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Filthy Lucre Part Two: Redefining Reward

04.02.10 | 25 Comments


CATEGORIES funding and support, ideas, marketing

We do not make theater to make money.

I’ll say that again.

We do not make theater to make money. Our donors don’t contribute to us so we’ll make money. Our boards don’t support us to make money. We don’t sit up at night dreaming of how we can tweak our business models to bring more dollar signs into our realm.

(Note: Haven’t read Filthy Lucre part one? Read it first to get up to speed.)

“BUT- Broadway!” you say. To which I reply, most Broadway investors never see a return on their investment. Most Broadway shows close before “break even.” Don’t get me STARTED on the business illogic of Broadway.

We create theater for one reason:

To have our work seen by an audience. Period.

There may be goals that follow from that core mission, like influencing the culture, transforming lives, investigating the human condition… and a theater company may have a very tiny, super specific subset of “audience” that they wish to be seen by. But still, being seen is the point.

Which may explain why it is so common for theater companies to fall into the trap of “If we make it FREE, it will SELL OUT.”

Our core drive is full houses, not full wallets.

So it’s actually completely rational on one level to assert, “Well, money is not the reason we’re doing this anyway. So why not stop trying to make any?”

“And at least,” you tell yourself, “I’ll get an audience if it’s free.”

No. You’ll get an audience if you find your niche and expend the resources (money and/or time) to find the people attracted to that niche and make a compelling invitation to get them to attend.

Free is not a reason for people to see your show. Its an excuse you use to avoid taking a public stand on what your art is worth. Free can sometimes lower the barrier to get people to show up at your performance. But it is not the only, or even necessarily the best, way to do that.

Maybe you are grant funded or have a trust fund, so you don’t feel you have to charge. But grants end, trust funds run out (or walk away when their owners move on to other projects). And neither help your audience develop a deep sense of the VALUE of your work. Subsidized free theater trains audiences that all theater should be free. That somebody else is “responsible” for paying your artists, playwrights, designers. And that trickles down to the whole theater ecology, lowering the pay scale of every theater artist in your community.

Okay, so. We want sold out, and we don’t exist to make money. But we still want to create and encourage a sense of the VALUE of our work, to develop the habit in our audience of supporting art through their pocketbooks. What are some ways we can do that?

Here’s 5 Better than FREE pricing strategies.

We’ll start with the most common:

1. Pay What You Will or Sliding Scale. In this model, you ask people to decide at point of purchase how much they think their experience will be worth. You rely on social pressure to keep people from stiffing you. This technique is most commonly used as a way to get fellow theater folk into the theater without technically comping them.

The Challenge:
It creates a socially awkward moment for each audience member- “How much should I pay? How much is too much? Did the box office person give me a dirty look because I paid too little?” Also, “Pay What You Will” nights are almost always cash based. So even if you DO get a new audience with this pricing strategy you have no easy way to capture contact information so that you can develop a relationship with them and invite them to return.

The Opportunity: It lowers the barrier of participation in the arts for people who literally can’t afford more than $X.

2. Pay What You Think Its Worth. Some companies are inverting the “Pay What You Will” model by only requesting money after the performance. The theory is that, in the glow of having a wonderful time, patrons may pay more than they would have at entry. Your upside revenue potential (if they loved the show) is higher, and if framed properly, this strategy makes the audience feel like they are directly rewarding the performers whose work they just saw. Social pressure to contribute is still there, while the barrier to entry is still lowered by the possibility that they could still end up getting the show for free if they choose not to contribute.

The Challenge: Unless you ask people to put their “contribution” in check form, you are still not collecting contact information that will allow you to develop on ongoing relationship with that new (presumably impressed) audience member. Also, there’s little to no incentive to reserve in advance, and your audience comes in with a very low commitment to the show. So from a planning point of view it could be feast or famine, making long term growth difficult.

The Opportunity: This is a much better strategy than “pay what you will” for discovering what other people think the experience you provide is worth. Could be a great launching point for a company who needs to build audience and name recognition. Later performances could have set prices with a note that says something like “Don’t trust us. Trust our audience- On average they paid $XX even though they could have seen us for free.”

