Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Comunication Breakdown

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on February 8, 2010

It is certainly not news to point out that the theater community in Los Angeles (and around the country, if not the world) has bemoaned the anticipated death of the printed newspaper, because of the implications this death will have on our theater critics. Soon, experienced theater critics will be out of jobs, and arts journalism as we’ve known it will be a thing of the past. 

In addition, it is not earth-shattering news that bloggers are cropping up to fill the void.  The result, as we know, is that we are losing our educated critics– journalists who are trained in the art of reviewing theater, and replacing them with theater enthusiasts who think that if they see enough shows and buy themselves a web domain, it makes them experts.  I think most of us agree that this is an unfortunate turn of events.

In all the discussions that I have read about this issue, however, we as a theater community seem to only focus on that which we can’t control: that the papers are laying off critics, that bloggers will review theater, and that the opinions of these less trained bloggers will dominate the critical landscape of Los Angeles theater, whether we like it or not.  Well, instead of throwing my hands up in the air, I propose two ideas that, in combination with many of my other ideas, could potentially create a much-needed solution.  I will roll out these ideas in my next two blogs:

Idea 1)

We, the artists, producers, creators, etc., need to speak to and listen to our patrons. Directly. Without a blogging middle-man or a self-made critic. By engaging in this dialogue, we will, in fact, be encouraging reviews by bloggers and self-made critics– only the dialogue will be from a place of integrity and education– NOT a free for all for anyone who thinks they know something about theater to adopt an authoritative voice. This dialogue is essential to the life-blood of our theater community. We must not be silent in the face of patron reviews. Rather, we must engage, and talk openly about what makes good theater good and bad theater bad.  (Click here to read this post)

Idea 2)

 The LA Stage Alliance must set up a Professional Theater Panel to classify professional critics as professional critics and bloggers as bloggers.  Combined with a marketing effort directed at theater patrons, a critic with an authorized critic designation from the LA Stage Alliance will be understood by our patrons  as someone who has been vetted by the theatre community. (Click here to read this post)

Reevaluating Your Ticketing Company

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on November 25, 2009

 Let’s say you get hired for a new job. On your first day you head down to HR and they tell you that you will be paid every two weeks. But, your first check will not come until around your sixth week and they are going to hold some of your salary every week and pay it to you after you quit.

That sounds crazy right? So why would you accept these payment terms from your ticketing company?

I haven’t written in the past four weeks. During that time I have received several emails from people who are interested in producing theater, who haven’t done so before. One question that often came up was: what’s the best ticketing company? Since there are many theaters that currently use ticketing companies that pay on a schedule like the one described above, I figured we could all use a post about ticketing companies.

So… here is my list of things to think about when selecting (or re-evaluating) your ticketing company.

1)   The most important thing to remember when picking a ticketing company is: IT’S YOUR MONEY. Since it’s your money, you should get it as quickly as possible. You shouldn’t have to wait for any of it. Some companies will give you a song and dance about accounting schedules and “blah, blah, blah,” but the bottom line is– if they can’t pay you every week in a timely manner, you need to go elsewhere. 

2)   Don’t be fooled by bells and whistles. Be wary of any ticketing company that offers marketing services. Most companies that offer marketing services require you to give them a “special deal” to offer their email list subscribers. This means that YOU have to cut your price (usually by at least 50%). This is not in your best interest (Read this post for more on this topic). To make matters worse, if your ticketing company is making you sell tickets at 50% off, where are you possibly going to sell full price tickets?

3)   Who answers the phone sales calls? In the best scenario, a local person will answering your ticketing calls, someone who can answer specific questions for patrons. But often, ticketing companies leave nothing more than a recorded message that only frustrate and agitate patrons– and sometimes even drive them away. A live person who is out-of-state, reading from info that you provide is better than no person at all. Patrons don’t like to talk to robot operators, much less give their credit card numbers over to them. How many times do you curse the automated menu just to get to your cell phone support rep? Don’t make your patrons think of the phone company when they’re trying to buy a ticket to your show.

4)   Integrate your website. Many theater companies don’t spend the money to build a website and instead, just go with a generic page supplied by a ticketing company. Don’t. Spend the $1500 and build a web page. It’s important and it makes you look legitimate. Your patrons can then buy tickets directly from your website. They prefer it, and it feels safer.

