Fun with festivals.

Theater festivals have exploded in size and number over the last five years, just like film festivals.

The Edinburgh Fringe, NY Fringe, Minneapolis Fringe, Toronto Fringe, Midtown International (which announced their award nominations today, coincidentally), NYMF (which gave birth to ABz), and countless others were created to give new plays and musicals an easier entry point to production by covering a portion of the expenses and responsibilities, namely press/marketing and theater rent.

So getting into a festival makes your life easier, right?

Not so fast, fringe-meister.

Getting into a festival is like an actor getting an agent.  You’ve still got to do most of the work, especially if you want to stand out.

Festivals are like buffets.  All the shows are lined up next to each other.  The quiche is next to the corn which is next to the strawberry Jello with the marshmallows.

While having all those choices sound too good to be true at first, they can be overwhelming to the consumer, especially if they are “new” dishes the diner has never tasted before.  And remember, you can only eat so many in one sitting.

I mean, think about it . . . how many times have you been to a buffet and found yourself wandering around the bar trying to decide just what you should try.

That’s what a festival audience does.

And if you’re lucky enough to get on their plate, you’re probably just one of many portions.

With so many choices, it’s hard for the Jello to stand out.

Your job as a Producer in a festival is to make your show seem like a waiter-served entrée that costs a lot more than the flat rate, all you can eat, warming tray heated, slightly stale, other options.

You can’t just be one of the choices.  You have to make yourself the choice; the one that makes them come back for seconds.

How do you do it?

Don’t do what the other shows do.

Do more.  And do different.

Turn the lights down low. Turn up the Barry White.

And insert bow chika bow bow music here.

Before any sort of main event, it’s important to set the mood.  And that goes for the theater as well.

When doing a show, it’s important that you don’t go-for-gusto until you’ve warmed up your audience for what they’re about to experience.  You want them to be ready.  You want them to be excited.

You want them to call you the next morning for another date.

Rock bands have opening acts.  Live talk shows have warm-up comedians.  Movies have previews.

What do you have?

Is there music playing while the audience is seated?  What kind?

Are your ushers dressed formally?  Are they in costume?

Is there a character on stage?  Off stage?  Both?  (Brian Bradley worked up the crowd into a frenzy during the 30 minutes prior to the Alma Mater in the last revival of Grease that I PAed.)

Is the curtain open? Drawn?  What type of curtain is it?  (One of the smallest but most significant changes I’ve seen to a “pre-show” was on the last Gypsy revival, which I CMed.  For the first few previews, the audience entered the theater and stared at a blank, dark and depressing stage . . . for 30 minutes.  We wondered why they weren’t so responsive during the first scene?  We brought in the beautiful “grand drape” for later previews and the audience’s somberness disappeared.)

What you do in the 30 or so minutes from when your doors open to when
your show begins is crucial.  You’re setting the tone for the entire

So make sure you consider it.

Because you’ll never get the reaction you want from your audience, without proper “beforeplay”.

– – – – –

Props to one of our My First Time models, who is one of the Bow Chika girls in the video above.  Can you tell which one?

Please call your lawyer. Part II.

It’s official.

The phrase, “I’m calling my lawyer!” and its many consumer-screamed derivatives including “My husband/wife/uncle/cousin is an attorney,” have jumped the shark.

Listen to this recent mis-use of the lawyer scare card:

At a show in NYC, a woman had to be escorted out of the theater in handcuffs after refusing to put away her guinea pig (?) and for spewing hate speech.  The show that she was (not) seeing inevitably started late.  Here’s a quote from the show report . . .

Most of the audience members were very patient and understanding with the exception of one man who threatened to sue us because we were starting the show late.

Remember when this sort of phrase used to get you all sweaty?  You didn’t want the big bad lawyers to come huffin’ and puffin’ and trying to blow your house down.

I’d bet some of you have even used this once or twice when you were dealing with a company that wasn’t giving you what you wanted (come on, admit it).

All customer service reps, including theater owners, managers, box office staff, etc are going to hear this at one point or another.  And for me, when someone says, “I’m going to contact my lawyer unless . . . “, that’s the equivalent of them using the “F” word.

When someone swears at me or a member of my staff, they’ve just given us the right to shut down and stop helping them.

