Reporting to the Angels: how to get a ‘yes’ from theatre producers

Last week, even apart from the usual scrambling to get ready for the holidays, I was in a rush: I had less than a week to report on a producer’s pack for a new, big-budget musical.

Producers used to be called Angels. Nowadays, there’s a bit less groveling and a much bigger acceptance of the fact that plenty are better described as sharks (‘In the nicest possible way!’ she adds for any producers who might be reading). Actually, the bigger issue is that writers may be looking for an angel but producers are looking either to make money or to finance something of intrinsic artistic and/or cultural merit. But mostly they’re looking to make money.

They’re busy people and they’re big on the bottom line. And the bottom-line when you’re talking aboutWest Endand Broadway musicals is always ‘Will it make money?’

It’s worth noting that the majority ofWest Endand Broadway shows do not even recoup: in other words, they don’t break even in terms of what producers put in to get the show up and running. That’s true even when shows run for a year or two or more, not just when they close within a month. So it’s not a surprise that what a producer really wants to know is (a) will I lose all the money I put in, and (b) is there a chance I’ll actually make back what I put in and, hopefully, a nice profit too? It’s a very high-risk business, but the returns can be huge… As they have to be to tempt anyone to invest.

Anyway, last week I sat down, put on my script consultant hat and opened the producer’s pack I’d been sent.

People who are trying to raise money to put on a theatre production often create very expensive info-packs to try to persuade producers that they’re serious and, thus, deserving of investment. In my experience, this is a waste of time and money. In the theatre industry, business people work very closely with creatives so it doesn’t bother them if an investment opportunity is presented on standard printer paper, in black and white, tucked into a plain cardboard folder.

Theatre people get it: they understand that the best projects rarely start off looking flashy and expensive. Behind the scenes, the theatre is all about gaffer tape: it’s about making stuff look good for the audience and not futzing about with what the audience doesn’t see. It all boils down to money: there’s no money in making stuff that the audience doesn’t see look good.

The people who do care about things like fancy producers’ packs tend to be non-theatre people who think the theatre is all about glamour. If you’re approaching those sorts of people with a theatre investment then it is worth spending thousands on having your info-pack ‘produced’ by graphics designers who’ll print it all in colour on high-gloss paper and design you a proprietary font… but when approaching theatre people, it’s not a good idea. When I receive a pack like this I know that the people behind it probably work in the music industry. There’s nothing wrong with that – I also consult for a music festival and it’s done me no more damage than working in the theatre has. However, if you’re asking for money for a theatre project, you need to show you understand how the theatre business works.

So there was a strike against the material from the moment I opened the envelope: I only had to take one look to know that the people involved were willing to waste money on stuff that isn’t important. That’s not want the producers I work for want, so what did the people behind the proposal buy for the thousands they’d spent on their producers’ pack? – a bad first impression.

What was in the envelope? Well, there was a boring, long-winded cover letter (= a bad second impression), a script, a CD, and a fancy brochure that started with a rubbishy synopsis. Why, oh why, would I want to know the life story of the main character’s grandfather when, reading on, I discover that he died fifty years before the show is set… especially since the grandfather’s story has only a tangential bearing on the plot? ‘Plot, what plot?’ I am soon asking myself.

By the end of page one I can see that the writers want the show to be Meaningful and Conceptual. The show starts and ends with the same dramatic scene – will the main character survive or not? (God, I hope not.)

This is not the desired reaction for several reasons. Even apart from the fact that antiheroes are hard to pull off in musicals, a show in which everyone dies at the end (or where the audience hopes they all will) is just not a good business proposition. ‘Downers’ – shows with dramatic aspirations and sad endings – used to sell tickets. They don’t anymore. Classic ‘downers’ still work if the timing and casting are right. But people spend £65/$100 on tickets to new musicals to be cheered up. An ending that isn’t entirely happy is OK, but it needs to be broadly uplifting with most, if not all, of the good guys still breathing.

Any proposal for a ‘downer’ gets an automatic strike against it. This doesn’t mean I discount it outright, but I read on thinking ‘probably not’.

