6 Things I learned at 6 Flags.

Yesterday, my office staff and about 40 other folks from the shows that we’re working on right now took a bus down to Jackson, NJ for the 4th Annual Davenport Theatrical retreat to Six Flags.

I’ve used the Broadway-show-is-like-a-thrill-ride simile before, so on this trip I tried to find some more specific things that all of us in the theater could learn from this pillar of an amusement park.

Here’s what I picked up:

1. Make everyone on your staff a marketer.

When I stepped through the entrance turnstile, the ticket-taker tore my ticket and then said, “Ride El Toro!”  Then she said the same thing to the person behind me.  And to the person behind them.

When I grabbed a good but expensive chicken sandwich, the lunch lady put my sandwich on the tray and said, “Check out The Dark Knight!”

The management of 6 Flags have turned their entire staff into marketers pushing their own product.  Why can’t we do the same thing?

Could shows buddy up and have their respective ushers pitching the other show?  Imagine an usher seating a family at Lion King and saying, “2 seats off the aisle.  Enjoy the show and check out Mary Poppins on your next trip to NYC!”  Or what about box office personnel suggesting to stop by the merch stand, or even the bar.  We’ve got people.  They’ve got voices.  We should (be able to) use them.

2. It’s not what you win, it’s that you play a game.

Does anyone really want a giant stuffed banana?  Or a Batgirl cape?  The prizes at the carny game booths are crap, but that doesn’t stop people from playing. Because it’s not about the prize.  It’s about the contest.  For what people spend on these games, you could BUY any of the prizes!  I spent $30 trying to get a plastic red ring around a bottle top, for you-know-who’s sake.  I don’t even remember what I was trying to win!

Maybe that’s why “Sign up to win free tickets” isn’t as effective as we all want it to be.  More effective would be “Sink this putt for a chance to win free tickets.”  People love to play, and they lust to compete, and they don’t even care what for.

(I won the Batgirl cape, by the way)

3.  Get ’em to take photos, and they’ll have something to talk about.

Enter the park, and there’s someone there ready to take your picture.  Exit any ride, and they snapped your picture.  Throw up in the bushes?  Most likely they’ve got in on film.

They’ve even got folks roaming around like the guy in the show above, reminding you to check out “your photos.”

Why?  Yes, because they sell them and make bank.

But also because they know that each souvenir photo that goes home is literally ‘captured fun’, bound to inspire the desire to return upon each look.

I’d put a photo booth in my lobby if I could, or even have a floating photog in the audience.

4.  Use your assets to advertise.

Something new at the Flags this year were the branded roller coasters and the outdoor advertising for other products.  Gum, hair products, candy bars, and more were being pitched to me all day.  (FYI, I only remember Snickers . . . the others brands are a loss to me, and I STARE at advertising . . . sorry, guys).

I’m certainly not suggesting we turn our theaters into minor league baseball stadiums, but there has to be ways we can use our assets to advertise other products (or our own) and offset some of our expenses.

Google AdWords, affiliate links, etc. are non-invasive ways to generate some income on your show’s websites.  As long as you’re not pushing people away from your shows, there is a way to make some additional money.

5.  Small crowds don’t pay less.

It rained yesterday . . . which means smaller crowds, less lines, and . . . unfortunately, less staff.  Look, I get it.  Reduce the staff if your revenue is reduced.  But unfortunately, they went a bit too far, and our experience was not as dynamic and exciting had it been a sunshiny day.

Just because we were weatherly challenged, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get all 6 Flags.  We got about 4.  And they’re paying, because I just told the whole world wide web about it.

This one is for all the actors out there.  I remember what it’s like looking out at an audience with only a handful of people in it.  I once did You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown to 7 people.  Yes, there were more of us on stage.

It ain’t easy, but those 7 people deserve the same show as the houses that have 700.

6.  The Premium Premium ticket. 

I’m a big believer in the pay-for-play Flash Pass system that allows you to jump the line and plan your day better.  And I’m happy to pay for it. Six Flags has obviously been taking lessons from Gordon Gekko, because this year they added another level to their Flash Pass:  Platinum.  Obviously they had seen enough traction on the Gold level, that they added another level to nudge some people up.  And it worked.  There were no lines, yesterday, and yet the woman next to me had to have Platinum . . . even though the woman selling her the pass advised her not to get it.

There is always someone who wants to fly first class.  Coming up with a high-roller ticketing option might be a way to get a few more dollars from a few more people with very little effort.

Broadway is not a theme park.  And it should never be.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from what the parks do well, and what they don’t, in order to make our world the happiest and most profitable place on earth.

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.

When you go to an amusement park, what ride do you want to go on first?

Every year, I take my shows to Six Flags on my bday.  When all 50 or so of us get off the bus, we all run right for the rollercoasters, and usually the newest, biggest and fastest one first.

That’s what most people do.
Why?
The majority of folks are all looking for the biggest thrill.
We all want the coaster that’s going to have the most ups and the most downs; the one that’s going to produce the most screams and the most laughter; the one that we’re all going to be talking about on the ride home.
We’ll wait in line for hours for it.  Sometimes we’ll even pay for skip-the-line “Fast-Passes” (aka “premium tickets”) just to have a better experience.  And more often than not, we’ll try to hit the ride more than once.
Broadway is not unlike a theme park.  It’s a destination built for entertainment.
And tourists and other theater goers are looking to be thrilled just like amusement park patrons, physically and emotionally.
If you want a Kingda Ka sized hit, then produce something that thrills an audience as much as a 45 story drop.
Sure, there’s always room for other rides at the park.  The Carousel is still there, and so are the Bumper Cars and that Antique Road Race go-cart ride that always looks cooler than it is.
But see, that’s where the comparison between Broadway and theme parks end.
At amusement parks, you pay one price and get can all the rides you want in one day.
On Broadway, you pay for each ride, and most people pick only one, maybe two during their entire stay.
If you want to be that one, you have to be a Michael Jackson-like “Thriller”.
So as you write, produce, develop, and pitch your Broadway show, ask yourself . . . will this thrill an audience?
If not, then maybe it’s time to look for something that will.
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