consulting

Calling all angels

Statue of an angel in front of a yew tree in a churchyard

A sequel to ‘Reporting to the Angels’ (https://alexiacasale.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/reporting-to-the-angels-how-to-get-a-yes-from-theatre-producers/).

So we’ve talked about submission packs and the numbers pages. But how about the show itself? What does it take to get a ‘yes’ from a producer?

Well, one thing you might have noticed is that I’m talking about ‘shows’ and not plays because most new West End and Broadway productions are shows. At the moment, the only plays that make money are classics with big-name actors – usually ones who also have careers in film. New straight plays (i.e. serious plays – the straight bit has nothing to do with sexual orientation in this context!), unless they’re by huge-name playwrights, go into small theatres and don’t last very long. They get put on at all because the producers think they’re quality theatre and there’s real value in that. But the value is not monetary: at best these plays break even, usually because the production costs were quite low. Shows (i.e. big, expensive musical productions) on the other hand can (though rarely do) make a lot of money.

Whenever I consult on a new show, I look at whether the story is based on a book/film/life-story or ‘the music of X’. All of these things can help sell the show: there’s money in tie-ins.

Next, I ask myself who the show will appeal to and why. Is it too edgy? Is it too old-fashioned? Is there any suspense? Are the characters interesting? Is there at least a dash of romance? Are there at least two really funny moments? Is there at least one moment of real drama?

It’s also important to think about the ‘razzle-dazzle’: nowadays people like musicals to be spectacular, so it’s important to consider what a proposal has to offer in terms of something new and amazing… But if there are going to be computer-generated graphics or cinematic elements or big, moving sets, how are they going to be integrated into the show as a whole? Are they really necessary or are they just tricks? Quick ‘magic tricks’ – things that last one minute or less and leave the audience asking ‘How did they do that?’ – go down very well. Big, flashy ones that take over the whole show don’t. Don’t under-estimate the audience’s ability to get bored of things that are going to cost a fortune: if the trick has to last through the whole show, it had better be a really phenomenal trick. Chances are it’s not and so putting it into your proposal is just going to make potential producers (and their consultants) go ‘You want me to pay how much for this piece of baloney?’ Let me illustrate, once when a producer asked me to see a show to advise on whether it would transfer well from the West End to Broadway I reported that the set moved more than the story did.

Finally, there’s the script and/or music to consider. Some proposals have song-lists and a script. Others have a more detailed synopsis and ‘sample songs’. The proposal that crossed my desk on recently included a sample CD that probably cost upwards of £10,000 to produce. The singers and band were professional. The recording was clearly done in a professional studio, then professionally mastered. The CD had fancy graphics printed on it. The whole thing was a complete waste of time and money.

I listened to the first three songs. Then I listened to the start of each of the other ten songs. One of the big questions producers ask each other on opening night is ‘Did people leave humming the music?’ My report on this proposal read ‘People would probably leave humming the music if they could remember it long enough.’ The whole thing was hopelessly generic: no interesting lyrics, nothing catchy, no spine-tingling key changes. If you took all the most boring bits out of whatever’s on the radio at the moment and turned those bits into full-length songs, you’d get this soundtrack. It wasn’t bad per se: there wasn’t anything wrong with it… apart from the fact that there was nothing right with it. Musicals need good music. You’d be amazed how many people don’t seem to realise that.

Don’t waste your money on producing a fancy recording. I’m not at all put off by a home-produced CD in a plain plastic sleeve with the show title written in felt-tip. The singers need to be able to sing in tune, but it’s fine if they’re accompanied solely by a pianist or keyboard-simulated instruments. People who do this stuff for a living can tell if a song has got mileage from the bare bones, whether they’re dressed up or not.

What can get in the way at this stage is the lack of good arrangements… And by this I do not mean that you need to have an orchestra on the recording. If it’s not your area, and you can afford it, invest in time with a professional arranger. They’ll be able to tell you that verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, coda structures are boring if there’s no variation in the chord structures and style. They’ll change up the rhythm in one of the sections, or they’ll shift one of the choruses into a minor key, or they’ll tell you to ditch the drum-beat and go instrumental on the bridge into the final chorus, or they’ll style one of the sections in a different way (fancy 8 bars of the reggae version of your song to ring the changes?).

This stuff is actually quite important. It demonstrates how much your music can be adapted and generally ‘changed up’ to keep it interesting enough for songs to sustain themselves and build to a climax. If the only way of bringing a song to a climax is to add strings and turn up the volume, you’ve got a problem (though it’s not insurmountable as a number of hit shows demonstrate). It’s also worth remembering that there are lots of repeats in musicals and that songs usually put in several re-appearances with different arrangements each time (with the exception of any ‘mega mix’ at the end of a show). So, if you’ve got the money to spend, spend it on an arranger. That’ll answer many more of my questions about the quality of the music than time in a professional recording studio.

Last, but not least, listen to your feedback. Occasionally, I report that a show has potential… but not enough potential to invest yet. In these cases, I usually suggest that the creatives re-write the synopsis or scrap a few songs (and then write new ones) or work on the lyrics or… If you are invited to ‘try again’, then it’s worth the effort, but only if you listen and try to deliver what the producer is asking for. In the theatre, producers don’t just know the business part of the industry, they (generally) understand a lot about the creative aspects too. They’re not creatives themselves, but they’ve often got stellar creative judgement. Ignore it at your peril.

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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.