Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Good is Not the Same as Quality

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on March 16, 2010

I believe that there are two basic ways to judge a show.  One scale is “bad to good.”  The other is “non-quality to quality.”  I cannot define what makes a show bad or good because the elements that make a show bad or good are very subjective.  For the ease of my argument, however, I will propose that a good show is a “hit show” that receives strong word of mouth praise and high marks from the critics in regard to the performance of the actors, director and author.  One thing I can do is to define a quality show.  Simply put, a quality show is a show that looks expensive. It is a show in which the producers have spent a good deal of money on the sets, costumes, lights and sound, and hired solid musicians (if it’s a musical).

Based on this distinction, it is important to note that “quality” does not imply “good.”  We can all think of scenarios in which a quality show is actually bad, and a non-quality show is actually good. Put another way, good theater doesn’t need expensive bells and whistles, and throwing money at a bad piece of theater will never make it good.

Here is another way to look at it:  All shows on Broadway are high quality.  When you buy a ticket to a Broadway show, you know that it is going to be a high quality show, because part of what makes Broadway “Broadway” is the use of material resources to make a show look fantastic. But I would venture to guess that we have all seen some really bad Broadway shows. Hence the idea that throwing glitzy sets and lights at a bad piece of theater can never make it good. On the other side of things, I would venture to say that all virtually Los Angeles 99-seat theater shows are low quality. Practically speaking, you simply can’t spend a lot of money to make these shows look like a million bucks. But we have all, of course, seen some amazingly good 99-seat theater shows.

Now, it is true (and important to point out) that the 99-seat theater scene in LA has a wide range of “quality” elements.  Most showcase productions and beginning theater companies are generally the lowest quality because they have very little money to spend on their productions.  And there are some 99-seat theater shows in LA that are higher quality; certainly not on par with the quality of the Ahmanson (which we can safely say is Broadway quality), but better than showcases.

Again, quality does not mean good and good does not mean quality.

If we were to graph these two scales, we would use an x-y graph with four quadrants.  The x-axis would be the Non-Quality to Quality scale, and the y-axis would be the Bad to Good scale. Drawn out, it would look like this:

On the graph above, I have plotted four different productions.  Point A is a good Broadway production.  Point B is a bad Broadway production.  Point C is a good 99-seat theater production and point D is a bad 99-seat theater production.

The problem with the above graph is that few patrons think in terms of the quality-versus-good paradigm.  It can be hard for an average patron to view two seemingly similar scales of judgment as two completely separate scales of judgment. The danger to us as theater-makers comes when a patron cannot tell the difference between quality and good. When this happens, he/she can be fooled into thinking that quality, in fact, equals good, because quality is so much easier to see. (“It was so amazing; the chandelier came down from the ceiling and crashed right onto the stage!” Etc.)  When quality overrides good, our complex four quadrant graph collapses to a simple line, on which one side is quality and the other side is non-quality.  Drawn out, it becomes this:

Now, point A (good Broadway production) and point B (bad Broadway production) are both seen more favorably to point C (good 99-seat theater production) and point D (bad 99-seat theater production).

The biggest problem for the LA 99-seat theater community is this: Even though a patron wants to see a good show, when it comes down to buying a ticket, they will likely be more willing to pay to see a quality show.

Now, before you get mad at me, think of this: some Broadway tours that come to the Pantages are bad shows, but they manage to sell out 2,700 seats, 8 times a week.  Whereas smash hit, great 99-seat theater shows often struggle to sell out their 396 seats each week.  Marketing (or lack thereof) has a lot to do with this problem–a big tour spends more on marketing that the most expensive 99-seat theater show’s entire budget. But there is another important element at play here that, in fact, determines the success of all marketing: The brand.

Broadway producers and marketers understand that an average patron doesn’t understand the difference between quality and good. The producers use this understanding to fool the average patron into thinking that quality does equal good (even though they in fact know that it doesn’t).  This is why Broadway in general has been able to brand itself as “Good” theater, because it really brands itself as “quality” theater. Since 99-seat theater has not branded itself at all, its default brand is one of low quality productions.  And, since the average patron can’t tell the difference between quality and good, then by the transitive property, Broadway ends up getting the brand of “good” and LA 99-seat theater gets the brand of “bad.”

IF Broadway = Quality AND Quality = Good THEN Broadway = Good.

IF LA 99-Seat = Non-Quality AND Non-Quality = Bad THEN LA 99-Seat = Bad.

