Harry Potter and The Elusive Sponsor.

Getting a sponsor for a Broadway show seems like the stuff of fantasy. At every early ad meeting for a show that I’ve worked on, someone usually pipes up that we should find a sponsor to pay for some major expense, and trade away their name in our media, tickets, etc.

It’s always a great idea, and everyone around the table usually nods their head, yes.  Because in theory it makes perfect sense. Broadway shows are a highly visible, high-class product, and other big brands would definitely benefit from associating their wares with ours.

So why is it so rare?

Why, to give you a specific example, did not one of the 15 Marketing Directors for big brands fail to even return my call when I reached out to them with a very unique Broadway branding opportunity?

Here are a few of the excuses I’ve heard over the years from potential sponsors:

  • “It’s hard to associate ourselves with a product, before seeing the product.”
    • Brands don’t like to put their money or their name on something until it has already been introduced to the public.  It makes sense. If a show isn’t well received, does that feeling transfer to the brand? Besides, if a show gets out of the gate and is a hit, we usually don’t need the sponsor.
  • “There are not enough eyeballs.”
    • Even the most sold-out musicals can’t put more than 16,000 bodies (or 32,000 eyeballs) in the seats every week.  A lot of the live event sponsors like to sponsor one-time events that have 20,000 people plus in one night (think concerts, sporting events, etc.) PLUS millions on television.  Thems a lot of eyeballs!
  • “You may close tomorrow.  Then what?”
    • Since we can’t guarantee the length of the run, it’s hard for them to quantify the exposure of their brand.  And at the big brand level, it’s all about dollars and guaranteed impressions.
  • “I can’t advertise in the theater.”
    • Current contractual relationships between most theaters and Playbill, or their program provider, prevent the advertising of other commercial products inside the venue.  No signage, no manned or womanned display booths getting our customers to sign up for services, etc.
  • “It’ll take me too long to get this approved.”
    • Big businesses plan their quarters, their years, and sometimes their decades of underwriting in advance.  Often shows approach potential sponsors just a few months before opening, and at that point, discretionary underwriting funding is gone.

So what are we to do?  Is sponsorship an impossibility?

No.  Of course not.  We’ve got to come up with answers to these “my dog ate my homework” excuses, because there are work-arounds for everything . . . if we’re all willing to do the work.

– Want to know what the product is before you sponsor it?  Try a revival.  Or do you want to come to a reading?

– Not enough eyeballs?  The average Broadway musical probably spends $5 mill a year in paid media.  Get on some of that.  Or try a tour.  And we’ll start working on new media options for you.

– We may close tomorrow?  Put up less money if the risk is greater, but don’t stay on the sidelines.  Or find a show specialist that can tell you what shows have a potential of going down quick and which don’t (we all know, don’t we?).

– You can’t advertise in the theater?  The shows have more ways to reach our customers than ever before, so we can get to them (or start lobbying the theater owners).

– Too long to get approved?  We’ll start coming to you earlier.  We promise.

Everyone wonders why CBS continues to broadcast the Tony Awards every year despite disappointing ratings.  From what I hear, it’s because of the type of viewer that tunes in.  Tony Award watchers and theatergoers are highly educated and usually high-income individuals (Now it makes sense why Lexus, Cadillac, etc. advertise during the telecast, doesn’t it?).  And while there may not be a lot of them watching, they can afford big-ticket items.

Our audiences have significant value to corporations of all shapes and sizes.  We just have to do better at communicating our value, and finding more value for them.

Like Harry P himself, we’ve got to find a way to put them under our spell.

I’m going to cut this post short now, because I’ve got 15 corporations to follow-up with.

Serials are killers.

First of all, a little back story . . .

I don’t really watch television anymore.  I’ve missed out on so many great shows over the years, that I’m catching up, series by series, and watching at my own pace.

Translation?  I just started Season 3 of 24.

If you’re a 24 fan (and I have to admit, I’m semi-obsessed, having changed my ringtone to the CTU ringtone, and I’ve be known to greet callers with, “This is Bauer”), then you know that each episode ends on a super-duper sometimes melodramatic cliffhanger.

The goal of the cliffhangers are twofold:

  • Get you to tune in next week (or in my case, just play the next episode on my Netflix/Wii Play Instantly).
  • Get you to talk about it “at the water cooler” the next morning.

Great television “serials” can do just that.

So why can’t we do serials in the theater?

I’ve seen several mini-attempts over the years, mostly Off-Broadway, or Off-Off-Broadway.  There have been a few different live soap operas, and there’s even a live Sex-and-the-City-ish serial sitcom running right now that’s been getting a bit of buzz, called Naked In A Fishbowl.

The reasons why the serial has never stuck are pretty obvious:

  • It’s hard enough getting people off their couches and in an uncomfortable theater seat once a month, never mind every week.
  • Our tickets are much more expensive than Free TV or even Netflix/Will Play Instantly, so serial theatergoing would become an expensive habit.
  • Rehearsal costs of a new show every week would eat away at any potential profit in a theater with a fixed number of seats.
  • If an audience member misses one episode, you are never getting them back.

All of these reasons, and a zillion more, are why they don’t work in the theater (Even the ladies in Fishbowl are taping each episode, so they’ve obviously got their sights set on another medium).

Then again, I would’ve bet that a 12-hour staged adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novel wouldn’t work either, and somehow Demons sold out all of their performances.

There’s an audience for everything, but whether it is sustainable is another story.

And we’ve yet to see that story succeed in the theater.

And yes, that’s a challenge.

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