3. Free Beer with Purchase. This strategy says, You’ll pay money in advance, but the experience includes a free beer (or three). Donated beer can make this an effective (and CHEAP) way to lower the barrier to participation (hey, at least I’ll get a beer out of it), while still enforcing a set value for admission.

A variant on this is the more common “free show with purchase” where you perform in a bar, patrons pay for the booze and get the show for free. Your company gets a flat fee or a cut of the bar. In my experience, however, this strategy yields patrons who are just there to drink and could care less about the show. Plus, most bars are unwilling to share a cut of the bar with entertainment.

The Challenge: Tipsy, distracted patrons. And obviously this strategy doesn’t work at all for family-centered shows. It can also be illegal in some states, depending on the alcohol laws. And it goes without saying that you’ll need a venue with a liquor license (or an event permit) to make this work.

The Opportunity: Many people who come to your show won’t even take you up on the free beer, though it may have been a reason that helped get them (or at least some of their guests) there. And, you can raise your prices as your popularity grows, keeping the beer benefit while shifting the mental value equation more in favor of the performance over time.

4. Moneyback Guarantee or Rebate Offer. Charge a set price but advertise that if they didn’t like the show, they get their money back. Some companies say “leave your ticket stub with your email address in this box and we’ll contact you to arrange a refund.” This allows for online advance sales, credit cards, and capturing contact information. The rebate variant says, “If you didn’t like this one, we’ll send you free tickets to the next one.”

The Challenge:Its hard to say whether this really lowers the barriers to attendance (or increases the perceived value of the show). It essentially asks the question, “did you get your money’s worth?” and relies on the fact that most patrons will love it, or not want to go through the hassle of applying for the refund and explaining what they didn’t like. The rebate offer is a bit counter-intuitive – “If I didn’t like THIS show,” you might ask, “Why will I want free tix to the NEXT show?”

The Opportunity: You often don’t get to hear the negative feedback from your patrons. An offer like this can create a dialogue between you and your most disgruntled patrons, potentially transforming their view of your company through good customer service and converting a bad experience into a great one.

5. Charge High. Offer Low. This strategy has so many variants that it really deserves its own post. So we’ll do that next. Stay tuned.

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  • Well, there’s a lower price threshhold for pop. Not for experience. Why do we pay three-figure prices for amusement parks, retreats, music concerts, music festivals, etc? I’m not saying theatre needs to match those prices–unless you’re doing a three day event, you can’t charge Bonaroo prices–but we’re not just selling the art form, we’re selling the visceral thrill you get from being in the room with it live.

    Moreover, people who get music free online are more likely to buy the music again later, or buy the complete album if they’ve only tried a song. Even Chris Anderson in his books “The Long Tail” and “Free” doesn’t claim “free product” to be an end in itself. He’s preaching that we shouldn’t be afraid of giving a little away for free–and he’s right, we shouldn’t be.

    Pay-what-you-can previews, with a token minimum, that’s great. Pay-what-you-think-it-was-worth-after-the-fact is something I won’t do, but I know it works for some. Free events like 360 story events or other things to draw people in and give them a taste, those are great. And I’m all for the membership pricing concept to encourage people to think of the theatre as an active integral part of their lives every week.

    But putting a price on what we do isn’t going to alienate the audience. It really isn’t.

    And in the end, the home experience isn’t free either. You have cable or DSL or broadband or satellite, maybe more than one. You might have Netflix. You have video game systems and the games themselves, which are not cheap. Yes, they provide entertainment for more than two hours at a time, but they’re not afraid to ask for more money than they cost to produce. At the very least, even with a plain old antenna, you’re still paying in time with commercials, maybe buying what the commercials are selling.

    One thing I’ve found in surveying audiences is that, when you explain to them that yes, it costs money to build sets, costumes, props, etc, they’re not only willing to pay a generous ticket price, they’re often happy to donate more. When we’ve done free shows, sponsored by local industry, audience members marvelled that we could make such a show “for free.” We had to explain that no, it was fully sponsored, we didn’t happen to own kimonos or the silks to create a raging river live onstage.

