Industry Editor Exclusive: Closing Time on Broadway
Is August the new official closing season?
Of course, everyone has been freaking out about the amount of closings announced in recent months. From the acclaimed musical THE PROM to the cult show BE MORE CHILL to the big-budget musicals KING KONG, PRETTY WOMAN and THE CHER SHOW, it's a rough time to be a producer of tuners. But rather than wondering why so much is closing, my first thought was: "Why mid-August?" After all, Labor Day weekend (or slightly after) used to be the preferred time of slaughter. Producers would ring every last bit of summer tourism buck before shuttering. This year the shows are going out this month, August 11 and 18. That is because sales are dropping off after that point. But why? Most say it is the shifting of school start dates earlier.
"Years ago, grosses dropped off a cliff after Labor Day," said Ken Davenport, who wrote about worsening August grosses five years ago, explained in an email. "But in the past decade or so this drop off has shifted in what I call the 'Slide Into September,' and grosses start dropping in the middle of August. This is due in part to the earlier and earlier start dates of schools around the country, but especially in the states outside the tristate area, which represent 65% of our audience. When our tourist audience has other things to do, we're going to come in second."
Early school dates can't account for all of it, especially this year, when Broadway had a slower start to the summer than typical. But most people think school is a big factor. Other stated factors include greater fears about the economy, show quality and longer load-out/load-in times.
"As shows become more complex, if a theater is booked, we need to get them out," one producer said. "It takes much longer that it did a couple of decades ago."
The truth is, after a strong start to 2019, the year is tracking millions below comparable weeks last year. There are less shows currently running than there were at a comparable week last year (29 as opposed to 31), but most are still worried. The closing of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE didn't set off alarms as play revivals are always tricky. These musicals are another story.
"Everyone is worried about this reported 'course correction,'" another producer said. "And, yes, this year is not great. A lot of shows I thought would be bigger failed to take off. The year is still up from 2017 though. Broadway also has good years and not good years, consistently. But as school years get longer on both sides, that is going to be very bad long term."
That is because Broadway is seasonal and producers store their summer booty to get them through the tough fall. It is the same every single year. September is never a winning time for shows. The closing of shows in mid-August is not only a sign the shows that aren't doing well need to get out, but it is a sign of an overall trend in summer grosses. This trend is not new this year, as evidenced by Davenport writing about it five years ago, but the amount of closings is highlighting it. It being in their face is getting producers with upcoming properties nervous.
"I'm looking at how we can survive to the holidays without a reserve from the summer," one said. "This won't hurt HAMILTON, which continues to sell out in September and October, but shows that dip below break even in the fall need a big summer swing."
That said, another producer noted the dip is slight, it's still a slide, not a skid. "Do lower grosses in August hurt? Yes," he said matter-of-factly. "Shows that should survive will still survive though. This is a trend we will have to adjust to; it is not a death knell to the industry."