Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dr. Hall's Prognosis

Don R. Hall, "An Angry White Guy In Chicago," posts some hard truths about the business of producing theatre. In it, he writes:

Anyone with a fucking brain can see that the art of live theater is hurting - bleeding profusely from the colon and spleen, arthritically climbing those stage door steps for one more performance to an empty house. The 'business' is kicking the crap out of the 'show.'


Emphasis his.

Despite the gloom and doom, he does offer some suggestions for mitigating the bleeding (he cites options within the realms of real estate, marketing and education).

Check it out.

The sad, hard fact of life is that theatre has - and always will have - a limited audience. I've mentioned this many, many times in Jamespeak, but I do think it bears repeating.

One reason for this is distribution. Anyone anywhere over the world has access to a television show or movie. If you miss it when it airs or screens, there are reruns, the Internet, TiVo and DVDs (renting an episode of The Wire is no less an experience than watching said episode on HBO and with the MPAA continuing to gut and neuter the film industry, it's sometimes a better experience to rent a disc of a film rather than see it in its theatrical release). Although plays can be read and remounted, you can only see a certain production for a finite period of time and if you happen to be in the region it's being staged (Dorothy Lemoult and I recently lamented that we're unable to see one another's work, since we're on opposite ends of the continent).

A play being shown in a 200-seat house running five shows a week for six weeks can only receive an audience of 6,000 people. There are more people in the tri-state area watching an episode of Access Hollywood in one night.

Another reason for this is due to the entrenched hegemony that electronic media has over the culture (with no signs of slowing down) and the surplus of options for spending one's free time. As Mac Rogers pointed out in our online dialogue last year, we're writing for an "overserved" market (i.e., people who see their lives reflected in many forms of media, theatre included).

I'm not bringing this up to be despairing. I just think we have to be very realistic when considering our options for marketing and audience development. The relative number of people in the population that regularly goes to see theatre as an option for spending their free time is quite small and always will be.

One thing Mr. Hall doesn't bring up (again, this may tread into the realm of the excruciatingly obvious but when I hear about Off-off-Broadway theatre companies getting into $30,000 - $70,000 in debt after one show I guess bears repeating) is that theatre companies should try to stage within their means, and I mean Well. Within. Their means.

I think one of the reasons why Nosedive has lasted for as long as it has is that it's never staged a show to date that's hit - or even come close to hitting - the $10,000 budget mark. We've never had to, even with rents for theatre spaces in the Rotten Apple skyrocketing every few months. (Let's face it: since we don't received grants, Nosedive Productions is pretty gosh darned penny-pinching.) As a result, although we're not "making money" by any stretch of the imagination, we're not encumbered by debt.

This is a big advantage that theatre has over film: you don't have to take out a second mortgage on your home to stage a play the way you often would to make a movie.

When staging an Off-off show (i.e., a show that doesn't have an open-ended run), you simply know what the cap to your income is going to be. Your house has x number of seats and you are performing for y nights and charging $15 - $18. X times y times 15 or 18 (depending on the ticket price) equals N, which is the most income you can hope for. Except you're not going to get N from ticket sales. Considering you can't realistically expect to sell out each night (you're going to have to offer some comp tickets here and there), it would serve you well to make your budget substantially lower than N.

This may mitigate the debt your company acquires and alleviate the "Sky Is Falling" syndrome. At the very least, you know just how much money you're going to lose at any given point in the run and won't wind up being $70,000 in debt.

You could also do well - hell, we all could do well - in reading and considering Mr. Hall's suggestions.

Ruthless penny-pincher,

James "Scrooge" Comtois

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8 Comments:

Anonymous Ian W. Hill said...

Heck, don't do a show unless you're prepared to lose every single dime you put in it and not be disappointed.

I've never been able to produce a show for any more than $2,000, tops (that was just one show -- over 40 of the 50 shows I've done cost less than $400, and a handful cost $400-$1,200). I've made a profit on about 5 or 6 shows (not much, but I didn't lose money) and made back about 80-90% of the cost on all the others. Of course, I've never once had to pay for theatre space either (the killer part, financially), but making situations like that is part of producing efficiently - find the spaces/festivals that you can work with on your budget.

