The Enron of Broadway

Early in my career, I worked for one of the most powerful commercial theater companies in the world.

I also worked for one of the weakest commercial theater companies in the world.

Ironically, they were one and the same:  Livent – the producers of Show Boat, Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Fosse, Barrymore, etc.

In just over a year, we went from opening our own theater on 42nd St., to having our paychecks stamped Debtor In Possession.

I was reminded of Livent when I read this article that announced that the trial of Garth Drabinksy, my former Tony Soprano, had begun.

The allegations and the indictments on both side of the border are pretty serious (if Garth stepped into Buffalo he’d be arrested).  I won’t get into too many details about what I know, because frankly, I don’t want any of those Mounties thinking they should call me to testify.

But let’s just put it this way.  During the big horse race of Lion King versus Ragtime, there was a lot of concern about whether we were out-grossing the animals on Pride Rock.  Frankly, from what I recall, a lot of the Ragtime grosses that were published around that time were just like the best friend I had when I was five.  Made up.

That’s not the point of this post.

The point is, after everything that has happened, Garth is still at it.  He’s produced television.  A theater piece won awards last year.  For the love of God, he’s a consultant!

You should print out that article and hang it by your desk.  If Garth can bring down a company, face jail time, not be allowed in the US and still soldier on?  Then surely a bad review or a lost investment is not going to stop you, is it?

Garth called me about a year after Livent went tummy-up.  He said, “Kenny, there will never be anything like the shows that I did on Broadway ever again.”

I told him he was right.  Because he was.  His passion and super-ego produced some of the most beautiful shows we’ve ever seen by some of Broadway’s greatest artists.  The problem was that the industry couldn’t support shows like Show Boat or Ragtime the way he built them.  He built mansions on cliffs.  And the cliffs couldn’t hold them up.

Criminal charges aside . . . is it crazy that I miss the guy?  I’d probably still get him his double whipped latte if he asked me . . .

Advertising and asking for anything: Why they are the same.

Conventional marketing wisdom says it takes five impressions before a consumer is primed for purchase.

The same is true when you’re a producer and your job is to get people to join your team, whether they are a director, a writer, an investor, or an intern.

Translation?  Getting anyone to do anything is all about follow-up.

A talented up-and-comer was asking me for some advice yesterday and she told me how she wanted a director to read her script, but was dismayed because she had sent the director an email and hadn’t heard back.

She sent just one email.  And was praying for a positive response.  That’s like placing a 1/4 ad in Time Out and expecting to sell out for weeks.

It’s easy for us to take this kind of lack of response as a personal slight, but it’s not.  The director is a consumer just like everyone else, and you’ve got something to sell.  If companies like Apple or Altar Boyz gave up after one impression, no one would sell sell a thing.

Does this mean that you should send four more emails?  No.  Think of asking for anything just like a media plan:  Vary your media.  Email (online marketing) didn’t work?  Try another form of direct response, like a phone call (telemarketing).  Or go to a party where you know the person will be and make sure he/she sees you (billboard).  Have a mutual friend mention you to him/her (word-of-mouth).

But don’t just give up and think no one wants your product.

Instead, think of every impression you make as getting closer and closer to your goal.

And the best thing about follow-up impressions?  Unlike 1/4 page Time Out ads, they are free.

Oh, and they actually work.

Why did I decide to be a Producer of this Broadway show?

We all know the odds:  4 out of 5 Broadway shows don’t return their investments.  So for those of us nutty enough to want to do it, how do we choose the right project?

What do we look for when putting our record and reputation on the line?  A good score?  A reasonable economic model?  Passionate creative team?  Producing partners you admire?  A show you can say you’re proud to be a part of even if He doesn’t like it?


But that’s not all.

For me, there has to be all of those things . . . and something else.  Something unique, something remarkable, something purple.  Something that can cut through the noise of the other 30+ Broadway shows screaming for attention in the 12 block stretch that is Broadway.

Something that advertises and markets itself, so you don’t have to.

And that’s why I just recently signed on to be a Producer of 13, the new Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown and Dan Elish and spearheaded by one of the most prolific and respected producers on Broadway (and on television), Robert Boyett.

So what does 13 have that made me call Bob to see if he was looking for partner like me?  Yes, it has all of the above in super-spades (wait until you hear this score), but it also has this . . . a cast of 13 teenagers.  No adults.