    When the audience knows what kind of work goes into what we do–and when we’re all part of a community–they don’t hesitate at the ticket price. We shouldn’t hesitate to be honest, either about what it takes or what it costs.

  • Ah! Ah! Ah!

    There is so much that I disagree with in this post (as I'm sure you expected) that I'm a bit rattled! I'll be back with more cohesive thoughts, but a discussion point that they will revolve around to kick things off:

    -We live in an age in which some of the most prevalent art forms (esp. music, television, and film) are readily available for next to nothing. Whether or not theater functions in the same way is irrelevant — modern audiences have a lower price threshold for art that is continually being driven down. I would never argue that theater need to be free, but if we hope to continue to engage new audiences, esp. those currently engaged by other art forms, theater needs to be cheap. Either we learn to become a regularly viable option (on the audience's terms, not our own) or we continue to be an occasional event that audiences feel the need to dress up for and consider a 'special' night out.

    And I'll fully admit that the latter is better for the sake of artists. But the former, despite a probable higher attrition rate, is much better for the sake of the form.

  • Well, there's a lower price threshhold for pop. Not for experience. Why do we pay three-figure prices for amusement parks, retreats, music concerts, music festivals, etc? I'm not saying theatre needs to match those prices–unless you're doing a three day event, you can't charge Bonaroo prices–but we're not just selling the art form, we're selling the visceral thrill you get from being in the room with it live.

    Moreover, people who get music free online are more likely to buy the music again later, or buy the complete album if they've only tried a song. Even Chris Anderson in his books “The Long Tail” and “Free” doesn't claim “free product” to be an end in itself. He's preaching that we shouldn't be afraid of giving a little away for free–and he's right, we shouldn't be.

    Pay-what-you-can previews, with a token minimum, that's great. Pay-what-you-think-it-was-worth-after-the-fact is something I won't do, but I know it works for some. Free events like 360 story events or other things to draw people in and give them a taste, those are great. And I'm all for the membership pricing concept to encourage people to think of the theatre as an active integral part of their lives every week.

    But putting a price on what we do isn't going to alienate the audience. It really isn't.

    And in the end, the home experience isn't free either. You have cable or DSL or broadband or satellite, maybe more than one. You might have Netflix. You have video game systems and the games themselves, which are not cheap. Yes, they provide entertainment for more than two hours at a time, but they're not afraid to ask for more money than they cost to produce. At the very least, even with a plain old antenna, you're still paying in time with commercials, maybe buying what the commercials are selling.

    One thing I've found in surveying audiences is that, when you explain to them that yes, it costs money to build sets, costumes, props, etc, they're not only willing to pay a generous ticket price, they're often happy to donate more. When we've done free shows, sponsored by local industry, audience members marvelled that we could make such a show “for free.” We had to explain that no, it was fully sponsored, we didn't happen to own kimonos or the silks to create a raging river live onstage.

    When the audience knows what kind of work goes into what we do–and when we're all part of a community–they don't hesitate at the ticket price. We shouldn't hesitate to be honest, either about what it takes or what it costs.

  • Though I should clarify, I'm not saying the audience has to be the one carrying the costs. It can be sponsors, grantors, generous patrons, whomever. But someone somewhere has to cover the cost of making the art, it can't always be the artist.

  • Since the post was about free theater and I am a purveyor of free theater, I just want to take a second to reiterate that I in no way am arguing for free theater across the board.

    That said, the lower price threshold is not just for pop — I can take in art galleries (including the biggest museums), the most obscure of indie films, poetry readings, and most forms of art for less than most theater tickets. In fact, the two most expensive forms are actually the yin and yang of classical and pop: much opera, classical music, and some dance vs. the Coldplays and Rihannas of the world. The average ticket price for a concert in Chicago? Much closer to $15 than the $150 you'll pay for the big bill. Restaurants are the big exception, but it seems to me that food as art is hitting it's version of theater's 1960s. I'll be curious to see what happens in the restaurant industry in the next decade.

