Why does ‘The Stage’ continue to report the ever growing profits in West End Theatres as a good news story? Their latest report on West End revenues has the headline ‘West End stays on course for £500m box office hat-trick’ and begins with the proclamation that ‘London’s Theatreland looks set to break the £500 million mark for the third year in a row, with revenues during the summer up 5.6% on the same period in 2010’. Only later in the article do we find out that yet again audience figures are down. Yippee, West End Theatres are squeezing ever more cash out of fewer people for the same shows. The tendency for some producers to prefer to sell fewer tickets at a higher price rather than offer discounts has been commented on following news that ‘Betty Blue Eyes’ was playing to half empty houses while continuing to demand inflated prices for tickets. It’s as though the old adage ‘get bums on seats’ has changed to ‘find ways to make easy money so you don’t have to get bums on seats’. Theatre just becomes a ‘front’ for other more profitable activities. We are inclined to agree with Mark Shenton, who recently commented on his blog that it’s as though the commercial theatres have decided that they might as well go all out to make money.
The only ‘efforts’ and ‘achievements’ we seem to hear about are to do with activities other than producing quality theatre. In September, The Stage devoted a considerable amount of coverage to the Ambassadors Theatre Group’s exciting new ticketing system, that will allow them to adopt ‘fully dynamic models of pricing’. The justification? Well, as explained by Alistair Smith it’s a model that’s “already been fully embraced by other industries such as airlines”. Never mind that airlines tend to offer the reverse model, rewarding advance booking with lower prices, or that there are many reasons why the travel industry is not the same as the theatre industry. It seems that if you can find someone else doing the same thing, however immoral and hated those industries might be (Ryanair, anyone?) that makes it OK. As ATG’s Simon Palethorpe put it in The Stage (6th Oct 2011): “If you go back even five years ago, companies like ATG and the Really Useful Group would have considered ticketing to be more a function within the business. Now they’re seeing it as a business within a business”. Yes, huge amounts of time and money being invested in the enterprise of getting theatre-goers to pay more for the same product. In the Stage 15th Sept 2011 issue, we hear that ATG’s new system will allow for ‘targeted marketing’ and flexible pricing, which includes being able to offer ‘prices and offers targeted at specific customers with specific attendance histories’. So, if you get stiffed once, you can expect a series of emails encouraging you to do it again.
Not content with blatantly squeezing every last penny out of the theatre-goer, the greed for extra ‘revenue’ goes on. In another astonishing article in The Stage, Alistair Smith refers to a ‘heartening report’ that ATG will begin to screen adverts for Gordon’s Gin prior to performances. The quote from Pearl and Dean runs “Working with ATG (Europe’s largest Theatre group) presents a fantastic opportunity for Pearl & Dean to significantly expand our offering outside of our traditional cinema core. The Gordon’s campaign provides a unique opportunity for a blue chip brand to talk to two complimentary audiences in a fun and engaging manner.” What are they ‘offering’ exactly? You’d think this was a charitable enterprise. Nowhere do we sense that the revenue from such advertising will find its way back into the pockets of theatre-goers, or employees. The sealing of deals seems to have become an end in itself, something to be celebrated. But what is there to celebrate about audiences having to sit through adverts for a product that has nothing to do with theatre. Of course, they are just copying cinemas, but we can’t remember the last time we were expected to pay £25 – £95 for a ticket to the movies. Perhaps they’ll project up a sign saying ‘there’s still time to get your Gordon’s at the bar before the show’.
Then we have the suggestion that theatres will show ‘cinema-style trailers’ before the show. Who could object to that? As Alistair Smith says, ‘it’s a no-brainer’. Of course, theatres will want to advertise in whatever medium they can – we are used to posters on buses, email marketing, tweets and video clips. But to suggest that a video trailer is on a par with cinema trailers is misguided. Have a look at this trailer for ‘Death and the Maiden’:
Does it tell you whether Thandie Newton can act? Not really. As Mark Shenton pointed out when blogging about the play and the poor reviews it has received, on stage there is nowhere to hide. In a video trailer it is very easy to disguise any flaws in the production. Here we have a series of tableaux of Thandie Newton looking like a model, with a voiceover that merely explains the plot. We reckon they used the same Director who did this:
Using TV and video to encourage theatre-going is not exactly new, when we consider TV casting shows, but they share the same flaw. A personality who might come across as engaging on TV, thanks not just to performances but all the ‘human interest’ that goes on around them, has no guarantee of being able to deliver once they get on stage.
As we’ve found in other industries, once you go down the route of prioritising profit over everything else, it’s very hard to stop. But we have some suggestions, inspired by the best customer cons from other industries:
* Start selling seats in a chequerboard pattern so that you can justify adding a surcharge for groups who wish to sit together.
* Introduce a toilet congestion charge, say £1 per visit. Claim that you had no choice but to introduce this due to congestion in the toilets but that the funds could go to new toilets.
* Close ‘in person’ box offices, except for last minute sales, but be sure to charge extra for this ‘service’. Make people print their own tickets – if they ‘forget’ they can always use a handy self-service booth at the theatre – for a small charge.
* Sell pop-corn – the mark-up is at least 400% and you will also have a new term to describe low-quality, mindless theatre, ie, ‘popcorn theatre’.
* Product placement – Dr Pepper would be particularly good for Greek tragedies such as Oedipus…..what’s the worst that could happen?