What is the success rate of movies-to-musicals anyway?

I’m going to admit it.

Not only do I read Michael Riedel’s twice-a-week Broadway gossip column in the NY Post, but I actually enjoy his stuff . . . even when he’s cracking on one of my shows, and he certainly has.  Deep down the guy loves theater, like all of us, and frankly, some of his columns have been a lot more enjoyable to read than a whole bunch of shows I’ve seen over the years.

In last week’s column, Michael wrote something that made me want to dig a bit deeper.  While slamming Sister Act before it has even gotten to our shores, he said . . .

This is yet another one of those screen retreads that, with few exceptions (“Hairspray,” “The Producers”), have been draining the joy out of musical comedy.

When I read it, I nodded in agreement.  I think all of us feel that movies-turned-musicals are a more miss than hit business, right?

But let’s go to the numbers.

By my count, I’ve got 21 movie-to-musicals in the last 10 years.

And I’m also counting that 7 of them made money.

That’s a 1 in 3 recoupment ratio, which easily trumps the anecdotal average of 1 in 5 that we all quote.

Not so bad, right?  All of a sudden a whole bunch of you when straight to your Netflix account to see what you could turn into a musical, didn’t you?

Well, it gets better.

When you look at the number of those shows that might not have recouped on Broadway, but ran over a year (thus increasing potential subsidiary life, etc.), the number jumps to 14 out of 21.

Now Michael wasn’t talking commercial success . . . he was talking about his own definition of joy.  And, frankly, I know exactly what he’s talking about.

But from an investor’s perspective (and an audience’s as well, since longer running shows means more folks are seeing them), there has been more joy than we may want to admit.

A test case for a “troubled” (?) musical.

– Disappointing out-of-town reviews.  Check.

– Disappointing message board buzz from early out-of-town previews.  Check.

– Director replaced.  Check.

– Michael Riedel taking swings at the show on an almost weekly basis.  Check.

The Addams Family had all four of these unfortunate items marked off the “troubled musical” checklist well before “it” came into town.

Now that TAF has been in performances for a few weeks, let’s look at some more of what The Addams Family has to buzz about.
– w/e 4/18/10    $1,261,490

– w/e 4/11/10    $1,240,377

– w/e 4/4/10      $1,391,177

– w/e 3/28/10    $1,302,707

– w/e 3/21/10    $1,328,460

– w/e 3/14/10    $1,192,213

Now, all of a sudden, some people talking smack on a message board back in October, about performances in Chicago, doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

Producers, actors, authors, etc. are constantly worried about bad industry buzz and how it will affect a show. No one wants the label of a “troubled” show.  Well, if ever there was a test case that proved that there is a giant chasm between what our industry hears about the development of a show, and what our audience hears about the development of a show, The Addams Family is it.

TAF feels like a big Broadway musical.  It has stars.  It has a powerful brand.  It has a powerful brand that’s funny.  It already feels musical because of its popular theme song.  It is about a world that provides for spectacle.  Etc.  Etc.

And all of those elements are what a huge majority of the Broadway audience wants to see, no matter who is replaced or who is writing what.

Don’t worry about what insiders may say.  Worry about what your audience will say.  They are the ones who actually pay for their tickets.

And when they really want to see a show, they’ll have no “trouble” paying premium prices.

My response to the demise of the Oleanna Take-A-Side talkbacks.

Oleanna got people talking.

So one of our early marketing strategies was to try and whip up our audiences into an even greater frenzy so that they would talk even louder and longer.

One of the rev-up devices we used was the “Take-A-Side” talkback series that featured a moderator and celebrity panelists, from former Mayor Dinkins to Fox TV correspondents to Tovah Feldshuh to University Deans to harassment litigation experts, and so on, all discussing the issues of the play and allowing the audiences to ask questions and make comments.

Everyone who I spoke to felt like the talkbacks made the experience of going to the theater even better.

Unfortunately, Mr. Mamet disagreed.  As Michael Riedel reported back in November . . .

Alas, Mamet hated them [talkbacks]. He never attended one, but he’s against them on principle, believing that his play should stand on its own and not be picked apart by “experts” on the law, feminism and campus sexual harassment policies.

It’s always tough to hear that your author doesn’t like something you want to do, especially when that something is helping market your show.

The analogy I use when describing why Mamet or any author would be opposed to such an initiative is that some authors are like painters who don’t want a fancy frame around their piece of art.  They just want you to look at the picture and only the picture.

I get it, and I respect it.

