What’s Grosser Than Gross?

Not knowing what your industry’s grosses are.

At the first meeting of the Off-Broadway Brainstormers,, founded by the Executive Director of New World Stages,  Beverley D. Mac Keen (who is one of the most foreword thinkers I know), a proposal was made by now president of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, George Forbes, to collect grosses from all currently running Off-Broadway shows, in an effort to truly understand our own economic impact.

It was one of those very simple proposals that made perfect sense.  How can we formulate budgets, contemplate theater sizes, etc. without knowing what our market bears.  Right?

Well, believe it or not, this idea met (and still meets) with resistance from some of my fellow producers.

The League and The Brainstormers came up with a great policy to address some very valid concerns:

– We made agreements with the ticketing companies so grosses would be sent directly to the League so no additional work would be required on behalf of the production.

– The grosses would be sent to one person at the League, and only three high-ranking individuals would have access to the show’s individual data, and would sign confidentiality agreements never to share the information.

– No show’s individual grosses would ever be released to any party.

– The aggregated data would also never be released unless a committee at the League approved of its use.

Despite all of these efforts to keep the data confidential and to install safeguards so that it was only used for the good of the industry, many producers still refused to allow their grosses to be reported.

Most simply say that they don’t want their grosses getting out to their competition.
I kind of understand this, but, uhhhh, remember the confidentiality agreements and the fact that only 3 people can access the data???  And that we’re not releasing an individual show’s data, but only looking at the combined results? 
Oh, and this is my favorite part . . . do these producers remember that these numbers are sent to unions every week?  ATPAM has a sliding scale compensation that is based on gross so they have to send them the numbers.  Most likely their show has an SSDC director on a royalty pool, which means that union is getting their information (and the director and the director’s agent, and his assistant, etc.).  If there was “competition”, wouldn’t the unions be the competition more than The League?  Add the advertising agencies (which we already know leak like the Titanic), box office personnel, managers, etc. to the list of people that already get grosses, and you’ve got more people who know your business than a public company!

I mean, really, are three more people who sign confidentiality agreements and work for the League going to all of a sudden open up your show to attention from the National Enquirer?  (If only!)

Sorry, but no one, other than the people trying to figure out how to solve the Off-Broadway problem, cares that much.

Sharing your grosses publicly (like Broadway shows do in Variety) is up for debate, and I’m not sure where I stand on that just yet, but sharing numbers in a private, protected environment for study and analysis is not only smart, it’s essential.  And just like your mom told you, it’s just plain selfish not to share.

What are people afraid of?  That we might see some low numbers?  Guess what, with all the Off-Broadway shows that come and go, I think we have a clue that you’re not doing so well.

And besides, we learn from the bad ones.  It’s just like learning to ride a bike. You learn more when you fall off than you do when you don’t.

So why do some of these very smart people choose not to opt-in to this program?  Look, I’m a control freak.  As an Off-Broadway producer, I’m not in control very often.  I think that most producers are just like me.  And they are refusing to release their numbers (even though they are released other ways), because it is one of the few things that they can control. 

If any Producers out there are struggling with this issue, let me know.  I see a therapist once a week to help me get over it and would be happy to give you a recommendation.  The industry will be better off as a result.

P.S.  What do you think of Broadway shows publicly sharing numbers in Variety?  I’ve turned my comments on, so comment away if you’d like (yes, even you Mom).

Long Runners on Broadway vs. Long Runners Off-Broadway

The top three longest running Broadway shows according to Playbill.com are:

Phantom of the Opera                 8279 performances and counting.
Cats                                          7485 performances
Les Misérables                           6680 performances

 

The top three longest running Off-Broadway shows are:

The Fantasticks                          17,162 performances
Perfect Crime                              8,421 performances and counting.
Blue Man Group: Tubes               8,406 performances and counting.

Hmmm.  Interesting.  The #3 long runner Off-Broadway has performed more shows than the #1 marathoner on Broadway. 

Let’s keep going and look at the top ten long runners.

The combined number of performances for the top ten long runners on Broadway is 57,764 performances with four shows still going.

The combined number of performances for the top ten long runners Off-Broadway is approximately 65,145 performances with six shows still going.

I say “approximately” because if you’ll notice in that Playbill article, the data from the Off-Broadway shows is almost a year older than the Broadway shows.  Oh, and they stopped counting Forbidden Broadway in 1987.   Um, that’s right, 1987.  2 years BEFORE  The Awesome 80s Prom even takes place.  Oh, and they also decided not to include Tony ‘n Tina’s since 2004.  So I made some educated assumptions to get to the total.

What’s the takeaway here?

Surprise, surprise, it’s good news for Off-Broadway!

Off-Broadway hits have a greater stamina than Broadway hits.  Once you break on through to the other side (penetrate the tourist market), you’ll just run and run and run, and not even The Phantom of the Opera will catch up.  That’s right, I’m betting another $100 that both Perfect Crime and Blue Man Group run longer than The Masked Man.  And that no Broadway show ever catches The Fantasticks.

