Was Rocco right? Is there too much theater out there?

Leave it Rocco to create a little controversy.

Last week, our National Endowment for the Arts Chairman had this to say about the economic challenges facing theaters around the country today:

“You can either increase demand or decrease supply.  Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

This frightening rational argument set the blogosphere ablaze with comments defending our ability to increase demand.  There was a rallying cry of “We can do it!” heard from theater folks all over the country, and some even called for Rocco’s resignation for his seemingly defeatist attitude about our inability to increase our audience.

But was he wrong?

Rocco was referring to regional theaters in his speech, and since that isn’t my area of expertise, I’ll refrain from chiming in.

But I will talk about Broadway.

If you’re been reading my blog for awhile, then you know I’ve been jumping up and down and waving my arms like a crazy person about our attendance figures.  For the three years prior to this season, our attendance has dropped . . . a trend which has not occurred in 25 years.  (Gulp)  We are picking up some of those last bodies this year, but we’ve got a long way to go to get back to earlier levels.  At the same time, we keep celebrating because our grosses get bigger and bigger every year.  Less people but more money.  (I’m not sure if raising prices to make up for the gap is the most sound economic policy . . . you?)

So as Rocco said, demand has not just leveled off, it has dropped.

At the same time, this past Fall saw an increase of almost 10% of the number of playing weeks of Broadway shows.  Yep, despite less people coming, we produced more shows.  And all of this in the middle of an economic pullback.

We have to be one of the only industries in the history of industries that in the midst of a recession, actually increases production!  Imagine if right after asking for a bailout, Detroit decided to start producing more cars.  Imagine if in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, a construction company said, “What we need to do is build more homes!”

But that’s exactly what we do.

And some of the shows that have been produced, let’s face it, might not have needed to be.  (I can name at least 2 if not 3 shows that could have stayed off the Broadway boards this year and saved a lot of folks a lot of money.)

But the free market allows for anyone to produce anything, as long as they can raise the money and get a coveted theater.

What might be better for all of us, is if we took a second look at shows before we rushed out and got them done.  Slowing production, or decreasing supply, as Rocco said, might make us . . .

  • Focus on the audience that is here and give them better quality shows that they’ll enjoy more
  • Save investors money since there is more risk for failure if there are more shows than there is audience
  • Create more competion between our vendors and therefore stabilize or, God forbid, lower prices.

So, while I do disagree with Rocco in that I believe there are a number of things we can do to increase demand, and we should . . . he wasn’t wrong about the state of our supply.

We just might not want to hear it.

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Trendspotting: websites create groups where there were none before.

To paraphrase Falsettos, something good is happening.

We all know the internet brings like-minded people together.  That’s the theory behind newsgroups, chat rooms, forums and niche social networks like my own BroadwaySpace.com.  (Before I ever met him in person, I e-met Jeff Marx, composer of Avenue Q, on the old rec.arts.theatre bulletin board.)

And now, websites are popping up all over with the goal of taking those like-minded people and monetizing them, and making the individuals happy about it in the process.

How are they doing it?

By collecting these many like-minded individuals in one place, the websites create group-like leverage and therefore increased buying power with products and brands that these individuals enjoy.

Here are a few examples of these types of sites:

1.  Meetup.com

Do you play board games in Minneapolis?  Are you an athesist in Detroit?  Do you love theater in New York City?

Answer yes to any of these questions and there is a MeetUp for you.  And if there isn’t one for you, then you can create your own and like a magnet attract folks to you.

By nature these Meetups encourage an activity (without pressuring because it’s all online invites), and then a social interaction around that activity.

In other words . . . people do stuff, and then they talk about it.  Uhhh, isn’t that the goal of marketing a product?

(BTW, you should join the Theater meetup.  You’ll see that it’s sponsored by BroadwaySpace, because, well, because I’m no dummy – these are where the theater lovers are!)

2.  Gilt.com

This is where it gets fancy.

Gilt is about luxury brands.  We’re talking Marc Jacobs, John Varvatos, and lots of other Italian names that I know I’ll spell wrong so I won’t even try.

News flash . . . luxury brands have overstock too.  So the brands give the overstock to Gilt, and Gilt adds a little scarcity by announcing the sale for a very limited time each day, and bingo, sales up the wazoo to its millions of members.

Oh, and did I tell you that you can’t just sign up for Gilt?  You have to be invited.  Yep, it’s the ol’ Gmail trick.  And they niche it down to different sites for men and women.

Here’s an invite from me, if you want to check it out.

And by the way, check out their sister site while you’re there, called jetsetter.com.  Jetsetter sells luxury travel.

Theater tickets will be next.

3.  Groupon.com

Groupon’s tagline says it all . . . “Collective buying power.”

They convince all sorts of vendors, from manicurists to speed reading instructors, to give them crazy deals, with the promise that they only have to come through on the deal if they deliver the minimum number of buyers.

For example:

I sell cupcakes.  I will sell them to Groupon for 75 cents each but only if Groupon sells 1000 of them.

Instant group!

If you’ve never experienced a Groupon, the process is actually fun.  When the Groupon minimum is reached, it’s like you’ve won something . . . even though it means you’re spending money.

That’s what we call a B to C win-win.

Check it out here.

4.  Groupget.com

And lastly, introducing Groupget, which is basically Groupon for theater tickets.

Groupget is still early in its rollout, but it’s using the same theory as the above sites.  We know the theory works, so you can bet your Groupget I’ll be watching to see if the movers-and-groupers behind it can get it to work in practice.
We’re going to see more of these as the individual’s power to influence is increased by the internet, and by products like the new and exclusive Google Wave, which allows real-time communication and collaboration between multiple participants.

Think about it . . . if you’ve got a lot of friends on Facebook, you’re a mini-collective of your own, which means everyone that we speak to is a potential group sale.

The web is naturally becoming millions of mini-webs inside itself, which makes it easier for you to catch customers.