5)   Be careful of theaters that make you use ticketing companies in which they have an ownership stake. It’s one thing for a theater to contract with a specific ticketing company. But it’s another thing when they own that company. You wouldn’t want your apartment’s landlord to get your paycheck, deduct the rent, and then send you what’s leftover, right? It’s none of your landlord’s business how much money you make, and it certainly isn’t their place to be taking that money directly from your employer. Don’t make that bad deal with a theater.

6)   Watch out for service charges. Your ticketing company is going to charge you a fee and your patron a fee. You want to find a company that has low fees on both sides. Your patron doesn’t like the fee any more than you do.

Finally, because it’s important, I will remind you: IT’S YOUR MONEY. Don’t let someone else make money on your money. If a ticket company holds your checks for longer than a week or two, they are making interest on your money. If a ticket company tells you that it takes more than a week to process your payment, its time to get a new ticketing company.

Don’t be bullied or fooled.

The “J” Curve of Los Angeles Theater

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on October 25, 2009

I have a friend.  She lives is a beautiful 600 square foot loft in downtown Los Angeles.  Her rent is about $500 a month.  The loft next door is a 700 square foot loft that rents for about $1500.  Why the price difference?  My friend’s loft is subsidized by the government.  Each year, her income has to be roughly between $18,000 and $24,000.  If she makes more than $24,000, she will have to move out of her apartment and into a market-rate apartment, which would cost about three times as much.  Because of this, she can not take a raise or get a better job, unless that job or raise will jump her salary up to around $40,000 – this is what she would need to afford to move into a market rate apartment.  Anything less, and she would have to move into an apartment that is not as nice as her current one, thus lowering her quality of life.  So, my friend hovers at $24,000 income each year.  Its not that she doesn’t want to earn more, it’s that it’s simply not in her best interest to earn more because doing so will prevent her from keeping her nice apartment.  

 LA Theater is stuck in this same situation.  In Los Angeles, a huge gap exists between the maximum budget one can use to produce a 99 seat production, and the minimum budget one can employ for a HAT production.  I call this the J-Curve of Los Angeles Theater.  Using a graph to measure the maximum profit potential (week potential minus week cost) on the y axis and our budget (from small to large) on the x axis, we will see a curve that looks like a “J”.  Here is our graph:

 LA Theater J Curve

 

As our graph illustrates, low budget 99-seat productions offer a small profit potential, while high budget HAT contracts offer larger potential.  Many theater companies start out with low budget 99-seat productions.  However, these types of productions have many limitations.  For one thing, musicals on this level are unable to include live musicians (unless they are all volunteers). Additionally, most of the participants including directors and designers are volunteers, which means that the production will have very little potential for high quality production values and, quite frankly, talent.  This is why most theater companies that are successful try to raise their production budgets. Eventually they hit point A on our graph– which is the realm in which high budget 99-seat theater productions must stay if they want to have a reasonable chance of breaking even from week to week.  But many limitations with high budget 99-seat theater productions still abound.  Those who work on this level never see true livable wages, and rarely do shows on this level boast great production values.  And, of course, no 99-seat theater production can run longer than 80 performances. 

 Once a theater company does get to point A, therefore, they have to make a choice.  Either stay forever at point A, or make the enormous and risky leap to point B.  If they stay forever at point A (which almost all of our theater companies in Los Angeles have chosen to do) it means that actors will never be paid higher wages, and productions will never see high production values.  If they try to make the jump to point B, then this decision will come with the huge risk of the theater company falling short and landing in the bottom of our “J,” somewhere between Points A and B.  Since this is the most likely outcome, a theater company would need to have stored a tremendous amount of reserve capital in order to bridge the years that it will invariably take to reach point B.  With very few theaters able to amass the required capital, this transition is an extremely rare occurrence.

 For independent producers like myself, in order to produce at point B or higer, we would need a show to be an extreme crowd pleaser in order to guarantee that we will be able to sell the 300-400 tickets every week needed just to break even with our weekly expenses.  To keep expenses down, we use tracks instead of live musicians and look for shows with very small casts.  Recouping our capitalization would require us to sell even more tickets, and for a long period of time.  Add to this the fact that we don’t have a middle theater zone in which to produce—a circumstance that forces us into 99-seat theaters and limits the number of tickets we can sell on a given weekend. Because of this, the independent producer must look at LA simply as a place to develop their production—not as a money making production. It follows, that if a producer is just looking to develop, he or she would want to produce on the easiest level possible—the 99-seat contract– in order to loose as little money as possible.

 How do we change this situation, and raise the level of theater in Los Angeles?