    The approach I take with The Nine is that each show is free, which is the truth. I go so far as to refuse attempts to pay before the show. This is countered by a short curtain speech afterwards that includes information on the next part and that we are accepting donations for that. “Don't pay us for what we've already made, help us make more.” Is it much different from a pay-what-you-think-it-was-worth model? Not really. I don't make what I would if had charged for tickets, but contrary to the reasoning provided in Trisha's post, I don't do free theater to get bigger audiences or because I'm afraid of putting a price tag on it (it would be $15). I do free theater because making the price of theater manageable to a weekly, rather than bimonthly budget is (obviously) a huge interest of mine. And you're right, membership pricing is another way to do this if you can provide plenty of availability (the gym membership is one way to put it, but come to think of it, it has a lot of parallels to the amusement park system too).

    And part of this is coming in because I produce in Chicago, a market that is overrun with theater. Chicago theaters can't afford to charge a lot, not because the art isn't worth it, but because we would choke each other out of potential audience by doing so. The audience in Chicago, I don't care how generous, simply don't have the money to collectively support every theater company in town. So I approach the form from a ground up approach. Certainly be honest about what it takes and costs to produce, but learn to either meet those needs/costs on minimal ticket prices or limit them to such. Then you've got nowhere to go but up, rather than expecting the audience to pay for 'up' from day one.

  • I like these models. The only thing I would quibble with is that the “free” model seems to work for public radio. The challenge: figuring out how to have the fundraiser publicly enough to remind people to contribute. The opportunity: more people see your shows than pay for it, but…more people see your shows.

  • Trisha Mead

    Public Radio is closer to the “Pay what you think its worth” model. Its not identified as free. Every quarter every audience member is reminded that their “payment” in the form of membership is what keeps the station afloat and subsidizes content for those who can't afford it.

    And Bries, you are right that in a market with an overabundance of supply, it makes sense that you must either lower your price like a commodity or diversify and specialize to give people a reason to pay more for your particular offering than for the run of the mill theater in Chicago.

    Having said that, your lowering your price to non-existence is not helping your other theater companies keep their prices up (and pay their performers).

    Get your audience to support you financially and, rather than taking money out of the hands of your fellow theater companies, you are gaining the resources to increase your quality and reach out to new audiences, thereby growing the pie for everyone.

    P.S. Bries, I love disagreeing with you about this. It really makes me think harder and more creatively about the whole issue. Thanks.

  • Trisha Mead

    I agree with you here, David, and I would go farther to say that again and again the research shows that a a committed, cultivated group of individuals who commit to supporting your art financially (through their ticket purchases, memberships and donations) is more stable, and more lucrative over the lifetime of their patronage (through their advocacy and introducing new people as well as their “habit” of financial support) than a one time grant or corporate sponsor.

    Of course most organizations end up using some mixture of all of these. But many storefront level organizations pin their hopes on that one grant, without thinking about how they will fund the work when the grant runs out.

    Grow the group of people willing to pay for the contribution you make in their lives and you will discover that you have also grown the group of people who will be passionate advocates for your work to their community. They will put their mouths where their money is.

  • Exactly. Find your constituency.

    It's also a matter of territory and a little of perception. Here, there are two groups. The community group, which is everything you think it is, and us, the professional group that tours from time to time. In order to maintain that perceived value, we have to price our tickets higher than theirs'. And because we don't have the overhead of Actors Theatre of Louisville, we can price our tickets lower than theirs'. (Our prices are about 1/4 of the top price for their small space.)

    Our audiences are passionate, and they do bring more people to future shows, it's a wonderful thing. They believe in what we're doing and want to support it.

  • The membership model is what ACT in Seattle has been trying, and now the Public in NYC is trying a variation of it. But even without a giant building filled with work, it's possible to do on the storefront or even itinerant level.

    What if you offered a golden ticket? $25, come see the show as many times as you want. Then, you might find an audience populated with a few people who know the show, who know how and when to react and–because they came back–obviously liked the show. It's not the Rocky Horror cult effect, but it's a good thing.