Oh, and you know what else these numbers teach us?

That the Off-Broadway community has got to come together more to aggregate their data.  How can we say what we are . . . without knowing what we are?  More on a specific example of this problem in the Off-Broadway community tomorrow.

Trivia Time: Who Has Produced the Most Broadway Shows In The Last 20 Years?

Cameron Macintosh?  Disney?  The Weisslers?

Nope.

The Roundabout.

They’ve produced more Broadway shows than anyone.  More in one SEASON that most producers produce over two decades.

And they are a non-profit.  Coincidence?  Or evidence that a different economic model is what is needed to be a prolific producer.

Be Careful! Your Competition Is In The Same Room!

There are 3 advertising agencies that handle the bulk of Broadway business. 

3.

In the 2005-2006, Broadway season, there were 39 new productions on Broadway.  There were also 32 continuing productions from the previous season.

71 shows.  Handled by 3 agencies.

Divided equally (which they are not), means that each agency handled an average of 23.67 shows.  In reality, 2 of those agencies handled the majority of the shows.

To demonstrate a huge practical problem associated with these numbers, let’s look at the four nominees for Best Musical in 2007:  CurtainsGrey Gardens, Mary Poppins and Spring Awakening.

All FOUR of these musicals were represented by the same advertising agency.

That means that Tony campaigns, sales figures, etc. were all discussed, strategized and planned in the same house. 

So when you’re doing your next show, you should understand that your meetings will probably be held in the same conference room as your direct competition.

Can you imagine if Microsoft and Apple were handled by the same advertising agency?  And shared a conference room?  Or Coke and Pepsi?  Or even small hometown grocery stores?   

It’s not even smart business to consider these facts before making your choice of your agency, it’s just common sense.  I’m not insinuating that anything unethical is happening at any of these agencies, but with millions and millions of dollars on the line, why would you take the chance of all that information under one roof?  Even the most ethical and honest employee would have to be subconsciously influenced with the knowledge of what one show’s competitors are doing, wouldn’t you think?

In other industries, companies refuse to allow their advertising agencies to rep competitors.  Duh. 

I know what people will say: “Ken, the reason there is so much overlapping is because there isn’t enough consistent work to go around to keep these agencies running.”

I disagree.  23.67 shows is a lot of commission.  And besides, I’ve seen the sizes of each of their offices. And conversely, I’ve seen the sizes of all of the Producers’ offices in this city.  The agencies don’t need to take on this much work.

But this isn’t their fault.  They are just growing their business.  We’re the ones ignoring the reality and allowing these practices to continue.   

The other argument is that there aren’t enough qualified advertising agencies in business.  This may be true. 

Anyone out there want to hang a shingle?

Or better, maybe producers should start doing advertising in-house. 

News flash: Numbers can talk!

In addition to using the numbers we crunched last week to create a budget that increases your odds of success, here’s another simple use:

One of the hardest things for producers to do is to say “No.”  Who wants to say no when a director, a designer, your child, or anybody asks for something?  Believe it or not, we would love to be able to say “Yes” to everything.  Unfortunately, it’s our job to say no when the request doesn’t assist us with our  #1 responsibility.

So, whenever possible, I let my numbers say no for me.

There’s no arguing with numbers.  While artistic tastes may vary, numbers are not ambiguous.  They are indisputable (as long as they are from reputable sources and triple verified).  I find this most helpful during negotiations.  And the great thing is, it’s not a negotiating trick or tactic.  It’s not a game.  It’s just the truth.

For example, with my Backed-In Budget (my name for designing a budget based on what the  market is bearing), we know the average length of a run for a Broadway revival.  So use it.  When an agent asks for something that doesn’t fit in the model, say, “Did you know that since 1984, the average run of a musical revival was only 51.59 weeks” and so on, using the statistics for average attendance and ticket price and so on.  Most likely, the model for your production will be higher than the average, so you’ll be able to tell the agent that you’re already above and beyond what the market is bearing, so there is no way to justify additional expenses.

Here’s what I predict will be the response, if you’ve done your homework:

Silence.

Because there is no response to the right set of numbers.

Want a practical example?  When I was negotiating contracts for Altar Boyz and an agent or someone asked for something that didn’t fit in the model, my response was, “If you can tell me the name of an Off-Broadway book musical that recouped its investment in the last 10 years, I’ll give you double what you want.”

Silence.

There’s a bet I knew I wouldn’t lose.

Again, it wasn’t a tactic or me trying to bully anyone.  It was the unfortunate truth.  To make it up to the people who were making sacrifices for the show we bonused them with a portion of profits post-recoupment.  We kept costs down trying to get us to this seemingly impossible feat, and if we got there, everyone would win . . . and most likely they will earn more than they wanted in the first place. 

And we’ll get to recoupment.  I’m going to make damn sure that no other Producer can use that same question in a future negotiation.  Sorry, guys.  🙂

Even if you think you’re a great negotiator, always let the figures talk first and last.  Because numbers are the best negotiators.

Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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