How many of you save your Broadway ticket stubs?

I saved them all.

When I was younger, I’d get my Playbill, and that ticket stub (which is no longer a stub, thanks to ticketing scanners) would go right in the middle.

Full embarrassing disclosure: when I was in high school, I used to take the cover of my Playbills, the ticket stubs, and a few choice photos from inside the Playbill, and I’d create a poor-man’s decoupage that I framed and put on my nightstand.  I guess my hope was that they would help all of my Broadway dreams come true.  (My Secret Garden Playbill/photo combo even had an autograph from Daisy Eagan!)

Ok, so I was a lonely kid . . . but it was pretty obvious what I was going to do when I grew up.

This post isn’t about my awkward youth (there isn’t enough space on the entire internet for me to go into that), but rather that ticket . . . which for me, and for so many of you, I bet . . . was a souvenir.

And a souvenir is merch . . . and merch is marketing.

The ticket as a souvenir is slowly but surely disappearing as we transition to e-ticketing, and eventually mobile ticketing technology (having the ticketing scanners scan an image on your phone itself, which requires no paper product at all).

And as much as I’m a huge fan of this technology (and of all technology), it’s going to take us a long time to adopt it.

Why?

  • We’re always slow to adopt technology.
  • Our customers like hard tickets.

While hanging out at the booth last week, I watched a woman turn to another and say, “Did you get ’em?”  Her friend smiled, then fanned out five Billy Elliot tickets like a winning poker hand.  They both literally screamed with joy.  Now imagine what it would have been like if she showed her friend a UPC image on her phone.

Wah-wah.

Broadway tickets still have a Willy Wonka “Golden Ticket” effect that we don’t want to disappear too soon.

They are a tangible passport to entertainment that can create a positive emotional response about our product . . . whether or not you choose to frame it.

– – – – –

UPDATE:  Two days after I wrote this blog, it was announced that New York State became the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring paper tickets. To read more about it, click here.

5 Things I learned about South American theater.

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know that I took a trip way south of the border last weekend to South America.  I stopped in Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina to see productions of My First Time.

One of the coolest things about getting to travel to see these productions (besides seeing how each culture tackles this sensitive subject – and yes, there was full-on nudity in the Buenos Aires version of My First Time), is that I’m able to learn a little bit about how each corner of the world tackles theater production.

There are a few things that every country has in common:

  • Producing theater is expensive.
  • It’s hard to get the young audiences to come to the theater.
  • Actors are exactly the same, no matter where you are.  🙂  (And I mean that in the best way possible, I really do).

Here are five things I learned that are more specific to South American theater.

1.  Shows start late.

They eat dinner later then we do in South America, and they sure as churros start their shows later, too.  Most shows start at 9 or 9:30 PM.  And on 2 show days?  Expect that second one to start between 11:30 PM and midnight!  Afternoon matinees are rare.

2.  I saw advertising before I saw my show.

My host and I sneaked into a theater that was showing a Vegas-style Argentinean revue (with more full-on nudity), and right before the show started, about 5 ads played on a giant screen on the stage . . . just like at a movie!  While I was assured this was not the norm at all the theaters, I did notice a lot of in-theater advertising (liquor promotions…etc.).  You don’t see any of that in our theaters . . . mostly due to the contracts the theater owners have with Playbill, which prevents advertising anything other than what is in Playbill’s pages.

3.  Don’t want to pay rent?  Pay a percentage.

Flat rents for the performance spaces in Chile are unheard of.  Instead of paying a base rent and a small percentage, Producers get the space for free and then pay the owners 40% of the box office and keep 60% for themselves.  In Argentina, you have a choice between a flat rent and a percentage (which most producers opt for) which was closer to 70/30.  These percentage deals are why so many “Off-Broadway” shows are able to be produced in Buenos Aires and in Santiago.

Perhaps our theaters here could provide this option rather than sit empty?