    In my town, we have to have reservations, we need to know that people are coming. This isn't a casual town, and it's not filled with theatre companies. Even with a membership model, we'd ask for people to reserve their seats. We've got room to oversell, but it's not unlimited.

    And I've got to agree with Trisha's P.S. The sparring keeps the creativity flowing.

  • Over on Twitter, Bries, you said “The audience in Chicago simply don't have the money to collectively support every theater company in town as is.”

    This is very true. And it's not their job to support every theatre company. We each have to find the ones who'll support our company.

    But.

    What if several theatres got together and went all in on a membership model? What if I could pay $100 for a Chicago Storefront ticket that got me into five shows? So I go see Curse of the Starving Class at New Leaf, my ticket gets punched. (Or card gets swiped, depends how fancy you want to get.) Then, I go see the next Nine show. Punched. Then a Side Project show. Punched. Maybe I want to see Curse again. Punched. And one show's left over.

    The central group sees that I went to New Leaf twice, they get $40. Each of the other co's gets $20. And I've gotten to see a bunch of shows that maybe I might not have bothered with, because I have this option, I've been made aware of these other companies and shows, I've got to use my golden ticket.

    No central building, no monolithic organization and no overwhelming ticket price, but it's affordable to the average theatregoer. And it's promoted specifically as a way to support Chicago Theatre in general, not just one company at a time. Maybe the golden ticket is $110, with the extra $10 going into a pot to support the program.

    Just one idea for the fabled Chicago Storefront Summit…

  • Trisha Mead

    The Multi-Pass! This is like the Loch Ness Monster of indie theater, fabled and exceedingly difficult to get just right.

    The trick normally ends up being in the accounting- who makes sure that all the right bits get to the right people? Just capturing contact information or handling credit cards at point of purchase can be a challenge for many companies. More importantly, if a patron doesn't use the entire pass, what happens to the extra money? And who tracks the uses of the passes? Who keeps the companies honest?

    Also, there is overhead to selling a multi-pass over and above the normal overhead of selling tickets (marketing it,printing the passes, doing the paperwork on which pass got used where by what company).

    And, there's often a basic self-interest barrier that comes up- what benefit does the individual box officer receive for upselling a multi-pass when they personally will only make the same amount as a single ticket (and they know that most of the value of that pass will benefit other companies?)

    The Fertile Ground festival has found one successful way to make this work. Its a little quirky, but here goes.

    1. all the companies need to be on the same online ticketing service- at least an allocation of tickets to that service. This allows the patron to go to one place to “manage the benefits” of their pass, make a reservation, exchange dates, etc. We use http://HulaHub.org. We've been very happy with them.

    2. Make sure the company selling the pass benefits from the sale more than they would for a single ticket. In our case, a $50 pass gets you into everything in the festival. A company that sells the pass keeps $25 of the pass sale. Since the avg. ticket price for a Fertile Ground show is $10 to $15, it is in a company's best interest to sell passes before single tickets. The other half of the proceeds go to cover the marketing and admin costs of the pass (while also raising the visibility of the participating companies and increasing their single ticket sales).

    3. Make sure that the monetary value of using the pass is higher than the face value of the pass (in other words, if the average ticket price is $10 and they can see 4 things, the pass should be $30 or less so that its a good “deal” for the patron.)

    4. Give each company a special code or link they can pass on to their audience so that any pass bought because of their efforts (even if it gets forwarded by email or word of mouth) will accrue money to them.

    5. Make a binding agreement that everyone who sells the passes agrees to honor the pass with a comp ticket to their show. In a perfect world, the amount of passes a given company sells should balance out with the amount of tickets that get used by pass holders (unless a company chooses not to push the passes, in which case they have no one to blame but themselves).

    Make sure there's escape clause language on the pass that says no one has to honor a pass at a sold out show. Seats are based on availability.

    Any seats that get taken by pass holders above and beyond the monetary value of what the company sold in passes should be seen as an in-kind marketing expense. You used those seats to gain visibility and buy marketing for your show.

    6. Because the seats are comped and the cash is split out up front based on sales, not attendance, there's no need for complex accounting of who came to which show- this makes it MUCH easier to partner with people who have differing levels of box office sophistication.

