Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Let’s Rebrand!

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on September 14, 2009

Let’s face it– we have a bad rap as a theater town. All of us, at one time or another, have referred to LA theater as a bunch of out-of-work actors trying to break into to TV and film (I myself am guilty of this too). But whenever we say that, we seem to be trying to disassociate ourselves from Hollywood, the industry. Why? Hollywood is our greatest asset. What if we embraced it? After all, two of our main theater districts are in Hollywood: Theater Row and NoHo. What if we re-branded ourselves as a place where working TV and film actors perform on stage? In the past 12 months alone we have seen both Laurie Metcalf and Megan Mullally perform on 99-seat stages, and on our larger stages we have seen John Mahoney and David Hyde Pierce, plus many more. And I don’t think I have ever seen a show in LA in which at least one person in the cast didn’t have a TV or Film credit. Instead of calling ourselves the theater town of out-of-work TV actors trying to break in, why not rebrand ourselves as being a magnet for good, working TV actors who also appear on the stage?

To do this, we could launch a city-wide ad campaign featuring “A-list” stars. We could put their pictures on billboards and on the sides of buses with a saying like “I am Los Angeles Theater because…”, or “Support Los Angeles Theater and go see a Play!” or any number of better slogans that real marketing people could come up with. It could significantly help us re-brand ourselves, and raise the profile of the theater community.

We could target this campaign to tourists in Los Angeles. Did you know that according to discoverlosangeles.com (a website devoted to tourism in LA): 

  • In 2008, Los Angeles welcomed more than 25.6 million visitors.
  • Direct visitor spending totaled $13.8 billion in 2008.
  • In 2008, Los Angeles continued to be the second ranked destination for overseas visitors behind New York.

We need to tap into this. And tourists want to come to LA to see TV and movie stars. In New York, tourists see a Broadway show because it is THE thing to do. Sure, the Empire State Building, the Status of Liberty, yadda, yadda, yadda, but the Broadway show is the MUST do when visiting New York. The funny thing is, a lot of times people have no idea what shows they are supposed to see. They just know they are supposed to see something. (I spent a year as a Broadway usher, I can tell you stories…)

So why not us? I mean come on, we are HOLLYWOOD! Is there any other city in the world more focused on entertainment and the performing arts? But when people come to LA they are merely directed to go put their hands in cement prints and see a movie in the Chinese Theater. If we rebrand ourselves to be a place where a tourist can come to see working TV and film actors on stage, up close– I bet you they will start coming. And the theater community will deliver. We can market our TV and film credits of our actors as a positive feature of the theater community– something we offer that most theater towns truly do not. You see us on TV, you see us in the movies…. Now, here we are on stage!

You are probably thinking, “But how would we pay for this grand marketing scheme?” At last count, there was an estimate of around 1200 99-seat shows that went up last year. And those are just the 99 seat shows. If each one of those shows put $100 into this campaign, we would have $120,000. What if each show put in $200? Now we are at $240,000, plus we could include the bigger shows that could each probably put in more. And I know we could get some grant funding to offset these costs. Finally, we need to remember the value of LA Stage. They are marketers, and our main hub– a place where the theater community comes together. So, what if we put all our discount tickets on LA stage and only LA Stage? After all, if we have to sell tickets at a discount, let’s do it in a way that the LA Stage Alliance would receive the service fee. They could then use the money to launch this ad campaign. While Goldstar and other for-profit companies keep our ticket charges, offering no benefit to the theater community, LA Stage is a non-profit and therefore can put a portion of these revenues back into marketing LA theater. I also believe there are many A-list actors in town who would donate a publicity shot to use for promoting theater in this way. So many of these actors are at the core of many of our great small theaters already! Let’s get them out, front and center.

With a citywide, “A-list” driven marketing campaign, paid for by a small fees generated by each production, and by our agreement to sell our discounted tickets (when we have to) on LA Stage ONLY, we could redefine, refresh and rebrand our theater scene… and transform our mediocre reputation into a good one.

It will take leadership and will power. It will take our theater companies and producers coming together. Can we do it? Can LA Stage Alliance do it? Maybe. But if we had a Producer’s League, I know we could.

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5 Responses

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  1. David O said, on September 17, 2009 at 2:09 am

    (WARNING: Devil’s Advocate POV to follow)

    I agree we need to re-brand LA Theatre; to try to do away with the perceived stigma of a bunch of actors trying to break into TV & Film. Yes. 1000% agreed.

    BUT, by marketing ourselves as the place where TV/Film actors do theatre, aren’t we playing into that stereotype?

    Instead we should be re-branding LA Theatre as cutting-edge, risk-taking, avant-garde, rock & roll, ethnically diverse, forward-thinking art. This is what really distinguishes LA Theatre from the rest of the world – the work of Culture Clash, the Evidence Room, Deaf West, n.o.t.e., the Burglars of Hamm, Cornerstone, Ken Roht, East West Players, the Open Fist, the Actors’ Gang, etc. etc. etc. There is a substantial community here that creates theatre, true theatre, that doesn’t give a fuck about film & TV artists (no offense), that is truly on the cutting edge of the art form.