As you note, it's easy to keep going if you learn how to do it on next to nothing.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Wow, Ian! The cheapest actual production Nosedive has ever staged (not counting the fundraiser shows) was around $2,500. I'm very impressed you've managed to stage work for $400. No wonder you're one of the heavyweights of the downtown/indie theatre scene in New York.

Of the 12 productions Nosedive has mounted, six have made a minor profit (i.e., made back more in ticket sales than we put in), three have made back about 80-90% of their costs back and three have been in the "We Damn Near Lost Our Shirts" category.

Even those three in the WDNLOS we knew before opening weekend that they would be in that category, so they weren't as devastating.

(One of the perks of self-producing is you always know where you stand financially: you know how much money you've put into it, you know how many people are coming on any given weekend because you can see the reservation and prepaid ticket sales lists and you know how much you can expect to see in ticket sales based on the aforementioned N).

You're right; knowing how to stage your work very, very cheaply and figuring out the bare minimum of what's required for conveying your ideas on the stage will serve you quite well in the long-term.

3:50 PM  
Blogger YS said...

Now that I think of it, many of my productions would have been in the 400-1000 dollar range if I didn't have to pay for space. That's a great deal ,Ian.

I agree James. I always start from the standpoint that I am not going to make a cent. I work on the idea that nobody is going to come. I always think the following: Every cent I put into the project will not be returned.

Also, if you don't have the cash in the bank, you can't afford it. By this I mean, if there is some set piece, or multimedia upgrade, or even a specific venue you want, and you do not have the cash to pay for it, then don't even begin to think the dangerous thoughts that enter the theatre producer's mind: "Oh, well after the first week, when we have sell out houses, I will have the cash to pay for it."

If you need something and you don't have the cash, try to find somebody to donate that something. If you can't find somebody to donate that thing, find somebody to donate the cash that it will take to buy that thing. Always remember, credit card companies are not "donating" to you. Donors understand that they are giving something without expecting the money in return. AMEX WILL expect the money in 30 days.

Plastic and debt will strangle the small theatre company quicker than anything.

I have broken even or made a small, small profit on all the shows I have ever done, except one. I had the misfortune of having a show go up during a Red Sox World Series Run here in Boston. We got murdered on ticket sales. The funny thing is we got nominated for Best New Play here, but it was probably the least attended show in our history. (A lesson in never anticipating audience attendance.)

With regards to the film world: I do think there are many filmmakers in debt for the rest of their lives after making an independent feature and maxing out their credit cards.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I think the real Rule Of Thumb here is to never stage a production in conjunction with The World Series when your home team is playing, especially when it’s the Red Sox.

Quite true, Y.S. (or is it YS, no periods?). Pete and I adopted a “money spent is money gone” attitude from Play One, which (I think) was a good way of looking at things. Whatever money we put in, we put in the way we would into a hobby or a night of heavy drinking. If we got anything back, it was an added bonus.

Frankly, I think we in Nosedive spend more money in a given year on heavy drinking (something that never pays off in any sense of the phrase) than we do on the plays (something that at least has a chance of bringing some money back).

The worst-case scenario (no one shows up and we don’t get a single cent of our money back): it’s the same way with drinking, and it sure as hell beats the hangover.

We had a similar situation with our upcoming show, Suburban Peepshow, which features in the script a full stage curtain. Well, guess what? There are almost no proscenium theatres in Manhattan with those full stage curtains anymore, except for Broadway and Off-Broadway houses. We hunted around and found a few that rented for around $2,500 - $3,500 a week. That’s right. A week.

Um…thanks but no thanks.

We figured it was worth a snoop around, but when we realized we would be staging a show that would cost at least $14,000 just to accommodate one “prop,” we moved on and figured out how to stage our show with alternative methods (knowing that any form of divider, even a two-dollar shower curtain, would achieve the effect we’re trying to get across). We know what we need in order to make the show work and it very rarely – if ever – involves expensive and elaborate set pieces or lights (if we manage to snag any for free, that’s cool, too).

And yeah, I’ve just heard so many stories about people bankrupting themselves and getting their homes foreclosed after filming 30 minutes of their ultra low-budget indie feature that I’m very glad to be writing plays.