4.  Sponsors are everywhere.

This isn’t new. Sponsors are a key part of commercial theater production in every other city around the world, except New York City.  But you know what was new?  American companies were sponsoring these shows in South America!  I saw 7-Up sponsoring an Off-Broadway venue.  Citibank paid for the naming rights to one theater and was a sponsor of several other shows.  Hey guys in ties . . . uh . . . have you tried looking in your own backyard if you want to sponsor theater?

5.  Why do 8 shows?

The standard number of performances for a big show down yonder averages about 6. They don’t have the audiences for 8, so they don’t do 8.  Some do 5.  Some do 6.  They shake it up depending upon demand.  Funny, isn’t it?  A country that has had one of the most fragile economies in the world, knows more about supply and demand than we do.
In addition to learning a lot about the theater in South America, I managed to squeeze in some sightseeing as well.  Can anyone name the building in the pic in this blog that has musical historical significance?

This blog inspired by Tiger Woods.

Regular readers will remember that I announced the closing of Altar Boyz on this blog on Friday, December 4th.

What you may not know, is that the blog was the only place I announced it that morning.

Normally, an announcement like this would be written up and sent out by the Press Agent to all of the various news outlets, from The New York Times to Playbill to UncleBillsBroadwayBlog.com

But, much to my press agent’s dismay, I put a muzzle on him that morning.

Why?  I wanted to test the power of new media.  I wanted to see how long it took for the traditional media outlets to pick up on the story if it didn’t come with in the form of a traditional announcement or an email.  I wanted to see how long it took the blogosphere and the Twitterverse to churn the story and get it in front of the big boy editors.  (Here’s where the Tiger Woods connection comes in – I was inspired to try this because Tiger was making all of his public statements to the press on his blog, and nowhere else, and the world was devouring it).

So how long did it take?  One hour.

It took only one hour from my post to the first publication of the story (on Playbill.com, by the way).  The New York Times called 90 minutes after it went up.

But get this – the first thread on AllThatChat started only 45 minutes after my post.

The most interesting part of this experiment?

Before many of the media outlets posted the story, they called my Press Agent to ask if it was true.  Gotta give them major cred for verifying the story, even though the source was the Producer.

You’ll see more announcements like this in the future, and not just from me.  Tiger has taught us well (uh, in some areas – in others, he’s just a giant sand-trap-sized d-bag).

(Unfortunately, it was true, Altar Boyz is closing on January 10th.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve only got 15 chances left.  Get your tickets here.)

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.

Are discounts eroding our sales?

Ohhh, if I had a dollar for every time I heard this question, my shows would never have to discount ever again!

While discounting has always been used to launch new products as well as entice people to buy old products (remember when your Mom used to cut coupons?), it wasn’t until the internet exploded that discounting exploded right along with it, like an unsliced hot dog in a microwave.  The days of delivering discounts by direct mail alone quickly began to disappear . . .

The airline industry was the first industry I remember trying to get rid of their perishable inventory on the internet, with their last-minute-price-slashing email blasts.  And we followed suit.

Discounts to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows are now much more available than they ever were, thanks to sites like BroadwayBoxPlaybillTheatermaniaBestOfOffBroadway, and so on.

So, the question is . . . “Is all this discounting doing more damage than good?”

Let’s take a look at some numbers!

Here’s what I did:

I found out when the major email blasts and discount clubs started to appear on the scene and graphed  figures before and after, eight years in each direction (the first thing you’ll notice is that there is this cool discounting zeitgeist type thing that occurred right about the turn of the millennium), and differences in growth during each of those eight year periods.

