Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ups And Downs Of Broadway

The Ups And Downs Of Broadway

As those of you who follow my tweets on Twitter know, I follow Broadway box office totals the way sports fans follow the scores. I like knowing what's up and what's down, the shows that are making the most gains, as well as those teetering on the edge of closing notices.

Fortunately, I supplement watching those box office totals by reading some exceptional blogs, including theatre impresario Ken Davenport's The Producer's Perspective.

Yesterday, like the professional he is, he took note of the bottom line earnings for the second quarter of the current Broadway season. He crunched the numbers and found that year-over-year gross sales were up 5.9% over last year to $242,217,564 for a grand total of $500,376.907 to date for the entire season.

Not too bad, considering the awful economy, right?

Well, bubbling beneath those numbers is a much more ominous trend: fewer theatregoers.

Davenport forthrightly acknowledges that overall attendance is down to 5,806,155 -- a year-over-year loss of 319,717 from last year's 6,125,872. That's a 5.2% loss of warm bodies and the proverbial "butts in seats."

What's going on here?

For starters, plays like God Of Carnage and A Steady Rain have attracted audiences who might not have otherwise come to Broadway thanks to their powerful star wattage. Many in those audiences have been willing to pay a premium for their tickets, thus helping escalate the overall box office earnings (it should be noted here that God Of Carnage saw its fortunes dim considerably last week when a replacement cast took over from the original; on the other hand, A Steady Rain remained Broadway's toughest ticket last week with an average ticket price of $135.44).

Second, popular musicals including Wicked (average ticket: $107.17), Billy Elliot (average ticket: $120.46), The Lion King (average ticket: $102.37 ), Jersey Boys (average ticket: $117.03), South Pacific (average ticket: $100.07 ) and to a lesser extent Mamma Mia! (average ticket: $83.05 ), The Phantom Of The Opera (average ticket: $77.93) and West Side Story (average ticket: $93.46), have succeeded in drawing crowds no matter what. Think of them as mini-New York City tourist attractions unto themselves. It's no wonder that among that first tier, those shows regularly boast weekly grosses of over $1 million each.

I give enormous credit to Davenport for laying out the numbers, but as he and other producers seek ways to build audiences, there's a solution that may be almost too novel for them to consider: reducing the price of tickets.

Earlier this fall, it was announced that the government's cost-of-living adjustments or COLA is not scheduled to increase for the first time since they began providing them in 1975. That's because in addition to being in a severe recession, the United States has entered a deflationary period in which overall prices have decreased by 1.5% year-over-year, as of September.

Not only does that mean Social Security recipients won't receive any additional dollars in 2010 (retirees are a core Broadway constituency), but it also portends negatively for millions of Americans whose employers figure they don't have to provide any pay increases, if they're not already contemplating reductions in pay.

All this seems to have been lost on Broadway, which has largely been oblivious to the economic pain everywhere around it. Broadway is increasingly being viewed as a luxury, something for the elites, rather than an art form to be enjoyed by the masses.

As I've said before, we can lament all we want about the declining butts in seats, but until ticket prices come back down to earth (or even hold steady), it's likely that the overall grosses will decline along with the audience numbers.

Is Broadway bold enough to respond appropriately?

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 25 November, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


If only it were that easy. All but 3 or 4 shows on Broadway have cheap tickets which fans take advantage of through e-mails, direct mail, TDF membership, online price codes, TKTS booth, etc. If someone doesn't want to see a show, cost is not the main problem! Broadway is primarily a tourist industry -- the top reason given for coming to visit NYC. Broadway producers service the locals with endless discount offers and promotions. Getting an audience to Broadway is about the desire to commit to going to attending theatre in competition with so many more convenient, and yes, cheaper forms of entertainment. Apart from not being viable, simply reducing ticket prices across the board might increase attendence slightly, but won't generate enough to pay the running costs.

At 25 November, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Anonymous. You are correct that there are any number of ways for audience members to receive discounts.

I also agree completely with your assertion that, "Getting an audience to Broadway is about the desire to commit to going to attending theatre in competition with so many more convenient, and yes, cheaper forms of entertainment."

But if Broadway truly is "primarily a tourist industry," then it is in huge trouble as New York City is already increasingly viewed by too many Americans as too pricey for the wallet. High ticket prices only exacerbate that fact. That is compounded by resentment when tourists in the audience begin comparing ticket prices just as they do for what they've paid in airline tickets. I've seen it occur repeatedly.

What I'm advocating is reducing the top rate being charged or at least holding the line. The rest of the country has tightened its belt. I believe Broadway can and should do the same otherwise it will be chasing any ever-shrinking audience.


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