Whether we like it our not, this is what is happening to us in LA.  Yes, it is true that in Los Angeles we may be able to sell out a show and get people to come see us in the 99-seat world (We sold over 5,000 tickets for Divorce! The Musical).  But we cannot ignore the fact that Wicked ran for over 800 performances in a 2,700 seat house  (The Pantages) here in LA.  If people understood that a particular production in a 99-seat theater house was as good as, or better than Wicked, then wouldn’t it make sense that the same number of people would go out and see the 99-seat theater show?  No! Because a good 99-seat theater show has to overcome the negative brand of, “LA 99-seat theater equals bad.”  And that is a tall order, given that most 99-seat theater shows spend less than $1,000 a week on marketing.

So how do we fix this?

The obvious solution is that all 99-seat theater producers should run out and spend as much money as possible on building better sets and costumes, right?  Well, no.  Because, unfortunately, 99-seat theater producers are locked into a system wherein we have to produce on the extreme cheap– a direct result of the price controls that Equity has forced upon us. The plain truth is that the current Equity 99-seat contract forces us to lose money on these productions.  So, even if a producer wanted to spend more money to increase the quality of his/her production, he/she couldn’t, unless he/she wanted to take a huge loss.  Who can afford to do that? 

So with the economic realities of LA theater being what they are, producers keep churning out low quality productions– both good and bad.  And this, of course, reinforces our “low quality” brand.

Surely, a producer could remedy this by producing on the HAT or LOA contract, right?  After all, if the 99-seat theater ticket price controls are the problem, then producing on a HAT or LOA contract would solve the problem since the HAT and LOA provide for higher ticket prices than the 99-seat contract.  Right? The answer here is, sorta, but not really.  It is possible that a producer can produce on the HAT or a LOA.  And some producers do.  Right now there are productions running in 99-seat theaters that are on a HAT or a LOA.  But the patrons don’t know that a producer is doing this.  And if the patron doesn’t know, then the LA-99 seat theater brand of Low-Quality will still apply Additionally, producers rarely use these contracts to increase the quality of their productions; they use them to increase the “good” elements of their productions– namely, to hire better actors.  And it is extremely rare that a producer actually charges more for a ticket than the 99-seat theater contract would have allowed in the first place.  While raising the “good” is good, it doesn’t do anything to change 99-seat theater’s overall “low quality” brand.

So really then… how do we fix this?

Well, it’s a loaded question.  Certainly, the answer is not to go out and produce Broadway shows in 99-seat houses.  But, we do need to take this issue of quality more seriously.  We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and say “Our shows are good, and audiences should know that,”  then turn around and complain that no one comes to the theater anymore.

The first step is for producers to accept the distinction between quality and good.  It’s hard for us producers to look in the mirror, but we have to.  And we have to do it as businesspeople, not just as artists. 

Once we accept this distinction, we then need to come together as producers.  We need to define the parameters of our work, and the goals of our community.  With those definitions in place, we can begin to control our brand, instead of having our brand control us.  We can fight to make the necessary changes to the Equity contracts that are hurting our productions.  Over time, with the correct strategy, a solid plan, and a defined brand, we will pull ourselves up and create a higher quality 199 seat theater scene, and then an even higher quality 299 seat theater scene.

It’s a long road and a hard road.  But if we really care about theater in Los Angeles (and I know that we do because most of us do it for little or no money), then we simply have to come together and start a producer’s organization.

But, in the meantime, if you are a producer, ask yourself if you would rather produce a good show, or a quality show?

This is a trick question. The answer, or course, is both.


6 Responses

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  1. Howard Kamler said, on March 17, 2010 at 6:45 am

    Very important distinctions (good/quality, etc.)! (Obviously, I’m not familiar with HAT and LOA contracts, but I get the general idea.) Your further idea of getting an LA producers organization started in order to spell out these ideas to everyone’s understanding and satisfaction is great. I agree with you that once producers get on top of these ideas and, consequently, once they then get clear in their own minds just what the appropriate goals should be for the smaller theater LA productions, the branding toward “the good” (rather than toward “quality”) will become clearer in both their minds and in the minds of the theater-going public…. Thanks for sharing. The blog is very impressive. Now I’m going to read some of your other blogs here. (I didn’t know that you had this website. Neat.)

