Filthy Lucre

03.25.10 | 14 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, funding and support, marketing

A while back on #2amt, an extremely provocative gauntlet was thrown, on the OH so touchy subject of money. Filthy lucre. We can’t live without it. Most of us got into the theater profession to avoid having to think about it too much.

Yet as some point we all are faced with the task of assigning an actual monetary value to our art. Worse, we must then publicly announce it.


This particular gauntlet was thrown over the subject of pricing.

NO theater, @TheNineChicago insisted, should ever charge more than $20 a ticket for their work.

The argument being that, in order to grow audiences and make theater more ubiquitous (thereby eventually TAKING OVER THE WORLD), we must first make it something the average non-theater goer would find affordable on a weekly basis. There’s some logic to this- it could be argued that movies became ubiquitous as creators of popular culture in part because a schoolkid could skip school once a week and spend their nickel allowance to escape into the latest John Wayne fantasy.

Of course you could also argue that movies have been subsidized by the fantastic global distribution system unique to that artistic medium. And that if, let’s say, the Academy-Award winning film Precious, based on the Novel Push were only to play for 6 weeks in one 150 seat theater, then the producers of that film would either GLEEFULLY charge a couple thousand dollars a ticket or not produce the thing at all. Would they sell any tickets doing that? Good question.

How do we decide what’s worth the money?

I’ll pay $200 for a center section Modest Mouse ticket but I wouldn’t go to a Taylor Swift concert if it was FREE. Every year I spend $1500 to go to the middle of a desert for a week and eat food out of a tin while staring at men in tutus. I won’t spend $30 to go to the dentist (despite the subsidy of my excellent dental insurance). And I have paid to see terrible shows my friends are in and insisted on comps to shows with Academy-Award winning stars in them. $100 in bourbon at the bar? Sure. Next round’s on me. Renew that $35 Theater Service org membership? Just not sure I can afford it.

Here’s the thing. Pricing is COMPLETELY ILLOGICAL. How we assign prices is illogical. And what people will pay for is also fairly illogical.

The truth is, the way we price our performances is more about our own emotions- our fears, our egos, our self worth, and our stereotypes about our imagined audience than it is about any kind of market value. Often our prices are primarily designed to keep our box office staff from having an uncomfortable conversation:

“Hello, sir. Will you please pay me more for this ticket I’m selling you than I will be paid for this entire day’s work? Thanks so much.”

“Ma’am, if you change your tickets from Tuesday to Friday night, I have to charge you $20 more.”

Or from knowing an uncomfortable fact:

“I’m sorry sir, if you’d called last week, these tickets would have been $10 cheaper.”

Or, my favorite, “If you just wait until one hour to curtain, I can give you these tickets at half-price.”

Here’s a small sampling of the ridiculous things we secretly believe about our ticket prices (do me a favor and make a note of which ones you subscribe to):

1. If the tickets were FREE we would sell out the house.

2. A half-full house of patrons who paid $60 each is less impressive than a full house of people who lined up around the corner to buy $10 tickets at ten minutes to showtime.

3. Our single ticket buyers keep track of what we charged for last year’s (or last month’s) shows, and will strenuously object if the ticket price for this show is different.

4. Our patrons are just like us- they value experiences and spend money the same way, and for the same reasons, our friends and colleagues do. (We better hope this is not true, because we all mostly get comped into shows, don’t we?)

5. Our house is too small for our patrons to care where they end up sitting (or to be willing to pay more for a better seat).

6. And my personal favorite: The patron I’m selling this ticket to will sit down in the theater and ask the person sitting next to them, “So. What did you pay for your tickets?” And then race to the box office to demand a refund if they paid more than their neighbor.

Every single one of these assumptions is demonstrably untrue. How many “free” performances have you been to with empty houses? How many $10 performances have had only your personal friends in the house? How many general admission shows in tiny houses have had people lining up for the same four “great” seats? How many people have paid nearly $100 to see a performance of The 39 Steps around the country, despite the fact that they could rent the original movie for about $3? And when have you EVER asked the person next to you what they paid for their seat?

So. Here’s an experiment. Choose the assumption from the above list that you are most firmly attached to/afraid of. Now throw it out the window, and approach the pricing of your next show without it.

What does that look like? What new freedom do you have to price things for maximum revenue (which, remember, will go to pay the artists who did all that hard creative work in the first place)?

I tell you what I’ll do. We’re going to tackle each one of those assumptions one blog post at a time. And explore some potential pricing strategies you could try if you weren’t bound by that assumption. You with me? Stay tuned.

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  • Ticket pricing as a measure of the market value of a seat to a show is always going to be illogical in someone's eyes. However, price points shouldn't be an illogical matter if you're serious about running your company beyond a season. Create a business plan – which should include benchmarking your work with that of other companies in town – talk to your audiences about it, and then stick with the model that looks as though it might work for you. There's no room for fears, egos or businesses run on imagined audiences or self-worth. Tough love …

  • Word. Word. Word.