4:59 PM  
Anonymous stolen chair said...

james,

for what it's worth, stolen chair happened to pick up (at mfta) a red velvet curtain sized nearly exactly to the red rooms proportions. it might already be fireproofed, too! we'd be happy to lend if you want to hang it on one of the red room pipes...

see you (much) later today :)

1:00 AM  
Blogger arcticactor said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:02 PM  
Blogger arcticactor said...

You don't have to take out a second mortgage to make a movie -- film is only getting cheaper to produce and distribute. Micro-niche marketing can recoup the 2k it costs to make a respectable feature these days. This trend will continue. If a show can only get 6000 people, those same 6000 people are more than enough to fund an independent film now -- at perhaps one tenth the cost to the audience ... sometimes for free.

You do need a mortgage to produce theatre -- or at least someone in the chain needs one ... the person who runs the venue, if no one else. Nomadic companies inherit the real estate cost, too. Theatre is forged in time and space. Time and space have ridiculously different prices (and meanings) in NYC and its environs. Barring some cataclysm, the price is only going to go up. I'm guessing some of you caught that Times piece about indie companies doing plays in people's apartments? Theatre on demand? Is that an innovative way to work within your means or is that just sad?

I wouldn't ordinarily make this kind of comparison. But since I just moved to NYC from another circuit, I've been baffled by the money game. Not just Broadway or off-Bway and not just commercial theatre v. indie theatre. Actors, writers, designers ... from what I can tell, all of them get paid substantially less in this town than elsewhere. Where does the money go? Does real estate have that much of a grip on the larger economy of theatre artists? It sure sounds like it.

I liked Don's suggestion because it made a compelling case for subsidy at the same time. Let's channel what little public money we have into the most essential piece of hard capital: the damn space. That won't stop people from being bad at business and producing outside their means, of course. But Don's original point seems to cover that ground, implicitly.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Some very good points, Arctic Actor. Thanks for coming aboard.

Does it really cost only $2k to make a respectable feature film (one that actually gets screened and seen) now? Really? I guess the advances in Final Cut and digital video are reducing costs substantially.

This has definitely changed since I went to school. There were some low-budget filmmakers (like Rick Schmidt) who said that it was possible to make a feature film for $6,000 and even the biggest advocates of low-budget filmmaking were skeptical. With DV becoming the norm (and even lifelong filmmakers from George Lucas to David Lynch saying they'll never go back to film again), people can make decent-looking feature films for used-car prices.

(I do think the big challenge then is getting respectable distribution - if anybody and everybody can make a film for $2k or less, how do you get it seen beyond posting it on YouTube, since the Internet is a bit of a cheat in many ways. But this actually is neither here nor there.)

Do actors, writers and designers really get paid substantially more everywhere else than in New York? Who? Where? And at what level? I mean, writers for television make more than writers for the stage, but that's regardless of their location, just as A-list film actors (who don't all live in LA) make much more money than Off-off-Broadway stage actors. But if we're talking about equal counterparts, I haven't heard anything about an actor out in (say) LA working on the West Coast's equivalent of New York's Off-off-Broadway making a more sustainable living than his East Coast counterpart. Are there folks in DC getting a hefty supplement to their income through their indie-theatre directing work? I don't mean to be harsh, but this does strike me as more of the pandemic "Gloom and Doom," "The Sky Is Falling" attitude that spreads across the theatre world rather than being based on reality (and part of that reality being that theatre has simply never been a profitable enterprise). Correct me if I'm wrong in this (which is certainly possible).

I haven't read the Times piece, but I have heard about companies performing in people's apartments. Is that an innovative way to work within your means or is that just sad? I don't know. Probably both. When I first heard that's how Wallace Shawn performed his one-man show, The Fever, I thought that that was just about the coolest thing ever. This new company is performing their show, The Sublet Experiment in various apartments, which I think is super-cool (I'm actually looking forward to seeing it) and very theatrical.

Real estate and distribution are the biggest "bitches" in terms of producing theatre, that's true. They're not insurmountable problems, but they are big problems nonetheless. However, there are still quite a number of theatre spaces in New York, and still (believe it or not) quite a number of them that are reasonably affordable for a nomadic company such as mine. As long as we keep costs down and not be stupid, we can stay afloat and continue to produce without debt or before the cost of renting a theatre is too astronomical (this may be more "treading water" than actually existing above sea level but this is something theatre companies can do in the meantime before following through on Don Hall's suggestion).

5:25 PM  

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