Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Paper Patrons Should Pretend to Pay Premium Price

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on September 11, 2009

This is the fourth part of a five-part blog series about half price tickets (read the other parts here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three).

Over the last few days I have talked about how selling half priced tickets has lowered perceived value.  I have argued that we need to explain our costs honestly to theater patrons and use better pricing models so that they will understand the real value of our tickets, thereby being encouraged to pay at full price.

But let’s face it.  Sometimes you just can’t get people in the door.  Some shows– be they experimental, limited in their appeal, or just not that good– still need to fill their houses.  In these cases, even with properly priced tickets and smart discounting, a producer just needs to give tickets away.  Or, to use the theater phrase, you need to “paper the house.”

The problem however, is that I don’t see any real papering companies in LA.  Or if we do have them, I don’t know about them.  (So if you are a papering company and you’re out there, you need to make sure that every box office manager in the city knows who you are!)  This lack of papering companies leaves us with few options.  Sure, we can offer pay-what-you-can discounts to friends of the cast and crew or other such limited options.  But most of us end up giving tickets away for free through Goldstar or Plays411.

Just like with half price tickets, we then run into problems.  We immediately lower our perceived value by broadcasting to the entire community of theater patrons: “we are desperate, so please come for free!”

When I managed a box office in New York for a concert hall on the Upper West Side, one of the services we performed was to paper the house when we couldn’t sell tickets. In New York, unlike in Los Angeles, I used real papering companies. Each company had a small, managed list of patrons.  Each patron would have to “interview” with the company in order to determine whether they were responsible and worthy of the free tickets. If they were accepted, then they would pay a fee and agree to a certain set of rules:

  1. They would have to show up. When I sent an allotment of tickets to a paper company, the paper company would send me back a list of patrons who had committed to attending.  After the performance, if a patron didn’t show up, I would notify the company and if the patron was a no-show more than three times in a year, they would get kicked out (with no refund).   The rule was clear: if you sign up, you show up.
  2. There is a limit to the number of tickets a patron can have for an event or a venue. So if they like you, they have to start paying after a set number of times attending your show or theater, even if there are still comps available.
  3. If you are non-profit, they are encouraged to donate to your theater if they like what they saw.
  4. Most importantly THE PAPER COMPANY’S PATRONS HAD TO BE DISCRETE! They were instructed to stay silent, telling no one that they had received a comp ticket.  If a patron was caught talking about how they received a comp while at the theater, I would report that patron and they would get kicked out of the papering company (with no refund).

 (Go here to check out a New York papering company and read their “about” page.)

 This discrete rule is unbelievably important.  All week I have been talking about my patrons and Goldstar.  Here is another anecdote:  One night before the show started, a little old lady, who clearly had no concept of talking softly to the person sitting next to her, said, in a very loud voice so that half of the house could hear: “What!? You paid full price?  Why would you ever pay full price!?  I bought my tickets on Goldstar where they are always half price!”

Again, this points directly to the issue of perceived value– but it also points to the lack of tact and understanding on the part of many of our patrons.  We need papering companies to build an educated audience so that, when we need them, we can offer free tickets to a small, reliable group of people, without devaluing our product to the rest of the public, and without fearing that our patrons who did pay will feel as if they got screwed. If you are a theater company, this is even more important.  After all, let’s face it– you are going to produce a bad show eventually.  And when you do, if you discount and comp like crazy, then two things will happen: First, you will eventually get the same lady that saw my show, and she will broadcast to everyone around her who paid more than half price (or anything at all!) that they are suckers. Second, patrons will begin to expect you will offer them comps for every show.  Then, when you turn around and produce a good show, the same patrons will expect discounts and/or free tickets.

Real papering companies help to prevent this.  They help you fill your house discretely, with patrons who are educated, pre-screened and promise to pretend that they’ve paid a premium price. The difference between these types of patrons and the little old screaming lady can’t be underestimated: it is a difference that can make or break the run of a show. 

Coming Monday: The case for a citywide Theater Marketing Initiative.  Click here for this post.

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