And a band of teenagers.  No adults.

Now that’s something that gets attention, don’t you think?  It’s the special little spark that makes us stand out from the crowd without having to buy our place in the front with full page ads, stars that cost $35k/week, etc.

Producing a hit, like having a successful marriage, is super hard.  You wouldn’t marry someone that just looked good on paper would you?  You’d wait until you met someone with something really special before making that huge commitment.  Something that others didn’t seem to have.  Something that made this person stand out from the crowd.

That special spark is no guarantee that you’ll be married for 50 years or that you’ll run for 50 years.  But add it to everything else and I’d bet on it.

Oh wait.  I am.

A game I like to play . . . look at the longest running shows on Broadway or any big hits.  Find their SS (special spark)?   What did Cats have?  AnnieMamma MiaThe Producers?   Find it in these shows . . . then find it in your own before you get down on one knee.

Stay tuned, readers . . . lots of Producer Perspective ahead as 13 readies to bow on Broadway in September.

Who will say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated” this year? Guess right and win.

The nominations are pouring in!  The Outer Critics, The Drama Desks, The East Lansing Twitterers of America Club, and on May 13th (insert dramatic music here), The Tony Awards!

Nominations and awards are important.  After a focus group on Altar Boyz, we learned that the #1 compelling piece of information that we could tell people to get them interested in buying tickets was that we were the “winner” of the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.  It didn’t matter that they didn’t know what the Outer Critics Circle was . . . they just knew that we won something.  And that something piqued their interest.

So the people that get nominated, especially for the “Big 3” (Best Musical, Best Play and Best Revival of a Musical – the only awards that can have considerable impact on a box office), are one step closer to having another tool in their marketing toolbox.

Who will it be?

The real interesting category is Best Musical.  The fight for the Big One is almost as unprecedented as our upcoming presidential election!  As I’ve mentioned before, this is an extremely competitive year, with 8 new musicals duking it out for 4 spots.  That’s means a lot of producers are going to have nothing to do on June 15th.

Here are my picks, in order of how sure I am:

  1. In The Heights
  2. Passing Strange
  3. A Catered Affairand
  4. Young Frankenstein

It’s the 4th spot that’s the wild card.  There are a lot of middlin’ musicals out there this year.  Will Disney finally get a break?  Is everyone over Mel Brooks and his cockiness?  Will the critically revered but box office beleaguered Xanadu triumph?  What about Glory Days?  And don’t count out Diet Hairspray aka Cry Baby.

What do you think?  Am I right?  Wrong?

Here’s my challenge to you.  If you disagree with me, go ahead and make your differing prediction in the comment section.  If you’re get all four nominations right and I’m wrong?  Free $10 Starbucks gift certificate.  To every one of you who gets it right.

But you must make your prediction by Thursday at 6 PM, and only one prediction per person!

Theater things that don’t make sense: Vol. 1

Today we start a new series identifying some things that are just plain odd.

Not right or wrong, just odd or out-of-balance.

Many of these things are a result of how the business was born, how it’s structured, and who has the power.  Many are archaic “industry standards” (I hate that phrase, BTW.  How can anything be standard in an industry with a failure rate as high as ours?  Obviously the standards suck, so why keep using them?)

Many of these things may never change . . . unless enough of us Producers start jumping up and down all at once and start demanding it.

You guys game?  I thought so.

Ok, here we go . . . volume #1.

Did you know that if you produce a show in any Broadway or Off-Broadway theatre in New York City or any major touring house across the country and want to sell merchandise (t-shirts, CDs, etc.), you will be forced to a pay a commission to the theater owner?  (10%, 15%, even higher in some markets!)

Now, did you know, that in the same contract, you will be told that the theater owner has the right, whether you like it or not, to sell drinks, concessions, etc.. and you get no participation in that, even though it’s your audience buying the $4 Kit Kat and $5 bottled water.

Either give us a piece, or allow us to sell it.  Producers have so few ancillary revenue streams.  If we had more, our risk would be reduced.

Why do you think Steve Wynn can spend $100 million on a show in Las Vegas?  Because he has additional revenue streams that help support it:  hotel rooms, restaurants, souvenirs, and oh, I don’t know, gambling?

We may never get a piece of the bar, but we should never stop searching for additional ways our content can make us money.