Timing is everything on Broadway, and with and with the new season kicking off, it’s an opportune moment to check in on marketing practices on the Great White Way. The talk of the theater world this spring has been Fish in the Dark, the Broadway debut of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. The play broke advance sales records to the tune of $13 million, providing further support for the notion that star power goes a long way in selling theater tickets.
Stars bring built-in audiences with them, making their presence alone an effective marketing tool for producers. Indeed, a glance at Broadway’s current lineup confirms that many productions are adopting the tactic of staging productions that have already established their appeal, whether in the form of bankable stars (Larry David, for instance, or Helen Mirren in The Audience), or popular source material such as novels (Wolf Hall and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) or Disney movies (Aladdin).
That doesn’t mean marketers on Broadway can’t get as creative as a playwright. Theaters and credit card companies like American Express and Visa have worked together to offer exclusive access to pre-sale tickets and other theater perks for card holders. And the brave producers of original material are getting increasing sophisticated in their use of YouTube to build interest by showing off rehearsals or, in the case of Something Rotten, comedic videos of its stars.
The Way I See It
- In the age of social media (and tightening newspaper budgets), the lone voice of the theater critic is not the all-powerful influence that it once was. Effective marketing and fan engagement can benefit productions, such as the Addam’s Family, that had managed to succeed despite lukewarm critical reception.
- When I look at Broadway today, I see a healthy mix of “tent-pole” productions such as The Lion King and “prestige” productions like Skyfall, the much-anticipated play by David Hare. It’s a positive sign to see Broadway confident in its ability to market to broad-based audiences as well as the slightly more niche audience for highly artistic fare.
- While plays and musicals can benefit from the presence of stars, the reverse is equally true. Stars gain credibility by testing their chops on (and off) Broadway; similarly, aspiring celebrity business moguls can gain respect by backing theater productions. Jay Z and Will Smith helped produce the multiple-Tony-winning Fela!, and that’s a trend I see continuing.
The Way the Industry Sees It
What is the biggest business challenge that Broadway productions are facing today?
The costs to produce a show continue to grow at a pace that is faster than the price of the ticket. We have a most discriminating group of theatregoers who expect the very best, and deserve it. To keep up with the costs of technology, for example, creates a real challenge. In addition, the “traditions” of Broadway are very meaningful to our industry. To keep up with the social media world where every moment is documented, we are continually looking for ways to bridge the gaps.
Broadway, of course, has a very specific geographic location. How do you address the challenge of engaging fans outside New York, and drawing them in to see a show?
The Tony Awards are the beginning of a conversation with the national audience of Broadway. Talk about biggest challenges – unless a show has a brand that is familiar, our members across the country, as well as the producers and marketers in NYC, use an enormous amount of creative genius to create visibility for their shows. Our annual surveys continue to show that word-of-mouth is the most important sales tool for a show developing an audience. It is often difficult to keep the show running while word spreads. That said, this past season 70% of our theatregoers in NYC were from outside the tri state area, so the information is reaching them. An interesting thing we learned this year is that 82 percent of the theatregoers who attend Touring Broadway shows see a Broadway show when they come to NYC, so our road members are doing a great job of spreading the word of what’s happening on Broadway. The Tony Awards also do a great job of showcasing the shows on Broadway!
How important are corporate sponsorships to Broadway titles, and how have advertising practices changed over recent years on Broadway?
There was a time when corporate sponsorships were prevalent with specific Broadway shows but it is less the case today. While some shows create these partnerships, (like Motown the Musical did with General Motors), it is not as prevalent. Today advertising is far more diverse than it was prior to the rise in internet. While television ads and print advertising still are a strong component of many ad plans, the social media components have grown dramatically. Targeted direct mail and email promotions are the commonplace way of attracting large groups of people, but they are far more targeted than they were even 10 years ago.
Kids’ Night on Broadway is an event that lets kids in free when accompanied by a full-paying adult. What other ways are theaters trying to connect with youth?
Most shows that consider their show an appropriate show for a youthful audience develop specific promotions and advertising plans for their show. Whether they be through educational programs (study guides, talk backs with the audience after the show, group sales promotions) or through special offers, they develop plans to introduce their show to the appropriate markets. As an industry, the Broadway League has a number of initiatives targeting the youth markets including Family First Nights and as mentioned, Kids’ Night on Broadway.
What’s the most interesting thing in your office?
Depends on what you mean……if it’s an item, it’s our 1968 Tony Awards Al Hirschfeld print which includes Audrey Hepburn, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Helen Hayes, Maurice Chevalier, Pearl Bailey, Angela Lansbury …to name a few … and autographed by them! If it’s what’s happening at the League, our conference rooms are full of our members addressing everything from labor relations to what’s happening for the 2015 Tony Awards. We have an engaged membership with over 50% of the members who are involved in a committee or task force at the League. Our Times Square Board Room has walls of vintage photos of Times Square from the last 100 years!