    My friend Stefan Novinski, after seeing “Xanadu,” said, “You know, LA Theatre is at least ten years ahead of Broadway. We’ve been doing camp musicals based on bad movies for years — it’s old hat.” Truly, LA has become the place where theatre experiments with new forms. I agree that it’s time to re-brand LA theatre. But instead of saying that we’re the place where TV & Film stars do theatre, we should be saying that we’re the place where groundbreaking Theatre stars do theatre.

  2. Erin Kamler said, on September 17, 2009 at 9:03 am

    The thing is, guys, you both are right (Wow, deja vu). We ARE a town where some of the best, hippest, most cutting edge theatre in the country gets made. We ARE a place where talented people come together to take risks in ways that they can’t do in other more traditional, stayed markets. We are not just Hollywood, we are LA Theater.

    BUT- We also ARE Hollywood. And we shouldn’t ignore it. Hollywood has cultural currency, especially in the eyes of tourists. And if tourists are really flocking here, then they are frankly an untapped market as far as theater is concerned. We need to be able to reach them and get them in the doors to see our brilliant, cutting-edge shows.

    One of the most important aspects to branding is to be authentic: if you brand your product/ service in an enticing way, but don’t follow up, the mistake will be glaringly transparent. We need to find a way to brand theater in LA as being what it actually is: a combination of Hollywood assets merged with original vision. We can’t say “We don’t give a fuck about Hollywood,” because frankly, we do. How else would we have such amazing talent walking through our theatre doors if it weren’t for wonderful, seedy, beloved tinsel town? How else would we have a patron-base of LA theatre-goers, if not for the millions of jobs created by the film and TV industries? We need to be in reality, and our reality is that we live in a city whose backbone is Hollywood– for better or for worse.

    Of course you’re right David, we’re not ONLY that– but if we truly do have high volumes of tourist traffic in this town, then we need to treat them as a target market and as customers. They are here with their cameras and their star maps and their cash. They will understand the Hollywood connection. We shouldn’t let our own egos get in the way of bridging this crucial divide.

  3. Kelly Lester said, on September 17, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    How about the best of both worlds – marketing a show based on the Hollywood star you may be fortunate to snag for your run, OR marketing it in that “Hollywood” made idea now so popularized by American Idol, America’s Got Talent, Susan Boyle, etc.: STARS of tomorrow are here on our small stages ready for audiences to discover them… Of course it’s all about the marketing. I’ve been reading all your posts Rick, and you make so many excellent points. In general, if you are able to start a Producers’ League (your arguments for it make it seem like a no brainer to me), the bottom line is that there will be so many advantages for those who do band with you; the collective power you’ll garner as a group will have many rewards. Walmart doesn’t get the lowest prices just by being nice LOL.
    On another note – If your Producer’s League was able to start it’s own discount ticket company (maybe based on some of the pricing structures you proposed) then the profits of that co. could be put back into the league.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on September 17, 2009 at 2:21 pm

      Kelly your are excatly right… and several weeks worth of posts ahead of me… but starting a collective ticketing company won’t be solely about the profits. It will be about the information. Information that will allow our marketing to become so targeted that each show/company will be able to market to individual patrons directly. I will be rolling out my vision and the how to’s in the weeks to come.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Jordan said, on January 9, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    You make some great points. All of you.

    We definitely need to improve publicity for theatre in Los Angeles. There is a potential audience out there, but we aren’t grabbing hold of it. I think it’s an excellent idea to get celebrities behind the theatre scene.

    It may be a good idea to consider creating a non profit aimed at bettering theatre in Los Angeles. That way we wouldn’t have to strip money from the already slim budgets of our theatre companies. If we create a 501(c)3 we could reach out to the community to help raise funds since donations would be tax deductible. Money can be raised for advertisements and programs aimed at building a greater theatre community in Los Angeles.

    We need to grab hold of our tourists, but more than that we need to build excitement for theatre among our residents. There are far too many actors in this town who don’t go out to theatre. As artists, we all need to start supporting art in this town. It would be great to create a network for theatre companies in Los Angeles to help share ideas and get our artists seeing each other’s art. We need to create a stronger community here.

    It would be great to look at NET. They’ve done some great work creating a network for ensemble theater companies across the nation. They put together a summit every year where they gather ensembles together for workshops, seminars, networking, etc.
    Their website is http://ensembletheaters.net/

    In addition, we need to raise children who view theatre as an important element of our culture. We could create programs that get jr high and high school students out to see theatre on a regular basis.

    Basically, there’s a lot that needs to be done. It all starts with forming a stronger community, though.

    – Jordan.


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