Here are the figures we examined:

  • Gross sales
  • Number of Tickets Sold
    Average ticket price
  • Price of top price ticket to Phantom of the Opera (We used Phantom since it has been open the entire span of time of the data and since it seemed a pretty good archetype)

Here are the results:

GRAPH #1 – GROSS SALES

graph 1

  • In the years from 1992 – 2000, the total gross sales on Broadway grew 120.22%
  • In the years from 2000 – 2008, the total gross sales on Broadway grew 59.69%

GRAPH #2 – NUMBER OF TICKETS SOLD

graph 2

  • In the years from 1992 – 2000, the total # of tickets sold on Broadway grew 54.20%
  • In the years from 2000 – 2008, the total # of tickets sold on Broadway grew 7.82%

GRAPH #3 – AVERAGE PAID ADMISSION

graph 3

  • In the years from 1992 – 2000, the average paid admission to a Broadway show grew 33.37%
  • In the years from 2000 – 2008, the average paid admission to a Broadway show grew 44.32%

GRAPH #4 – PRICE OF A FULL PRICE TICKET TO PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

graph 4

  • In the years from 1992 – 2000, the top full price ticket to Phantom grew 30.77%
  • In the years from 2000 – 2008, the top full price ticket to Phantom grew 41.18%
  • Inflation rate 1992-2000: 22.23%
  • Inflation rate 2000-2008: 25.05%

Ok, so a quick recap:

  • During the eight years pre-discounting zeitgeist, the growth of the total overall gross, and the # of tickets sold were much higher than post-discounting zeitgeist.
  • Average paid admission seems consistent with the rise in price of the full price ticket, which also grew at a greater rate in the most previous eight year period than the earlier period.
  • Our increasing ticket prices are outpacing the rate of inflation (a different blog topic would be to compare our expenses with the rate of inflation with our ticket price.  10:1 that our expenses are increasing at the higher rate).

So what do you think?  Do the above graphs indicate that discounts are eroding our ticket sales?

Before we draw any conclusions, we must remember that there are other events during the past sixteen years that have impacted the above charts.  Broadway, as well as the world, shifted dramatically, on Sept. 11, 2001.  It just so happens
that the major discounting efforts started just prior to that date, and then even more (i.e. Seasons of Savings) were the direct result of it.  And let’s not forget the dot.com boom and bust in the late 90s.  Certainly that had an effect.

But back to the original questions!

Could the discount efforts have really slowed our growth?  How would the industry have grown without sites like BroadwayBox, etc.?  Would the growth rates have been even worse?  Was the discounting necessary in today’s Walmart
society?  And if discounting has slowed growth, what can we do to reverse the trend?  Or is the growth slower because we are getting closer to the ceiling for the Broadway audience?

Oh the questions, the questions!  One thing I know for sure is that the above charts are just a few clues in the mystery of whether or not discounts are actually eroding our sales, and we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions in a brief blog.

I will say this . . . it’s obvious to me that discounts haven’t helped.

But I’ll also say . . . I don’t think we had a choice.

In today’s society, thanks to the internet, it’s much easier to competitive shop.  And that has made a lot of us feel more entitled to a discount (my nose would be growing if I didn’t admit that I google Staples Coupon or Avis Coupon before buying paper or renting a car).  Also, those discount sites are opportunities for shows to get free media.  Cut your price, they’ll put you up on the site.  What’s better for shows with limited budgets . . . paying to buy space to sell a full price ticket or getting free space and selling a lesser priced ticket?  Either way there is a cost, but one is much less risky (this is just one of the reasons why Off-Broadway shows full price buyers are only 25% of the audience as opposed to 50% of Broadway shows).

Consumers changed their behaviors.  And now, to get back to those past growth rates, we’re going to have to do the same, because we’re not discounting properly yet.

What’s next for us to tackle?  Yield Management. Just like we learned from the airlines in sending emails for perishable inventory, it’s time to tackle different prices for different weeks of the year, different days of the week, etc., depending on supply and demand.

Here’s a bonus graph for you.  It’s the Dow during the same sixteen year period.

graph 5

  • In the years from 1992 – 2000, the DJIA grew 210.06%
  • In the years from 2000-2008, the DJIA grew 20.08%

I left off what happened in the year following January 1, 2008, because, well, we all know what happened then . . .

Special thanks to all my friends across the industry who helped with the research for this blog, including The Swami, Laura, Hugh, Darren, Jennifer, Karen (one of my assistants) and The League.

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