  2. Gary Lamb said, on March 17, 2010 at 9:47 am

    Very interesting… but with over 300 99-seat plan productions a year… branding 99-seat theater is impossible. Only companies can get branded as “good” and several have jumped to the forefront… the problem isn’t in the 99-seat plan… the problem is in the HAT and the LOA. If we in any way change the 99-seat plan to make it easier, cheaper or lengthen runs we are just perpetuating the problem (although with half price ticketing becoming the norm… tix prices and weeks at salary could use some upgrades). What we need is more 199 seat houses and a way to make it easier to produce in those. Putting more money into the quality of a show and/or advertising makes sense if 2 months into the show you can expand to 199 seats without moving. AEA doesn’t want to allow sectioning off larger theaters to open a show as a 99-seat plan production because there is no trust and AEA doesn’t have the man-power (I’m told) to check up on these theaters. So… to take a risk on a show becomes… focus on good (cheaply) and hope that you can run long enough to make enough or get enough exposure to warrant investors etc to push to the next level (Divorce, The Musical)… or jump to the larger theater and invest in quality and advertising and all other things that come with that and pray the risk does not kill you and your show. I would love to hear how you think changing the 99-seat plan will help the future of L.A. Theater.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on March 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

      It’s not about changing 99-seat theater to make it cheaper. That is the last thing we want. You will have to come to the meeting of producers to hear more of my ideas… 🙂 I will email you.

  3. Tina Sanchez said, on March 31, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Gary makes an interesting point about AEA not trusting producers. It occurred to me that that’s why the union members of every cast elect a deputy to act as a liason between the union actors, the producers and the union. Why couldn’t the duties of the deputy be expanded to monitor such items as numbers of seats, ticket prices, etc.? As a union actor who certainly prefers to work in larger, better-funded houses, I feel certain that most deputies would be more than happy to perform this duty on behalf of their union in exchange for improving the working conditions and overall profile of Los Angeles. Perhaps it is details like these that will help us to improve our product–and thereby improve our ticket sales, increase our audience numbers, etc. A producers consortium is a great start, but I think it’s going to take a dialogue between more of the involved parties to really move things along. Thanks for the inspiration, Rick and Gary!

  4. chris said, on April 30, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    The distinctions between good and quality are subjective. A show that “looks expensive” does not equate “quality”. Take for example “A Chorus Line,” a Broadway show with little budget in its original inception at the Joseph Papp Theater. No sets and only one costume of “quality.” Yet t “A Chorus Line” is considered a quality show that is also good. It is accordingly not how much money one throws at a show that makes it a “quality” production any more than it makes it a “good” production. Conversely, expensive shows on Broadway such as “Starlight Express,” which you would deem of quality, are devoid of this trait, and in addition not good. It sounds as if you are defining quality by how much money one spends on a show, regardless if the show necessitates the spending. Imagine “A Chorus Line” with tons of sets and costumes. It would not be quality, but kitchy.

    Also, consider the comparison between larger Broadway houses and the typical 99 seat theater. Most Broadway houses are at least 10 times the size! Indeed, one really can not compare them. Also consider that Broadway ticket prices are not $150.00 for orchestra seats, and that theaters are owned by a theatrical chain, either the Schuberts, Jujamcyns, or the Nederlanders, which also own a string of theaters across the country. In addition, consider Broadway shows, unlike 99 seat black box shows in L.A., are designed to tour. A better analogy would be between Off-off-Broadway and L.A., in which case the two are comparative because of the variables. Indeed, off-off-Broadway (SMALL 99 seat theaters) provide a starting point. As shows move up the theatrical chain, and money is applied, they can transfer to off-Broadway or Broadway. In the case of “Rent,” a very low budget show, the transfer required money spent on marketing, advertising, and a larger theater rather than on “quality” sets. The show did not require high end production values, and indeed if applied, they would have diminished the effect.
    (By the way, I am not a fan of Rent not because of a lack of production values, but because I consider it a bad show).

    In terms of AEA and NYC theater, actors consume the least amount of the intake of the box. The majority goes to the producers and theater owners. Indeed, the local musicians union comparatively makes more performers in a large musical or dramatic play on Broadway, as do Local 1 stage hand employees. Why everyone blames AEA regarding escalating theatrical costs is beyond imagination. Furthermore, If actors feel their work rules are unfair, then by all means they can negotiate with AEA. Actors are also free to remove themselves from the union and work in non-union theater. By the way, there is much good non-union theater of quality.

  5. Gabriel said, on June 4, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Thanks for the great read.

    My tastes are much simpler. To me, quality begins and ends with great acting. For musicals, or course, you need musicians that can play their instruments; however, lights, costumes, sets, it’s all frosting. If there’s no truth in the performances, then it was all for naught.

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