Theatre: Less show, more business

What transforms a mere musical into a blockbuster? The star? Perhaps. The score? Possibly. Or is it the hard sell? On Broadway and in the West End more and more shows are nothing but triumphs of marketing. Oh really?
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Cynics are much given to casting a jaundiced eye over the West End and muttering to themselves: "It's all marketing." They're convinced that the long-running success of tourist attractions such as Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera is a triumph of hard sell over substance. Now, these two shows are probably their creators' finest achievements, but the gloom merchants may have certainly touched upon something.

The recently departed head of external affairs at the Royal Opera House, Judy Grahame, has just teamed up with the Saatchi brothers to form a new Arts Marketing operation. Interviews with her have mistakenly suggested that arts organisations need more sophisticated marketing - i.e. M&C Saatchi Arts - to reach their potential audiences. She should take a closer look around her at theatreland. Once upon a time, it was show business: now it's show business.

Unless you are the proprietor of one of the grander hotel chains, you are unlikely to have heard of the Society of the Golden Keys. This all- but-clandestine coterie is made up entirely of concierges who, among other activities, go to West End shows for free. Why? Because they're one of around 15 to 20,000 little-known organisations who are responsible for party bookings. Or, to put it more simply, they put bums on seats.

These group sales organisations range from individuals running local amateur drama societies to major company social secretaries and bus and coach operators to international tour bookers, all of whom book on behalf of members or clients. And whether they are multinational or strictly minor-league, they are all wooed by producers as part of the group sales initiative.

Although the figure is lower in this country, group sales on a hit show in the US, such as Disney's stupendously successful The Lion King, can account for between 25 and 35 per cent of capacity. That's a helluva lot of tickets, all of which are paid for well in advance, which is great news for investors who anxiously await pay back, let alone profit. With production costs spiralling into knee-weakening, double-figure millions for a Broadway blockbuster, such considerations are crucial, particularly in the run-up to opening when producers need as big an advance as possible to bankroll the initial run. This is the most difficult period to sell, as there is no word of mouth and the only enticement is often the name of the star or, in the case of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer - his name alone generates box-office revenue.

However, the longer a show runs, the more significant group sales become. Ticket availability is divided up into separate date periods: "Now Booking until April" (or whenever). Within each period, wily producers aim to pre-sell entire swathes of tickets to agencies and groups before the general public even gets a look in. Pre-sell a healthy percentage and you not only make money faster, but you also create pressure on the remaining tickets. This means that they tend to move faster, to the point where a show is generating its own hype by being permanently sold out. However, such "Returns Only" announcements are sometimes only partly true: dedicated audiences can often find seats via agencies who have been unable to shift their pre-bought tickets.

All of which suggests that large-scale successes - especially musicals - don't survive through quality and word of mouth alone. Indeed, the days of seats being sold simply by theatregoers reading reviews and trotting round to the box office of their own accord are long gone. Cameron Mackintosh, the Really Useful Group, and nearly all the other major players, rely upon a dizzying array of little-known marketing initiatives that can yield spectacular box-office returns.

Some producers, notably Robert Fox or Michael Codron, who specialise in quality productions of straight theatre - transfers from the National and/or plays by solid writers such as Ayckbourn - have little time for much of this, but everyone else relies on an entire infrastructure of agencies, group sales, and theatre publicity firms. And all of these are reliant upon advertising.

Theatre advertising amounts to a promise which the show must deliver on. Chicago does this in spades on the back of one the most striking campaigns in recent history. The startlingly sexual imagery - photography by Max Zadukul - had already gone down a storm in its Broadway incarnation. But the most daring thing about the campaign on both sides of the Atlantic was the deliberate eschewal of the accepted practice of splashing adjectives in huge type across pictures of the stars, and generally hyping the production to the sky. The Chicago campaign looked more like a succession of Calvin Klein spreads displayed everywhere in a nine week blitz leading up to opening night. The only thing that told you it was a show were the words, "Chicago, The Drop Dead Musical", splashed across the ads in murderous blood red.

No one will admit to the size of the weekly running costs, but with a wage bill for 15 musicians and a cast of 26, including star names commanding four-figure weekly salaries, the word "steep" just about covers it. Nevertheless, the campaign worked. (The Broadway production recouped its investment in record time: a jaw-dropping 21 weeks.)

The six-month London campaign began in May 1997, but it didn't really get going until the now fabled industry launch in July at the Prince of Wales Theatre. In an unprecedented move, the producers, Fran and Barry Weissler, invited ticket agencies, advertisers, group bookers and selected members of the press to the theatre one lunchtime and proceeded to show a video of the New York production. The already charged atmosphere exploded when the entire New York cast burst through the screen and performed half a dozen of the show's numbers live on stage. It cost more than pounds 50,000 to fly the company over (and back on time to perform the next day), but it jump-started the campaign with a vengeance.

Crispin Ollington, formerly of Dewynters, the advertising/marketing company who control the London campaign - now working directly for the Weisslers - believes that although the presentation didn't immediately yield a lot of return, it instilled enormous confidence in ticket agents, who are crucial to the equation. "In the USA, there are no ticket agencies of consequence," he explains. "Here, agencies can be responsible for up to 50 per cent of sales." He points to the fact that, like Cameron Mackintosh (whose organisation is very good at this), the Weisslers had the courage of their convictions - they knew they had a winner after all - and looked after their group bookers and sales agents with extraordinary care, which is not always the case. "If agents feel resentful, they are not going to sell the show," Ollington points out. He is firmly of the opinion that audiences are not fools, but concedes that the hype can certainly add to a show's momentum.

That view is shared by Nick Blackburn of Ticketmaster, the country's largest ticket agency. They work on a commission basis - negotiated separately on every production - with costs passed on to the buyers at a rate (in this instance) of pounds 1 per ticket. A worldwide operation with 24-hour computerised box offices, Ticketmaster helps market shows via media partners such as Tower Records and HMV, plus direct mailing: their own priority booking club has 42,000 members alone. He admits that on Chicago, the buzz from the advertising campaign was so strong that the impetus for bookers was already there. He thinks the real push will come later in the run, and cites Mackintosh as someone who is particularly hot on the ability to build audiences through years two, three, and beyond. "Even with a smash hit, you have to keep that as the public perception. The job is to keep it up there."

Thus, in tandem with Dewynters, Chicago will continue to spend on advertising, direct mailings, entertaining bookers, promotional evenings, print distribution, new posters, leaflets, classified advertising, display advertising, and radio and sales promotions. No one is prepared to divulge precise figures, but Ollington admits that anyone with dreams of blockbuster West End musical success had better think of spending around pounds 500,000.

Even the most cynical marketeer will tell you that you cannot market your way out of a disaster. If a show is terrible, word gets out and you might as well pack up and go home. But add careful marketing to good material, and you have a recipe for serious success.

But it's not a blueprint. If a show is playing to 20 per cent business, there is little that you can do to save it. But with a potential winner hovering around the 60/70 per cent mark, marketing can make a serious difference. And in the commercial theatre, the difference between loss and profit is all the difference in the world.