Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Lure of Star Power

I just finished reading's Top Theatre Stories of the Year. The leading story discusses how stars sell tickets, and in a year with a down economy, it seems that the only thing that sells tickets are the stars. From this little story it seems clear that if you don't have an A-list star in your show, don't even try a Broadway transfer.

Arena Stage in the past few seasons has been lucky enough to host a few stars, most notably Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking and Valerie Harper in Looped (and not surprisingly, both productions found their way to Broadway). From a marketing perspective, nothing makes my job easier than a star, particularly stars that are lovely to work with as both Carrie and Valerie were. But let's be honest, it doesn't take a marketing genius to sell tickets to star powered vehicles. And it isn't just New York that has a taste for the stars. The Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Kennedy Center just presented two star productions that sold out immediately: Phedre with Helen Mirren and A Streetcar Named Desire with Cate Blanchett. It used to be that New York and Los Angeles were the cities that needed stars to sell, but it looks like DC might be going that way as well. Or maybe the entire country.

But there are problems with stars as well:

1. Star productions are a gamble, especially for regional theaters. Most Broadway productions can guarantee stars, but regional theaters for the most part cannot. Regional theaters tend to announce productions and casts several months before a show opens in time to sell subscriptions and advanced single tickets. However, during the time between the announcement and the opening, a star can get a better offer from a Broadway production, television series or movie which will lead them to pull out of the regional production, leaving audiences with an expectation that theaters can no longer fill.

2. Most times even with a guaranteed star appearance, run lengths have to be shortened as the schedules of most stars won't allow them to appear for a run length of several weeks, meaning that these productions will more than likely be off subscription. To capitalize on the star production, many theaters use them to boost subscription sales by only allowing subscribers to purchase the very limited quantity of single tickets to the star show. However, often times, patrons will purchase the cheapest subscription package available only for the opportunity to purchase the star production, and then won't attend the rest of the subscription shows leaving theaters with half empty audiences throughout the season.

3. Are regional theaters building an appetite for something they cannot always feed? If theaters have a couple of successful years of bringing in stars for productions, what happens when they can't find a star production for a year or two? In essence, they have built an event based audience that they can't always feed. And in this case, these types of patrons aren't loyal to the company, they are loyal to productions that feature stars. They are the most fickle of any audience segment. The first time you don't deliver, they will move on to somebody that is.

4. Are regional theaters teaching hoards of future patrons that only star vehicles deserve their patronage by filling their programming with stars if and when they get them? Or even a larger concern for me, what about those companies that regularly program poorly conceived productions that showcase a star over a brilliantly produced production without a star? The Playbill article focuses on this issue, citing several poorly reviewed, star centric productions on Broadway that financially recouped along with numerous well reviewed productions that lacked stars which struggled from day one.

There is no doubt about it--a star production can be fun. Your audiences will love them, you will sell plenty of tickets, and they will bring national attention to your part of the world. However, like anything else, maybe some moderation is in order?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Make sure you keep one foot in both courts

Sometimes at the conclusion of a speech that I am giving, I have someone from the crowd come up to me and thank me for all the great information, exclaiming that they are going to end their direct mail campaigns in order to shift resources to technology based viral marketing campaigns. At that moment, I usually cringe and apologize, for I definitely communicated something that I didn’t intend to. For those that read this blog, you know by now that I am a proponent of using technology to grow audiences, building communities and diversify revenue streams. That being said, most major arts organizations find themselves with a foot in two different courts—how to please the audiences of tomorrow, and still serve the audiences of today.

We sometimes forget that there are four generations in play in our audiences: the Silent Generation, the Baby-Boomers, Generation X and the Millenials. Many books have been written, white papers drafted and speeches given (including by yours truly) on how to effectively target Generation X and Millenials as they are the future for arts organizations. However in doing so, some rabid believers have advocated throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Allocating all of your resources at any one of these groups, unless you have programming that only speaks to a certain generation, is foolish, certainly as foolish as not diversifying your stock portfolio.

Let’s take a look at subscriptions. Most arts marketing professionals agree that the subscription model is dated, and is dying a slow death. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should pull the plug on them today when they still probably have a good decade left in them. Several performing arts organizations still receive a major portion of their earned revenue via subscription sales, and although Danny Newman might have published his treatise decades ago, his point that subscriptions protect a company from poor reviews and the fickle buying habits of single ticket buyers is still spot on. At every performing arts organization that I have worked for, I noticed a declining subscription base, and within two years with strategic changes have stopped the decline and started increasing the number of subscribers. I don’t say this to seem like a miracle worker (for which I am not), but it does make me wonder how much marketing directors are directly responsible for declining subscribers.

I am starting to believe that the decline of subscriptions might be in part a self-fulfilling prophesy. If a marketing director fully believed that subscriptions were dying, and that nothing could be done to affect declining subscription numbers, then he might be inclined to focus his limited resources on addressing the needs of his “future audience,” thereby ensuring the decline he was forecasting.

We know from surveys that subscribers tend to be older, and more than likely are part of the Baby-Boomer or Silent Generation. We also know that these generations have been purchasing tickets in this manner for years, are usually more comfortable with transaction conducted over the phone or via mail, and therefore respond better to some classic direct marketing techniques such as direct mail or telemarketing. However if you are underfunding direct marketing in order to fund other priorities (such as online marketing), then the decline in your subscription base might be caused by poor strategic marketing decisions.

When creating a holistic marketing campaign, a wise marketing director should always keep in mind that we are serving multiple masters—each master having a different set of expectations and desires. The key for all marketing professionals is putting the right offer in front of the right people using a communications vehicle that gives the message the highest possibility of success.