 Well, in my opinion, we have to have a coordinated approach:

 Step One (1) We have to allow producers to recoup some capital (if not turn a small profit) on the current 99-seat plan.  Perhaps we need to look at profit sharing ideas with our actors so that they become stake holders in the 99-seat production.  This would prevent a producer making money on the back of very low paid actors.

 Step Two (2) We need to rework a new contract that sits somewhere in between 99-seat and HAT.  A contract that will bridge the gap so that theater companies that want to expand or spend more money on productions can do so without risking total failure (by falling into the bottom of the “J”).  This new contract must allow for shows to run open-ended.  This will help build long running shows that will promote our theater community by allowing more people to see our better shows.

 Step Three (3) With steps (1) and (2) in place, a new need will be created for theatres at the 199 seat level.  Theater owners will start to build them. 

 Step Four (4) Successful theatre companies will start to produce in the bigger houses, and with 199 seat houses popping up, commercial producers will be able to work in venues where profit numbers make sense to investors, thereby allowing them to produce better shows and experiment with bigger shows. All of this will mean higher salaries for actors.  (And sure it’s not going to be enough to live on, but $25 or $40 a show is better than $11, right?  And it’s better to be in a show that has good production values, as opposed to a show that doesn’t, right? and maybe there is a way to add in 1/4 health care shares where 4 weeks on this contract equals one on a full contract.  Then you would have 2 weeks toward your equity health care from an 8 week run.)

 Step Five (5) will be to start it all over again to work up to the 299 level.  It will be at this point that will we have a viable Off-Broadway theater scene in Los Angeles … With real money and real salaries.

 The thing that we need to understand is, we are not facing an audience problem.  Our audience is here.  People go to the theater.  The tourists are here.  They will go to the theater (especially when we work with solid and well-funded marketing plans like this).  The only thing preventing this new level of theater growth from occurring is, quite simply: the theater community.  If we don’t fight to change our situation, then it won’t change.  I think if we we’re smart as a community, and if we really work together with all of our best interests’ in mind, then we could put in place a 20-year Plan to make this vision a reality.

 Of course, we can simply keep going along as we are now.  But, just like my friend with the subsidized apartment, we will never have a reason to better ourselves.  And a successful, happy, nationally respected future will always be out of our reach.

LA Ovation Awards

Posted in Till Death Do Us Part by Rick Culbertson on October 19, 2009

I have to take time out from my usual posts today.  I have just returned for the LA Ovation Award Nominations announcement.  It brings me a lot of joy to announce that Divorce! was nominated for five Ovation awards.  Nominations are as follows:

 Production of a Musical – Intimate Theatre (All of us!)

Book/Lyrics/Music for an Original Musical (Erin Kamler)

Director of a Musical (Rick Sparks)

Music Direction (David O)

Acting Ensemble (Greg Franklin, Matt Kaminsky, Keri-Anne Lavin, Rick Segal, Deb Snyder, Steve Staley, Leslie Stevens, Lowe Taylor, and Gabrielle Wagner)

 Other than Best Production of a Musical, all awards are city-wide with no restriction on theater size (Best Production is limited to theaters under 100 seats).

 I have a tremendous amount of pride for everyone involved in Divorce!  Congratulations to everyone.

 I would also like to say special congratulations to all of my investors.  I hope all of us in the theater community, whether our shows were nominated or not, remember that artists can’t do their jobs if investors don’t invest.  Let’s all be thankful to everyone who supports the arts financially and let them know how much we appreciate their commitment to theater.  They don’t get awards, they don’t get interviewed, they don’t stand in front of an ovation, and they often lose money.  But without them, we wouldn’t exist.

To investors everywhere… THANK YOU!!!

What could a Producer’s Organization look like?

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on October 12, 2009

I have been asked how, given all the different types of theater companies that exist in Los Angeles, a producer’s organization could work.  I have taken this question to mean that a lot of people feel that we are too diverse of a theater community to allow for a cohesive, agreed-upon structure, and that our missions and goals don’t align.  I disagree. While there are certainly some differences among us, we have many more things in common than we think.

We are all producers.  Every one of us.  Whether your company is small and actor-based, whether you work independently in the 99-seat world, whether you are a mid-sized non-profit with 100-499 seats or a big regional theater, your mission is to produce theater.  This means that you must deal with unions, hire (even on a volunteer basis) artists and staff, sell tickets, and market shows.  We all interface daily with theater venues, actors, directors, designers, writers, and material. We all vie for the same limited number of reviewers and patrons. We all have to work within budgets, and we all have something to say.  