Back to the producers’ pack. I turn the page and find a series of bios for the key creatives and non-creatives. Surprise, surprise, they’re mostly music industry people. Some people work brilliantly in both spheres, but I always watch out for whether non-theatre people are applying non-theatre principles to theatre projects: that’s generally a recipe for disaster. The theatre business is very different from the music business – much more than you’d think. The audience has different expectations and fulfilling those expectations is how you create a successful show.

I turn the page again. Here’s the business plan bit: the ‘numbers’ bit. The numbers in a show proposal focus on how much it will cost to produce the show and run it… and must include projections about how long it will take the show to recoup. Projections should show the number of months it will take to recoup (and, hopefully, move into profit) if the theatre is X% full, Y% full, etc. All of this is impacted by the percentages that various people will take off the top, and then there are the fixed and on-going fees these people want to pay themselves. The producers’ pack includes all this info: so far so good.

Now if you’re wondering at the comment about creatives taking money off the top, here’s a good thing to note: that’s perfectly normal. It’s standard practice. So there’s no ‘third strike’ as you might expect. However, I pay attention to how much the creatives plan to skim off the top as (usually) they’ll be taking this money out of the gross profits before recoupment of the initial investment. Big names in the field often skim so much that it’s all but impossible for a show to recoup, even if it’s moderately successful, hence the astounding fact that the majority of shows lose money, even if they run for two or more years.

What else do I look out for in the numbers? Well, one of the key things is the projected ticket price. It’s no good knowing that at 60% capacity (i.e. when, on average, there are bottoms placed daintily upon 60% of the  seats) the show will recoup within 14 months if you have to halve the ticket price to get bums on 60% of your seats (to use the normal, less dainty Londonparlance). Ideally, I want to know the top and bottom ticket prices, but what I need to know is the projected average ticket price, then I ask myself whether this is realistic given how many tickets are sold to groups – getting group rates.

I also look carefully at the projected running costs. Non-theatre people always underestimate how much it costs to run a theatre building (i.e. to keep the theatre ‘lit’). They also seem unaware that these costs stay the same whether the show does well or not. Incidentally, having a theatre ‘dark’ (i.e. a theatre without a show in it) also has costs… but that’s a problem for theatre owners and, to a lesser extent, theatre managers. However, it’s worth noting that a lot of big producers also have an ownership interest in one or more theatres. The US-based Nederlander Organization, for instance, has an interest in 9 Broadway theatres and 3West Endones (among other entertainment venues). Sometimes a good way forwards for a new, low-cost show that can be put on at short-notice is to apply to a big theatre that is likely to be dark for a small, hard-to-fill slot: in other words, when a previous big show has crashed and burnt and, therefore, closed far earlier than anticipated. If there’s any chance to get the theatre lit quickly with a small(ish) (we are still talking West End/Broadway here) show that won’t lose the owners more money than having the theatre dark, there’s a possibility that they’ll be willing to produce it… and to make a quick investment decision that will give you the money and the theatre. It’s worth considering if you have the right contacts: get your proposal on the right desk at exactly the right money and…

Anyway, back to the producers’ pack… Next, I look at what ‘cushions’ have been put in to deal with unexpected expenses. There are always lots of these across a variety of departments. The director throws a hissy fit about the concept for a particular scene, so out go all the costumes and the sets for that scene… and in come glitter guns and a whole new backdrop. This one change adds an unplanned £30,000 or more to the production costs. (Really – I’ve actually seen that one happen.)

‘But how about all the creative stuff?’ you ask. ‘This stuff’s interesting enough, but that’s what I really want to know about!’ Well, here’s a little tip on planning series, whether we’re talking a series of books or of blog-posts. There’s always temptation to pack in all your best material right away to make sure you’ve captured your audience. But if you want to keep on writing this won’t do you any favours. It’s why so many sequels are huge disappointments: all the good stuff is in the first of the series and so the whole of ‘Number 2′ is spent building up enough background and plot/character-arcs to execute a successful ‘Number 3′. Don’t make that mistake. Save some of the good stuff for later on… Keep something juicy for the sequel.

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