And when someone uses the “L” word, they have also drawn a line in the sand.  That’s when I say, “Please do contact your lawyer.  In fact, here is the name/address/phone/email/fax/skype of my law firm who I have on retainer, and they would be happy to speak to yours at any time.  Thank you for taking this uncomfortable situation out of our hands and putting it into the hands of professionals.”

That usually elicits a blank stare.  And some back tracking.

Odds are that the consumer is never going to do anything.  They were just looking to scare you.  But you’re smarter than that.

And frankly, this is the safest thing to do from a legal perspective as well.  If the customer IS looking to pursue legal action, then you want to be very careful about anything you say and you want to take a hint from Miranda and shut up.

However, if they do want to contact your lawyer and you’re a show, you’ve probably got one on retainer getting a weekly fee.  Let ’em earn it.

At some point in your career, you will probably have some sort of legal action against you, probably for a 1-800-LAWYER-ish slip-n-fall.

Don’t let it scare you.  The best and biggest companies in the world get sued all the time.  Consider it a sign of success.

Cuz we’re not afraid of big bad lawyers in wolf’s clothing anymore.

Guinea pigs?

Yes.  We are scared of them, so keep those half-rats out of the theaters, will ya?

Please call your lawyer. Part I.

A friend of mine was cutting a deal with a promotional partner recently and when he received the contract, he told the potential partner that he’d be get back to him after his lawyer reviewed the paperwork.

The partner told him not to bother and squashed the deal, for the sole reason that my buddy wants to spend his own money on a second set of legal-eagle eyes.

My friend was thrilled . . . because he knew right away that this was not a guy to do business with.

Anyone that gets skittish when you want a second opinion is someone you should be skittish about.

I cut creative deals on my shows.  Before I do, I make it a point to encourage the other party to speak to their agents, their lawyers, their pet hamsters, whomever, before they sign on the dotted line.

By encouraging people to get a second or third opinion, they’ll trust you more.

And at some point when a discussion comes up about a clause in the contract and they state that it wasn’t explained to them properly . . . well, they can’t point the finger at you.

No refunds. No exchanges. Except . . .

Sometimes, people don’t like my shows.  Sometimes, they even leave before they are over.

What can you do.  You can’t please everyone.  And frankly, I bet people walked out of Oedipus Rex during previews (incest, violence . . . makes Spring Awakening look like “Hee-Haw”).

Sometimes those people ask for their money back.

Then what do you do?

The theater has always printed its harsh “No Refunds/No Exchanges” policy right on the ticket, as if to say, “Don’t even ask or we’ll beat you with a stick.”

Most people don’t ask.  And frankly, they shouldn’t.  You don’t ask for a refund if you don’t like a movie, or if you’re unhappy with the exhibits hanging on the wall at your museum.  You’re paying for an objective experience, and taking a risk right along with everyone else.

The problem is that the cost of a theater ticket is a lot more than a movie or a museum, so I’d wager that we get more refund requests than both combined.

You can’t give customers their money back just because they didn’t like the show.  But in today’s customer service The “Don’t Ask For Your Money Back Or The Box Office Treasurer Will Beat You” policy doesn’t work either.

It’s your responsibility as a Producer to temper your customer’s unhappiness as much as possible, to try and reduce the volume of that customer’s word of mouth.  Because it most certainly is not going to be good.

So what can you or your able-minded box office do?

If people are leaving early, I do just about anything short of a tap dance to get them back in the theater to see the full show.  Both Prom and Altar Boyz are both shows that take a few minutes to get groovin’  and snap judgements aren’t good for any show. I even promised one couple I’d take them out to dinner if they sat through the show and then still wanted their money back (they ended up buying me dinner . . . and even expressed interest in investing in a show in the future).

When people won’t stay, I always offer those people a chance to come back to see the show again.  Most refuse, so I offer them vouchers that they can give to friends who they think might like the show more.  I even suggest they give the vouchers away as Xmas gifts (you save them money and you become a hero).

If that fails, I offer them free tickets to another one of my shows, or a steep discount.

T-shirts?  Drinks?   I keep going to additional offers like a never-ending flowchart.

Maybe they won’t take me up on any of it, but they see that I’m trying to do everything I can to provide them with some value.  The effort alone usually softens their temper.

And if it doesn’t?  And they are still as mad as ever and they still want their money back?

I still won’t give it to them.

Why?  Because people like that are going to speak poorly about your show no matter what you do.

You could triple their money back, and they’d still talk about you like you Oedipus-ed your mom.