Industry Editor Exclusive: The Mysteries of Success and Failure for Broadway on the Road
We all think we know a lot about Broadway financing. We read capitalization numbers in stories. The Broadway League puts out weekly grosses and, even though we may not know a show's exact weekly running cost, those in the know can approximate. It is obvious when a show opens and closes on the Great White Way. Tours get into murkier territories.
The Broadway League collects road grosses, but unlike Broadway grosses, they are not released to the public. It used to be that Variety reported them, but their statistics were not obtained from the League, but rather individual producers. Even that teetered off in about 2012, likely based on a combination of staff cuts and lack of readership interest. So how do we know what is doing well?
Here is something that won't surprise readers--branded names do better on the road. "The marketing timeline is completely different on the road," explained Andrew Damer, newly appointed Vice President of Allied Touring, a company focused on road marketing and publicity. "For New York, you are able to do a phased campaign. Start with a teaser, wait for reviews. For the road, there is an entirely different story you are able to tell. You might only be running for a week, maybe six weeks and tops eight. The campaign is much shorter. If it's a recognizable title, we're able to focus on converting [people with knowledge of a show title to ticket buyers] rather than explaining the show."
"Because tours are only in most towns for about a week, and sometimes less, they must rely more on brand awareness than word-of-mouth or even reviews to sell tickets. It's hard to get word of mouth to build five days," veteran Broadway and tour producer Ken Davenport--represented on Broadway this season by ONCE ON THIS ISLAND and GETTIN' THE BAND BACK TOGETHER--said.
This makes a big difference in single ticket sales. So investors in Broadway's BEAUTIFUL had to agree to invest in the risky London production of a decidedly American musical before being allowed to invest in the United States tour. Why was it worth it for many? Because Carole King would sell on the road. And by all accounts it has.
But what does selling even mean on the road? Most of the shows go into subscription houses and often the play to "guarantees." That means a show is guaranteed to make at least a certain amount of money for each stop no matter what single ticket sales are. Certain landlords won't offer guarantees, so when they rose to popularity in the 1980s, many tour houses sat empty waiting for the next huge show. Producers of riskier shows only wanted to play to someplace where they were guaranteed to make money on a weekly basis. Guarantees put the risk on the venue/subscription theater, a risk that frequently pays off and at the very least keeps the theater filled, which is good for overall subscriptions. However just because you are going out on the road and playing guarantee houses doesn't mean the tour will make back its money. There is the capitalization to factor in and also the amount of weeks something is on the road. In other words-if a market doesn't believe there will be any interest in a show, they won't offer you a guarantee. Certain shows don't go out on the road at all because of this or tours peter out. You see shows that tour 20 weeks and ones that tour 100. (When these shows switch to non-union is a topic for a whole separate column.)
Producers of huge hit shows like HAMILTON don't need a guarantee and their producers can negotiate a much larger take of box office receipts. Why does a road presenter give them a very large box office take? Often because a big hit show increases season subscriptions. So you're willing to give HAMILTON what they ask for because not only are you selling tickets for HAMILTON by giving HAMILTON what they ask for, you're selling tickets for your entire season. We're hearing all across the country season subscriptions are up buoyed by HAMILTON and family-friendly fare such as ALADDIN.
And each market is different. Different in the amount tickets cost, different in what sells. Even labels are different in different markets. In one market, "Golden Circle" might refer to a premium-esque single ticket and in another market it might refer to a subscriber only benefit, complete with a glass of champagne. Damer notes that is part of what makes marketing for the road so difficult: lessons and labels learned for one market don't necessarily apply to another. And the venues themselves are different--there are municipal venues, facilities run by non-profits, commercial landlords, each with its own set of challenges.
Tours are financed extremely differently than Broadway and often involve much less capital. Orin Wolf, President of tour producer NETworks Presentations, said his company puts on tours that run the gamut, from two million to ten million. It's generally more expensive recreating a Broadway production on the road than it would be designing something solely for the road-because the Broadway vision has to be preserved. But it's still cheaper than it is in NYC. Davenport estimates shows can be put on the road for one-third or one-fourth of their Broadway capitalization. That is part of the reason this last decade has seen tour-only productions of shows like FLASHDANCE, DIRTY DANCING and SOUND OF MUSIC (all produced by NETworks). Despite the fact that the first two had never been a stage show, people knew the names, they didn't need Broadway to brand them. The risk in putting them on the road was simply less than putting them on Broadway.
"You have certain titles and certain brands that you feel would appeal to a road audience where you don't necessarily need to brand something on Broadway," Wolf said. "When you're creating a new musical, when you're creating something from scratch, you sort of need Broadway as a means to spend the millions of advertising on building a national audience that would have an interest in your title. That helps you when you go out on the road, whether the show was a hit in New York or not. When you do a revival, some, like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, the title is strong enough to warrant a tour without needing to be refreshed in NY. DIRTY DANCING had a unique strength. People know nothing about the show, nothing about the idea of why or how it was made into a stage production but there is something about hearing the name DIRTY DANCING as a stage show that people just accept."
But, like Broadway audiences, tour audiences are often hard to read. All across the country subscribers receive surveys asking about certain titles, whether they know them, whether they'd want to see a musical based on them. But all the consumer marketing in the world doesn't necessarily lead directly to ticket sales. FLASHDANCE didn't have that same response as DIRTY DANCING. The tour didn't do nearly as well. Wolf said he has been surprised at how well smaller fare has done in recent years as well-NETworks presented the Fiasco Theater's stripped down, small-scale INTO THE WOODS on tour and it was quite successful. Perhaps owing to branding from the movie.
There has also recently been an increase in mini pre-Broadway tours. You see that from extremely marketable shows like ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE, which has the Jimmy Buffett name behind it to sell tickets in big venues on the road without Broadway branding, and even smaller shows, such as COME FROM AWAY, which made a handful of stops before Broadway which served the dual purpose of allowing development of the piece and also getting an unknown commodity some pretty great reviews ahead of its big city berth.
While tours used to be worth about twice the Broadway market, the advent of premium tickets on Broadway (which haven't taken off in quite the same way regionally) has changed the calculus. For the 2016-2017 season, the road grossed $1,007,275,000 and Broadway grossed $1,449,399,149 according to the League. But the road will continue to be a huge focus. "Will the show tour?" is something investors almost always ask. Because they know the more chances you have to make money, the better off you are. Does it always pay off? No. But there is a lot of potential.