Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Honesty is the Best Policy

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on September 10, 2009

Today is part three of a five-part series of blogs about half price tickets. Read part one here and read part two here.

Yesterday I talked about how the widespread availability of half price tickets degrades the value of the entire theater community. I also talked about the fact that one of the big reasons we offer half price tickets is because companies like Goldstar and Plays411 force us to sell them if we want to be included in their marketing efforts.

Obviously, no producer wants to sell half price tickets, but the lack of marketing funds and creative promotional ideas often forces us to give in to Goldstar and Plays411’s demand to cough up that half price ticket. This, in turn, lowers our perceived value.

I would like us to start combatting that low perceived value. We must raise our perceived value back up to what our true market value should be.

Now, we can’t just snap our fingers and raise our perceived value. Nor can we quit dealing with companies like Goldstar cold turkey. But we could potentially come together as a community (say, through a Producer’s League) and build a smart plan to implement gradually. Here are my ideas for the basis of this plan:

  1. We need to be honest and educate our patrons about our true costs. They must know what our realities are if they are to ever “change” their percieved value of our ticket prices.
  2. We need to set our market price correctly, and use discounts smartly
  3. We need to develop better papering companies. (Papering companies distribute free tickets. More on this tomorrow.)
  4.  We need to create a citywide ad campaign to raise the profile of Los Angeles theater. (More on this Monday)

Ok, in this post, I will break down the first two items…

  1. We need to be honest and public about our true costs.

When I attend a show at a non-profit theater company, I often come across a sign or message in the program stating some variation of the following: “Ticket sales only make up a portion of our overall income. Please consider joining us as a donor to help support our artistic vision.” That’s all very well and good. But you know what? A lot of people never donate. It’s not that they are cheap or don’t care– it’s just that the message isn’t personal or specific. The theater company isn’t explaining why ticket sales only make up a portion of their overall income. And to be honest, ticket sales are only a portion because the sell so many tickets at half price. What would happen if we were all more direct with our patrons? What if we told patrons that each seat in each performance has an actual cost of $22.00? Or, based on the projected attendance, each ticket would need to be $45 in order for the production to break even. Let the patron do the math. They know what they paid. Let them think about it.

I will use myself as an example customer. When you tell me that ticket sales account for only 60% of your income, it makes me think two things: First, it makes me appreciate the Ford Foundation even more (or the NEA, or whoever you list as your corporate donor). Second, it makes me sad that you can’t sell more tickets. It never occurs to me that I am not paying enough, because I have this perceived value that a ticket is worth the price I paid (which is likely half price). But if you told me that the ticket I bought for $12.50 actually cost you $25–well then I might start to understand how I fit in to the larger context of your budget. I would then have a very real sense of what it takes to make your theater/production operate. I would know that when I paid $12.50 for that half price ticket, I ended up costing you money, and that I am not paying my fair share. My perceived value of the ticket begins to change.
Yesterday I told a story about a patron that was furious that he couldn’t get a half price ticket to my show. Well, there were several patrons who I spoke to who did get half price tickets. Every time I talked to them I would always explain that they bought their ticket below cost, which, in essence, means that I am subsidizing their experience of coming to my show. I also explained why I was essentially forced to offer the half price ticket. Every single person who I explained this to said, “If I had known, I would have never bought a half price ticket.” They assured me they would have paid full price.


We need to have this conversation with our audiences. I think you would be surprised at how many patrons would gladly pay full price if they understood the true cost of their ticket. They want to support us. Theater companies are not evil corporations trying to screw everyone into order to increase their profits. Theatre companies are not big banks, or oil companies. We are theater companies! People want us to succeed. That is why we have donors in the first place.

     2.    Set your market price correctly.

If you need to sell half price tickets to every performance because you can’t sell full price tickets, then your full ticket price is simply too high. But if you are trying to give people an incentive by offering cheaper tickets, you have to do it as a “limited offer.” We need to take away the always-available half-price tickets. We need to make this offer special– not the norm.
Instead of pricing every show at $25 and then offering half price tickets at $12.50, how about we implement a pricing plan like this:

Thursday – $15
Friday – $25
Saturday – $25
Sunday Mat – $20

Maybe we could offer a deal: if the patron orders before opening night, he/ she can get any ticket for any performance for $15. Additionally, we could offer 20% off any performance for any group over 4 people.

You want to hear a really outside-the-box idea? What if we price our tickets like airlines: The earlier you buy, the cheaper. The later you buy, the more expensive. So if we had 5 tiers of 20 tickets in each tier, we could offer levels that start at $15, then increase to $20, $25, $30, and $35. I don’t know if this would work. But, hey, I would think that it would certainly get some press!
The point is, let’s TRY something different. Maybe your theater already has. Has it worked? Tell us! And tell us publicly, so the patrons can understand too. These shouldn’t be trade secrets. The public discussion about ticket pricing will provide our patrons with more information when they buy our tickets. When they understand the actual cost, they can put a better value on the experience of coming to our shows. And hopefully, albeit slowly, their perceived value will start to rise.

Stay tuned, tomorrow I will talk about papeing companies and then Monday I will discuss the last two items above!

(Click here for the next post)


2 Responses

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  1. Steve Lozier said, on February 15, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    I came across your postings from the recent discussion about Plays411 on BCT. Very interesting stuff. I think I’m going to try and implement some of the idea.

    Its too bad there wasn’t a popular list that went out each week, like Goldstar, that listed tickets for shows, but that didn’t offer a discount. I think a lot of people read the half-price list not so much to get a deal, but because it’s such an easy resource to find out whats going on.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on February 15, 2010 at 5:11 pm


      Great! Please let me know what you do and what the result is.

      And I couldn’t agree with you more about reading the half-price lists becuase that’s all there is.

      Thanks for reading!

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