If we created a producer’s organization, it could help all of us accomplish the tasks we have in common.  We could organize committees that break down these tasks according to our various specific types of theater.  We could implement one committee for each of the following: the large budget 99-seat non profits, the low budget 99-seat non-profits, the actor based 99-seat houses, the independent producers, the midsize theaters, the large theaters… etc.  Each committee would work on the behalf of the group of theaters within their category.  The committees would then meet with the producer’s organization to make sure it is adhering to the needs of all producers and theater companies. 

Imagine being able to negotiate with equity– all with one voice.  We could begin a dialogue with other unions so that they finally get on board with the 99-seat contract.  Each of these negotiations could receive input from the smaller committees, creating a situation in which each theater company has the weight of the entire community behind it. 

Additionally, all members of the producer’s organization, no matter what their size, would benefit from the marketing efforts of a producers league.  (READ THIS  POST!)

A producer’s league, working as a trade organization, could work with the city to address our needs as producers.  This league could seek partnerships with corporate entities (the Broadway Producer’s League in New York has a partnership with Visa. Why can’t we?)  As individuals, we are hard-pressed to make these visions a reality, but as an entire community? We could create a partnership with the Los Angeles Restaurant Association to bring our two industries together to promote “dinner and a show” ideas, and many more partnerships such as these to intelligently grow the visibility of our business. There is no reason why each of us, as individuals, should continue to labor on trying to accomplish these tasks, over and over, again and again– achieving only moderate success at best.

Last, but certainly not least, we could work together to develop better rental agreements with all our local rental theaters.  Better contracts that will promote long running shows instead of forcing you to close. (READ THIS POST!)

There are so many benefits in coming together. Put simply, a group is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Where will we be in 20 years?

Posted in Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on October 7, 2009

Quick note: sorry for no posts in two weeks, I have been busy traveling to Chicago and am now back in Los Angeles. In the future my goal is to post an article every Monday. This will give me the time to write what I hope will be thoughtful posts that have something to say, instead of just everyday “filer.” Ok, now on with the show!

I recently attended a committee meeting for the Bringing Back Broadway initiative. The Committee focuses on the 12 large Broadway theaters in Downtown Los Angeles, and their goal is to revitalize the entire Broadway corridor with shops, restaurants, a street car (a light rail that runs down Broadway, connecting LA Live and the Music Center) and most importantly, filling the large theaters with NYC Broadway-caliber shows. They want so do all this in 10 years.

I think they are crazy. Not because what they want to accomplish, but because of their time line. I believe they will accomplish each of their goals, but that it will take about 20 years.

Don’t think their idea is plausible? Take a second to remember 1989 and then think about how much has changed. Don’t think there is a market? Go back and read my post on rebranding and tourists. And then remember how long Wicked ran at the Pantages. Wicked is exactly the kind of show that will run at these theaters. There will also be room for The Lion King, and every other Disney and Warner Brothers movie they want to musicalize. Add the fact that our city, county, and state politicians want this to happen, the theater owners want this to happen, and the downtown property owners want this to happen. And, just as LA Live is about to prove to us all (and just as the Music Center already has), people will come downtown to be entertained.

It will happen.

So when we end up with five to ten 2,000 seat theaters in LA hosting full scale, Broadway productions in them, what will happen to the rest of the theater scene? Will these theaters compliment us? Or destroy us? Will they be part of our scene or outsiders? Will we be involved in making them successful? Will we protest this change, or cheer for it to fail? Or will we simply ignore it?

I think we should get involved. Just as the city of Los Angeles has a 10-year plan, our theater community should also have a 10-year plan (though I think realistically they should both be 20-year plans). I think we need to participate in the efforts to open these beautiful theaters, and we need to be looking at how this will change our entire theater landscape. After all, it stands to reason that if 80,000-160,000 patrons start to attend these large theaters every week, they are going to be less likely to also go see 99-seat theater. And even if 80% of them wouldn’t ever go to a 99-seat theater anyway, that’s still 16,000-32,000 a week that would have, and now probably won’t!

What are we going to do about this?

