying out longer, we’re guaranteeing our fans that we’ll be able to get back to the Broadway they know and love, rather than a streamin’ substitution.

So as much as I am drooling to get in a theater tomorrow, I can wait as long as it takes, because I know . . .

#LongerIsStronger

And I just can’t stop thinking about that first night.  I wonder what show I’ll see.  What show will you want to see that night?

Kind of makes you want to buy tickets now, doesn’t it?

🙂


TONIGHT ON THE LIVESTREAM: I’m sitting down with Playwright and Bookwriter Lisa Kron (Fun Home & Well) at 8pm EDT. We also invited Youtube Sensations Mat and Savanna Shaw to be the Special Guests. You can now watch on my Facebook page or Twitter, on Broadway Podcast Network’s Youtube channel, or Broadway On Demand.

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