  • While the entire concept is dangerous, I adore the concept that Chicago company Quest Theatre Ensemble. It's not something that everyone can use, but it'd be exciting to see more theatre's TRY it.
    Their performances are ALL FREE. And then, when the show is over, they take donations, therefore you can use a “pay what YOU think this performance was worth” model.
    Dangerous, because what if no one donates at the end? I mean, it's not required, so what if they have a full house that all feel “hey, that was a great performance, it's awesome that it was free – they're taking donations right now, but since they advertised it as free, I don't feel any obligation”. I know the probability of that is small, but it's still a scary thought.
    However Quest has flourished. They have a huge audience base, and a wonderful neighborhood presence.
    Like I said, not something that would work for everyone, but it's defintely something admire.

  • I believe one of the early shows for Single Carrot theater in Baltimore (I think it was their first year here) was having trouble selling tickets, so as a last resort they switched to the “pay what you want when you leave” model–and it was a huge success. I don't know the details of why they didn't stick with that model, but at least for that one production my understanding is it saved their bacon.

  • Trisha Mead

    I find this model intriguing… its definitely one we'll look at under the heading of “Free does not equal sold out.”

    I do feel that it sidesteps the emotional issue of the artist committing to setting a public value for their work.

    I'd be very interested in how this model has worked for Quest over the long term and I'd be very interested why the Single Carrot Theater chose not to continue it.

  • ericziegenhagen

    Quest has packed houses (about 100 seats), and seeing a show there first-hand made me understand how the donation system equals strong ticket revenue. Quest does family-friendly programming, though not explicitly for children — shows like Into The Woods and a stage adaptation of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. (Their personal background, and models, are the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Bread & Puppet Theater.)

    Imagine one family of four. If the kids have a great time, and the parents have a decent amount of money in their pockets, in the flush of energy after a good show, they may be inclined to donate more than they would have paid in ticket price.

    As a singer-songwriter, I've found that the best paying gigs aren't at the hard-to-book clubs–they're at shows where the hat is passed around at the end of the set, much for the same reason.

    It makes me realize that having people pay what a show is worth, while in the afterglow is a good show, may work better, in some cases, than mandating that they pay upfront.

    Might be worth it for theater companies to try it, maybe on a preview night or a hard-to-fill weekday night, and see who comes and what happens.

    As I said on Twitter, great article, Trisha.

  • I love this post, and the comments! Here's another thing we do, which is perfectly rational, but is certainly sad. We make the official price something like, say, $20, knowing full well that we'll sell almost all tickets to subscribers, on Goldstar or Hottix, or to industry folks for free or almost free. But we make the official price $20 so that we don't appear to be undervaluing our own products. And since we know that nearly everybody is going to get a discount, we need to start from a higher price than we actually expect to get.

    Another model that might be worth trying is $10 or $15 for all tickets. No discounts, no industry freebies, no negotiations.

  • The Quest model seems like a great idea. It's like public radio. It puts the patron in the position of having to choose to be generous or deprive artists. Whereas a too-high starting price makes a patron into a customer, who might reasonably want to negotiate for a lower price.

  • Trisha Mead


    Thanks- glad you liked the post. Very much enjoying the discussion as well.

    I personally am a big believer in a high rack price that demonstrates what your theater is “worth.” A patron who feels like they got a great deal and huge value at $30 is better than a patron who feels $10 was barely worth it in my book. And the only time starting at a higher price than you know you are going to get is a problem is when you have budgeted to sell out the house at that top tier price.

    Or to clarify, I'm a big believer for the “right price for the right person at the right time” model.

    I'm intrigued by the “public radio” or “tipping industry” model (technically, your waiter's services are free…) because it doesn't limit the upside of what you say you're worth. On the other hand, it also reinforces the idea in the public's mind that theater is intrinsically valueless and that their monetary contribution to it is 100% charity.

  • Trisha Mead

    …which is, I suppose, what Public Radio does- appeals to the noblesse oblige and civic duty side of people. More and more media is going toward the non-profit model, so maybe they're on to something- we can't get people to pay up front for content any more, but maybe we can convert a small portion of them into “believers” who will pay on moral grounds.

    We have one huge advantage over the “content is free” model, which is that we have gated admission (being as we are an intrinsically meatspace artform and all). I'm not prepared to let go of that HUGE advantage, quite yet.
    I think this “tipping” model has the most promise at the storefront level. I have no idea how you would plan for growth or sustain a midsize and growing arts organization while using it. blog post for another time.

    Thanks for the two cents though! I'm really interested in how people think about pricing their work. Most helpful.

  • Alvaro Sarmiento

    Just FYI the type you are using on your blog doesn't look good at all in Chrome. You might consider changing it, for the sake of redability.

    Thanks in any case for your interesting blog.

  • I have to share this here…..Oracle is taking the pricing out of the equation altogether. Oracle is doing Public Access Theatre, starting 2010-11 Season: http://eepurl.com/zH3X

  • I work for a professional orchestra and we've been doing dynamic/demand-based pricing for three years. It works! For our major series, we have four price levels (it's a 2400 seat house). We always promote “Tickets starting at $xx”. We NEVER publish our ticket scale. People have to call in or go online to see what the prices are (at that moment.) Our earned income AND our audience has grown significantly over that three year period. Just drink the kool-aid!

  • I'd like to feature your plan in a post of its own here, because it's an exciting idea…