Of course, you and I know that the right frame can actually draw eyeballs to look at that picture in even greater detail.  And that’s one of the producer’s jobs . . . to attract eyes to the art.

As hard as it was to hear that our author couldn’t stand one of our initiatives, we soldiered on . . . until, that is, we needed some help.  We had to make a compromise, and the talkbacks went the way of the public-health option on the current health plan bill.

Was I disappointed?  You betcha.

Let me be perfectly clear.  I have the utmost respect for Mr. Mamet, his artistic integrity, his resolve, and because he’s a brilliant f-ing writer.

But getting people to attend the theater is getting harder and harder (as the NEA keeps telling us), and since our producing hands are handcuffed by so many other things in this business, we need to have the freedom to exercise good ideas when we have them (it’s not like we had a guy in a Gorilla suit standing out front trying to get people to buy tickets).

The more restrictive we make it, the more those Authors may find Producers sitting out the next one.

I know I’ll be sitting out the next Mamet.

—–

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10 Things this Producer is thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

I love holidays.  Family, food, and big box office numbers.  Mmm, mmm, good.

In addition to being thankful for the flock of tourists coming to town from now through New Year’s, here is a list of my ten other theatrical thankfuls this year.

1.  The Producers of Avenue Q had the courage to try an unprecedented downsize with their move Off-Broadway.  By doing so they kept over 50 people employed and just may have opened up a whole new ‘avenue’ of distribution for Broadway shows of a certain size.

2.  I got the rights to a book called Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.  It’ll be the female version of Defending The Caveman.  Give me 12 months max, and it’ll be up.

3. I moved into a new office, and already it feels like we’re ready for something bigger.  Offices are like aquariums . . . always get the bigger one, because when you get it home, you’re going to want it.

4. The Independent Theater Bloggers Association (The ITBA) was formed and now has 40+ members!  The bod chose a group of award winners for the 2008-2009 season, and at the same time just may have unofficially declared the start of the new media revolution in the theatrical industry.

5.  My Dad had a subdural hematoma, had emergency brain surgery, and is now better than ever (ok, that’s not theatrical, but if anything deserved a standing ovation on this list, it would be this one).

6.  Thanks in part to new management and in part to NPH, the Tony Awards ratings were up 20% in key demos!

7.  My investors, as well as a whole slew of theatrical investors, stayed in the theatrical waters this past year, despite the choppy economy.  They understand that investing in the theater is like investing in the market.   Diversify, stay in the game, and the one that we’re all waiting for will come.

8.  Michael Riedel at the NY Post mentioned the BroadwaySpace.com “50 Most Powerful People on Broadway” article in his column not once, but twice.  I’m thankful that I only commissioned the article and didn’t write it, because I heard there were some really happy people and some really peeved people.

9.  Leslie Arden signed on to write music and lyrics for Somewhere In Time.  After several years of searching for the right person, I found her.  I felt like Richard Collier himself.  The first reading will take place in the summer of 2010, if not sooner.

10.  Finally, I’m thankful for my readers.  Not only have you multipled over the last 12 months, but the comments and discussions that are emerging on the blog are exactly why I started writing in the first place.  We’re increasing the volume of the conversation about making Broadway, Off-Broadway and theater in general work, both artistically and financially.  And when we do that, we all benefit.

And now I’ll sign off this entry with the same Kenism I used last year:

Enjoy your T-day. Just remember . . .

Eat a turkey.  Don’t produce one.

Is actor absenteeism at Broadway shows affecting our audience’s attitudes? A study tells all.

This past August, Michael Riedel wrote an article in the Post (in his usual smartly-snarky style), about a plague of absenteeism at West Side Story.

I’ve been concerned about absenteeism for some time, mostly because of its macro effects on our audience.  As theater tickets get more pricey, and the economy gets more dicey, audiences are bound to be disappointed if they aren’t getting what they pay for, right?

Right?

The truth is, I didn’t know if I was right.

So I decided to find out.

I called up my friend, Joseph Craig, formerly of Nielsen, and now out on his own at ERM (Entertainment Research and Marketing).  Audience research is what Joseph does, day and night, for movies, theater, video games, and more. I call him Dr. Stats.  He’s not allowed to talk about the clients that he’s represented for obvious reasons, but I happen to know a bunch of the producers that use him.  Let me tell you, some of the shows that he has worked on are so big, you’d wonder why they’d even need research (answer – there is always something to learn).

I told Joseph my concerns and commissioned his company to do a study.