    This can be a great way to cross fertilize audiences. It also does something very important- builds a fund of money that is SPECIFICALLY set aside for marketing (the other 50% of each pass sale). For a group of indie theaters trying to raise their visibility this is a huge thing to have- all at the cost of seats that probably would have gone empty anyways.

  • Trisha Mead

    The Multi-Pass! This is like the Loch Ness Monster of indie theater, fabled and exceedingly difficult to get just right.

    The trick normally ends up being in the accounting- who makes sure that all the right bits get to the right people? Just capturing contact information or handling credit cards at point of purchase can be a challenge for many companies. More importantly, if a patron doesn't use the entire pass, what happens to the extra money? And who tracks the uses of the passes? Who keeps the companies honest?

    Also, there is overhead to selling a multi-pass over and above the normal overhead of selling tickets (marketing it,printing the passes, doing the paperwork on which pass got used where by what company).

    And, there's often a basic self-interest barrier that comes up- what benefit does the individual box officer receive for upselling a multi-pass when they personally will only make the same amount as a single ticket (and they know that most of the value of that pass will benefit other companies?)

    The Fertile Ground festival has found one successful way to make this work. Its a little quirky, but here goes.

    1. all the companies need to be on the same online ticketing service- at least an allocation of tickets to that service. This allows the patron to go to one place to “manage the benefits” of their pass, make a reservation, exchange dates, etc. We use http://HulaHub.org. We've been very happy with them.

    2. Make sure the company selling the pass benefits from the sale more than they would for a single ticket. In our case, a $50 pass gets you into everything in the festival. A company that sells the pass keeps $25 of the pass sale. Since the avg. ticket price for a Fertile Ground show is $10 to $15, it is in a company's best interest to sell passes before single tickets. The other half of the proceeds go to cover the marketing and admin costs of the pass (while also raising the visibility of the participating companies and increasing their single ticket sales).

    3. Make sure that the monetary value of using the pass is higher than the face value of the pass (in other words, if the average ticket price is $10 and they can see 4 things, the pass should be $30 or less so that its a good “deal” for the patron.)

    4. Give each company a special code or link they can pass on to their audience so that any pass bought because of their efforts (even if it gets forwarded by email or word of mouth) will accrue money to them.

    5. Make a binding agreement that everyone who sells the passes agrees to honor the pass with a comp ticket to their show. In a perfect world, the amount of passes a given company sells should balance out with the amount of tickets that get used by pass holders (unless a company chooses not to push the passes, in which case they have no one to blame but themselves).

    Make sure there's escape clause language on the pass that says no one has to honor a pass at a sold out show. Seats are based on availability.

    Any seats that get taken by pass holders above and beyond the monetary value of what the company sold in passes should be seen as an in-kind marketing expense. You used those seats to gain visibility and buy marketing for your show.

    6. Because the seats are comped and the cash is split out up front based on sales, not attendance, there's no need for complex accounting of who came to which show- this makes it MUCH easier to partner with people who have differing levels of box office sophistication.

    This can be a great way to cross fertilize audiences. It also does something very important- builds a fund of money that is SPECIFICALLY set aside for marketing (the other 50% of each pass sale). For a group of indie theaters trying to raise their visibility this is a huge thing to have- all at the cost of seats that probably would have gone empty anyways.

  • That's a good system. And certainly, with the Storefront Summit and other initiatives, the Chicago theatres already have a headstart in setting up something like this.

    It comes back to cooperation and support–which is not the same as collaboration. Which is leading to a blog post in the back of my mind…

  • I'm in on the sparring, too. Seven billion ways to skin a cat and all.

    We actually have had some FlexPass initiatives in Chicago recent, primarily the Rogers Park FlexPass & Fugard Chicago. I think they're great ideas. In fact, every model mentioned in the post as well as the ones that are coming up in the comments are fantastic and I'm fully behind them all. I think the difference is that I see them all as alternatives to the standard pricing model rather than alternatives to free.