I think its time to sit down and work together to figure out a way to build a true “middle” type of theater scene with 100-499 seat houses that are available for rent to long-running shows. These theaters will allow us to produce at a higher level of production quality. Currently, shows that would otherwise have done very well in independent 199 or 299 seat houses are more or less being forced to play in 99-seat theaters. In just the past few years we have seen Marvelous Wonderettes, Louis and Keely, Divorce! The Musical, Lovelace, and now Life Could be a Dream— all shows that could have withstood larger productions but instead were crammed into small 99-seat theaters. How many other shows could have done well if they could have been produced in a slightly bigger house and been run with real marketing budgets and production values (not to mention higher salaries for our artists)?

The shows and talent are already here. What we lack is a plan, and perhaps the will.

Isn’t it time to start planning now? Isn’t it time to come together now? 20 years from now the Broadway theaters will be open. Will we have the foresight to ride this wave by creating our own “Off-Broadway” LA Theater scene?

It’s very easy to get bogged down by our own current shows and projects. Who has time to think about extra stuff when you have a full-time job AND run a theater company? I get it– most of us don’t feel we have time to think about the future when we can barely get though today.

But the problem is, if we don’t come together, if we don’t start to work on a 20-year plan, if we don’t think about the future, then 20 years from now all the great work we’re doing could be rendered irrelevant.

You Are What You Wear

Posted in Producer Tools by Rick Culbertson on September 21, 2009

We need to upgrade the professionalism of the front-of-house processes, especially in the 99-seat theaters.  Now, this is certainly not true for all theaters– there are some very well run theater companies out there who don’t need to listen to me. But, unfortunately, LA is also home to some companies/productions/theaters that are sorely lacking when it comes to front of house professionalism.

 Remember, a show doesn’t begin when the performance starts.  It begins when a patron starts looking for parking.  When coming to the theater, a patron will come into contact with some combination of the following: a valet, a box office staff member, a house manager, a concession staff member, and an usher(s)– all before the show begins.  A patron will judge a theater’s professionalism by their interactions with these people.  Since they’ll deal with these people before they see the show, these staff members are, in many ways equally as important as the quality of the show itself.  As a theater company, if you fail a patron before the curtain goes up, you will likely not get them back.  

Here are some areas that I suggest we all address for quality check: 

  • Parking
    • Are our patrons informed about our parking situation when they buy their ticket?
    • If we have valet services, do our valets have enough information to answer a patron’s basic questions?
  • Box Office Process
    • Are our box office processes efficient? (Do we always end up with long lines?)
    • Do we have procedures in place to handle the most common problems so that they can be resolved quickly and professionally?
  • House Management
    • Does our house manager/usher have the ability to get people into the theater quickly and efficiently?
    • Do we open the house between 7:30 and 7:40?
    • Do we start the performance promptly at 8:00? Or at the very least never later than 8:05?
  • Dress Code
    • Do we have a clearly defined dress code for our front of house staff and box office people?  Do they look professional?
  • Late Seating
    • Do we have a clearly defined late seating policy?

 Now I will expand on what I believe to be the most important issues:

First and foremost, every person that deals with patrons should be dressed professionally.  I recommend that at a minimum, we should all be dressed as we were interviewing for a job in an office– or at the very least, wear khaki’s and a polo shirt with our company/theater/production logo on it.  If our house manager and box office personnel don’t dress professionally, then we simply don’t have a professional production.  End of story.

Beyond that, we need to start making an effort to open all of our houses at 7:30 and no later than 7:40.  I know there are emergencies, but it should not be common occurrence to open our house at 7:50.  It’s just not professional.

We need to start our shows on time at 8:00 (and no later than 8:05). I know we always have people who come late, but think about it: more people were on time.  When we hold our house for a late patron, we are basically saying the late patron is more important than all the other patrons who arrived on time.  Let’s make a commitment to starting our shows at 8 PM.

And when we do have late patrons (which we always will since we are starting on time), let’s make sure we have a solid late seating procedure.  Tape off some seats closest to the door so they are available for late patrons.  Hold your late patrons until an appropriate time (I was once late to a musical at a 99-seat theater in LA and I was seated during a song–  not professional).  And while we’re holding our late patrons in the lobby, it’s not a bad idea to have the house manager/usher fill them in on the plot– whatever portion of the show they’ve missed so that when they do sit down, they will understand what’s going on.

These are all very simple things that we can each implement right away.  They cost nothing, and will make our theaters far more professional.  The more companies that operate with a professional looking front of house, the more professional our industry will look.

Maybe, if we had a Producer’s League, we could hash out and agree to some general guidelines that would serve as a minimum… visions of the future.