Below is what I believe is the first ever published study on The Effects of Absenteeism On The Broadway Audience.

For the study, ERM did mostly live interviews as well as some internet surveys with “regular theatergoers” both in and out of the tri-state.

I would say that I’m proud to present this survey, but the truth is I’m not.

Why?  Well, because, unfortunately, I was right.  It is having an effect.

Here is the Executive Summary from the study, which begins with some general and very useful information on how these “regulars” choose shows to see, and ends with something scary.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Overall Response

  • In general, respondents are consumers of live entertainment who picked up the habit by “being taken to the theater by a spouse, date or parent”.  All try to see the “newest and most buzzed about shows” as early as possible in the run. However, a very high 86% still try to catch up on shows they missed and see them generally within the first two years of the run.
  • As far as preferences go, the majority (63%) prefer to see musicals followed by 23% who have no preference over plays or musicals while 14% consider themselves devoted exclusively to plays.
  • Interestingly, 67% of those surveyed keep a “list” of shows they haven’t seen and actively look for deals on tickets to these shows.
  • It is important to note that almost all of those surveyed are willing to pay full price for shows they really want to see.
  • A very high 78% of respondents had seen at least one performance of a show that featured an understudy substituting for a regularly scheduled performer usually in a leading role.  Most feel they “heard” the most common reason for an absent performer was an illness or injury that sidelined the usual cast member.  Almost all (91%) believe that a missing performer is out for legitimate reasons.
  • The newest shows tied with the shows that have been running for over 5 years as the shows with the most missing performers (non-star driven).
  • With a few notable exceptions, most feel that stars are more apt to appear on a regular basis in their leading roles.
  • The majority of theatergoers (51%) feel the problem has gotten worse over the last 5 years.  Most (66%) feel that “younger” or the “less experienced” Broadway performers are more apt to “call in sick” than those with a “career” in the theater.
  • When they saw the replacement notice in the Playbill, most (76%) were worried about how it would effect their overall enjoyment of “an expensive evening out” and openly shared with their companion(s) a level of concern about the performance.  Among those who brought guests, about a  fifth of those surveyed felt like they had to apologize or promise their companion another theater experience if this was “not up to snuff”.
  • About a quarter was excited to see what another performer could do when given a chance and was “pleased and happy” with the performance, or “it felt like they were always a part of the production”, and ultimately came away with good things to say about the show and never gave it another thought. Also on a positive note, some felt like they were given an opportunity to see “the future of Broadway performers” when a particularly talented performer “knocked it out of the ballpark”.
  • Having said that, the majority (73%) came away frustrated by their experience. They generally felt like they were given a performer who was “under rehearsed” or “struggled to keep up”, or “lacked chemistry” with other performers, or “would never usually be cast in this role”.  Consequently, it had an effect on the overall show. Most felt “cheated” or felt in the case of long runs that “the Producers don’t care about what is going on with their shows”.
  • Generally, this lead to negative word of mouth on the show. Most quotes stated that they would tell their “inner circle” that “it was not worth full price” or “you should see another show instead” or even in some cases lament how “Broadway producers just care about getting my money and forget about how all this affects my overall enjoyment of a show”.
  • An alarming trend we noticed is consumers are starting to be more cautious and aware of shows that have a reputation for absenteeism among leading performers.  The fallout is a more conscientious consumer who is becoming more careful with how much money is being “set aside” for attending a Broadway show.

 

There you have it.  In blog and white.  Empirical evidence that absenteeism is damaging the future of Broadway.

And why wouldn’t it?

That slip of paper in a Playbill says you’re not getting the Director’s original vision.

Imagine if you went to a famous steak restaurant and they said the beef was coming from a different butcher this week?

Imagine if you went to Six Flags, and Kingda Ka or any of the big roller coasters weren’t running?

You’d be disappointed, right?  You’d think twice about going back, wouldn’t you?

Without a doubt, we have a problem.

I’m not saying the problem is with undisciplined actors, or too-difficult choreography, or anything, actually. This isn’t about pointing fingers.

This is about trying to find a solution.  Actors Equity and the Producers (especially since we’re the ones being blamed) should come together and find out exactly what the issues are.  Is it getting worse?  Is part of the problem how we inform our audiences about absences?  Do we not have enough understudy rehearsals?

We need to find out the answers.  Now that we know how our audience feels, we’ve got to find a way to educate them and change their perception, before they change their habits.

Because no Principal ever calls out of a movie or a video game.

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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