Archive for Theatre

My 2012 review

Posted in Society, Theatre, Ticketing with tags , , on December 30, 2012 by richardhowle

Everywhere we look there are reviews of the year. So why not join them?

How will history reflect on 2012? Will it be a year to remember in twenty years time. How often do we reflect on 1992?

Well, of course, the outstanding feature of 2012 – the one that will mark it as a year to remember- is the Olympics. As everyone else is devoting hours of airtime and thousands of words to it I will keep my thoughts here brief and simply say that I thought it was terrific. It lived up to all my expectations and then some, proving all the doubters wrong. I was always a great supporter and had faith in our ability to deliver a great games – witness my blog post on 16 October 2010 here.
What I was particularly thrilled about, was the complete conversion of the doom- mongers and nay-sayers who ended up being some the biggest fans of the games (including my partner Paul). One of my favourite moments of the year was in the Olympic stadium as Mo Farrah picked up his second gold of the games in the 5,000 final and the whole place going ballistic. Paul and I hugged with tears streaming down our cheeks. As it died down the man next to Paul said “it’s great isn’t it?” and Paul responded through the tears with “yes, and I don’t even like sport”!

Professionally the Olympics provided some unique challenges in 2012. There is normally a pattern and flow to ticket sales in the West End based upon which we build our marketing and advertising campaigns – but this year the text books were thrown out of the window and we had to be creative and flexible in order to sell tickets in a challenging market. After a strong first quarter, sales fell away, particularly over what is normally the strongest time of the year, the summer and we had to work really hard to get sales. A good final autumn has given an early indication as to what we might expect for 2013 and has helped boost the overall numbers. When the final numbers for London theatre attendance in 2012 are released I expect them to be up on last year and there will be much comment about how the Olympics wasn’t as bad for theatre as everyone said. But closer inspection of the numbers will reveal that this was only achieved by more promotion and discounting as well as a lot of effort. One thing that is guaranteed is that those of us whose job it is to sell London theatre, to drive admissions won’t get any of the praise or plaudits for delivering against the odds. But I know how much work, imagination and passion it took to achieve those numbers. So from a professional point of view 2012 has been a tough, challenging, but rewarding year and I am very proud to work alongside some incredibly talented people.

Politically and socially 2012 has seen a continued move towards society being driven by moral outrage and panic. The scandals have been endless.This is led by a seemingly righteous media, but is in reality about selling newspapers. No institution or organisation is safe and every fault or failing is endlessly picked over until someone or something breaks or another, juicier story is found. The problem with this is that it hides the real issues of our time, the ones that have no right or wrong answers, but have a more profound effect on our society than what a cyclist in Downing Street did or didn’t say to a policeman. What about the recession, the plight or the poor, investment in enterprise, immigration, falling education standards, disenfranchised youth, our role in Europe the fate of Syria etc etc?

And finally personally, it has been another good year. The 30’s are a good decade, a time when you finally become confident and comfortable of who you are. This allows you to take on and succeed with new challenges – for me that meant producing my first play. Green Forms at the Tabard Theatre was a sell out,raised over £10,500 for cancer charity, Maggie’s and was a personal triumph for me, giving me a self belief and confidence that perhaps I didn’t have before. It also gave me the opportunity to work on a project with Paul whose vision and talent made the project an artistic success as well as financial one. It was great teamwork that helped strengthen our personal partnership. Last week we celebrated the 16th year of that partnership, a year that added many more happy memories to our life together from producing plays, happy holidays and watching the Olympics.

2012 has been a really good year and there is much to be thankful for. I hope 2013 proves to be just as fruitful.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year

The reality of pricing theatre tickets

Posted in Theatre, Ticketing with tags , , , on September 4, 2012 by richardhowle

Making the headlines yesterday was the announcement of the new season at the Donmar Warehouse and the introduction of a new ticketing initiative.

Concerned that the Donmar’s reputation for being always sold out meant that people wouldn’t even try to book tickets and the effect that that was having on audience development, they have devised a scheme whereby tickets will be made available at £10 for every performance.

Not a new concept, the upcoming Grandage season at the Noel Coward theatre made headlines recently with a similar pricing initiative. The difference at the Donmar is that those tickets will only be made available for sale two weeks before the performance, thus helping to quell the myth that it is impossible to get a ticket at the Donmar without booking months in advance.

It is a great initiative that helps kill two birds with one stone, (of course it is much easier for the subsidised and small Donmar to do this than it is for other venues) and they should be applauded for making the hard decisions and being innovative.

This does, however, cause a problem for the commercial sector, because by offering tickets at £10 it establishes a market price that it is completely unsustainable. For the theatre going public that don’t distinguish between the subsidised and commercial sectors it misleads them into thinking that all venues / productions should be priced similarly and that those that aren’t are profiteering. But look at the Grandage season, I hear you cry, that is a commercial venture offering £10 tickets – but that was a classic case of smoke and mirrors. The cheap price that stole all the headlines allowed them to post some of the highest ticket prices for plays in the West End virtually unnoticed.

Producing commercial theatre is an expensive business, the hiring of the theatre, the cost of cast, production staff, equipment hire, licensing, royalties, advertising and marketing all add up. The amount of money it costs just to open the doors each week can be staggering – before you even begin to recoup the cost of mounting the production, let alone making a profit .

Let’s think about the maths.

A top musical in the West End can have weekly running costs of around £250,000 (yes a quarter of a million pounds a week, just to break even). Let’s imagine it is playing in a 1,500 seat theatre at 70% capacity (this is the average across all SOLT theatres over a year). That means the production is selling 8,400 seats per week. Divide the running costs by the number of tickets sold and you can see that, in order to break even, the production has to sell each ticket at an average net ticket price of £29.76 each. And remember that is a net price. Adding in VAT and the various ticketing and credit card charges produces a gross average price to the public of nearly £40. Just to break even.

It is disingenuous when commentators deride theatre producers for being greedy, for cynically squeezing out future audiences by expensive pricing, because all the producers I know and work with spend a lot of time agonising over ticket prices and ensuring that they are affordable. Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that they are all altruistic (although many are), they are working in a commercial world and want to price their product to sell.

Which is why for an average musical you will find 30-40% of tickets priced at below a break even price. There is a real recognition of the expense of theatre tickets, the need to make their product attractive and the need to not price themselves out of the market.

In addition there are group rates, school rates, senior rates, day seats etc – many of which are priced at below break even price – but are done so to make the show more accessible to a wider audience.

The flip side to this is that in order to subsidise these lower rates the top prices are expensive and unfortunately it is these prices that grab the headlines.

Top class commercial theatre is expensive to produce, but it doesn’t have to be expensive to watch, the discerning theatre goer can sit in great seats at reasonable prices for any production
if they can be flexible about when they go or if they can gather a few friends to make up a group.

It is brilliant that the Donmar have done what they have done, I think that producing high quality drama and presenting it at accessible pricing is exactly what subsidised theatre should be doing. But let’s remember that in the commercial world, theatre producers have to play by a totally different set of rules.