Rebranding Revisited

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League by Rick Culbertson on September 17, 2009

In my last post I argued that we should embrace Hollywood and market ourselves as the place where you can see working Film and TV actors on the stage, live and up close.  David O (My amazingly talented musical director for Divorce! The Musical) took an exception to my post. 

 Click here for my last post and his comment.  And then read on for my response.

David makes an interesting point.  But, is that all our theater community is?  “Cutting-edge, risk-taking, avant-garde, rock & roll, ethnically diverse, forward-thinking art?” I don’t think so.  I do agree that all of his examples are as he describes, but I certainly don’t think that Divorce! The Musical, Marvelous Wonderettes, Louis & Keely, and Life Could be a Dream are cutting edge shows.  Divorce!, though it offers wholly original music, is definitely not avant-garde. 

And what about this assertion that “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?”  I don’t think this is correct, at least not when describing the community as a whole.  As I said before, I don’t think I have ever seen a play or musical in LA that didn’t have at least one actor with a Film and TV credit.  And LA theater is filled with writers and directors that work in both mediums as well.  We have seen material move from the stage to the screen and from the screen to the stage, countless times.

Let’s face it; artists don’t come to LA because they just want to make a living as a theater artist.  If an atrist’s only goal is to make it in theater and theater only, he/she is not going to eat very well in LA.  Like it or not, LA is Hollywood— both in location and industry.  Just as New York is Broadway.  Hollywood is known for its film and TV industries, just as Broadway is known for theater.  Changing that perception in the minds of the general public is probably not going to happen.

That is why I suggest we embrace our relationship to Hollywood.  After all, Hollywood is very connected in our theater scene.  The Actors Gang is a perfect example: we all know Tim Robbins is this theater’s Artistic Director.  I’m sure he cares a little about film and TV.  Also, the very money that I raised to fund the LA production of Divorce! predominantly came from people who make a living working in Film and TV.  My hope is that by embracing Hollywood, we will raise the profile of LA theater, raise the awareness that we are so interconnected, and stop this argument of superiority. We need to start agreeing that we all want to tell stories– in whatever medium the story needs to be told.

Perhaps most importantly, there is an untapped market of theater audiences in Los Angeles- both local citizens and tourists who don’t still have no idea that we are here, and who don’t understand what we have to offer.  We are perceived as being out-of-work film and TV artists who are only able to do waver theater.  Showing the world that in reality, we are actually working film and TV artists doesn’t play into the stereotype– it changes it.  It changes the perception that Los Angeles offers “community theater quality”  to an understanding that in fact, we offer “professional theater quality.” 

That said, however, what I think David is really addressing is that for him, LA theater is cutting-edge.  For me, it’s something different: its original, small musicals. For a lot of people it’s sketch comedy.  Can Los Angeles theater be all those things?  Yes– and so much more.  Because we are now describing different niches of the L..A theater scene.  We have tons of niches! David lists several.  Add them all up, and we end up with an abundance of new, diverse works of theater that make our community thrive.  It is this abundance and this diversity that “really distinguishes LA Theatre from the rest of the world.” 

What David is suggesting is that we rebrand LA Theater by highlighting a niche. But not all of LA theater is that specific niche.  What I propose, is a re-branding effort targeting the entire theater scene as a whole.  By first rebranding and marketing this collective scene, we can raise the profile of the entire theater community to a much wider, more diverse audience.  WIth my plan, we wont be marketing different companies, shows or niches. By contrast, we will be saying, “instead of going to a movie, go see a play!”  Think of this as being something akin to what the Beef. It’s what’s for dinner campaign did. With this message, they were simply saying: “Don’t buy chicken (or another meat), buy beef.”  They weren’t telling you what brand of beef to buy– just to buy beef.

We need to take a step back and realize that we need a cohesive plan for marketing theater in Los Angeles as a whole. 

We need to raise the awareness of our theater scene, and change the perception about its quality. 

We need to establish a visual presence on billboards and busses, there for all to see– the same way Hollywood’s film industry does when it markets its movies.  

Right now, when I drive down theater row at night, the whole area just looks like empty buildings surrounded by car dealerships (I will write about this unfortunate problem later).  We need to upgrade our look, remind people we are here, and that we stand together as a community. We need to show the general public that L.A. has the best artistic talent in the world.  Most of this talent has come here because of Hollywood, but the gold is in the fact that they also do theater.  Good theater. And some of this Hollywood-driven theater is cutting edge.  Just ask Tim Robins.

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.

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.