    I think the greater good of all this is that alternative models force companies to make conscious decisions about pricing — to have a reason to charge what they charge and to be able to articulate that. And that's something that is helpful regardless of whether your theater is free or charging Broadway prices.

  • A few weeks ago, the New Yorker published a profile of Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater. (The article is only available in the print edition, but it's a great read.) One detail in the profile is that Eustis would like to find a way for all Public Theater performances to be free. Certainly the Public's summer Central Park productions, with audiences waiting in line for free tickets to see Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, et al. — and how those free performances have shaped the Public's role and presence in New York City's culture ecosystem — serve as one model of how to produce free theater.

  • Working on a longer response, but if the work is already subsidized, what is the difference between subsidized free, subsidized $75, or subsidized roll of a die plus $5? Some­body else is “respon­si­ble” for pay­ing your artists, play­wrights, design­ers–are they not? How much of a typical arts org's revenue is earned?

    I'm not opposed to selling tickets, or earning enough revenue to sustain the art. But I think that value isn't created through pricing, it's created through demand. True, pricing can help stimulate demand, but if no one wants to see the show, it doesn't matter what the pricing is, right? I guess I don't see how any of these five are any different or less gimmacky for creating demand than free is. Am I wrong?

  • I do know a certain major theatre whose ticket sales cover about 40% of their annual budget. They can't get their seasons fully subsidized, and they've had to raise prices this year while trimming their budget.

    To my mind, it's not about gimmicks or anything like that, it's purely the audience's perception of the value that you place on the work. If the play is fully subsidized, great. But the audience should be aware of that fact and aware of how much a ticket would/could have cost. Because a lot of audiences–and certainly most if not all of the ones in my area–think nothing of it. A free show was free. You said I didn't have to pay, why are you passing the hat? (Yes, I've heard that, not at one of our shows thank goodness.)

    A token price means we value ourselves at an equal level as a movie, if nothing else. Or a good meal. Free, well, it mustn't be very good, they're not even charging for it. All perception.

    If you promote the fact that it's free, a gift from So-and-So Local Industry, your seat would've cost $20, here you go and enjoy the ride, then there's the understanding that yes, this did cost money to make, it's not “free” at all, just free for them to watch.

    By all means, if the costs are covered and everyone gets paid, then why not have a free show? We're not here to make tons of money, no, and we're most of us non-profit or trying to be. But we do need to make sure our people get paid. Is that possible? Are there theatres that are managing to do that? And could they share their secrets?

  • If we're talking non-Equity indie and storefront theaters in Chicago, the ones that have the potential to pay like a real job are exclusively the ones that are hired for schools and public/corporate/private events — a.k.a., ironically enough, free performances. Even with Equity houses, the outreach tours are part of the bread and butter for the artistic team.

  • Trisha Mead

    Tony,

    The difference is what your audience believes your work to be worth. That's the value that needs to be guarded. No audience at a non-profit pays 100% of cost, of course. But we're not talking about cost, we're talking about perceived value. The goal is not to get ticket prices up to 100% of the cost of producing theater. It is to create a belief on on your audience's behalf that your work has a value that's a specific percentage of their entertainment budget.

    I agree 100% that demand is not created by pricing- in fact that's a big part of my point- free does not equal sold out, ie people don't choose to come to your show because of the price. They come because they think they will have a good time and they are willing to pay the price that's being charged.

    Demand, as I state in the article, is about finding your ideal audience and getting them inspired and excited about the show. The only role that pricing plays in that is in the timing- the way you time offers and the like can increase the perceived demand of your tickets which can in turn raise the actual demand- but the art still has to be good, and the marketing still has to be well aimed.

    And I agree that none of these options are ideal pricing structures…they are all simply ways for a small company to get themselves over the emotional hurdle of charging for their work at all.

    The issue I'm addressing at the moment is the incredibly common scenario of the arts org that sells out regularly but won't raise prices because they think they have to stay “accessible.” Or the organization that is not expending the effort to find their audience and inspire them, and thinks that making it free will solve all their audience gathering problems.

  • talk to Rebecca Coleman, the See Seven in Vancouver have made this model work.

  • But how many orgs really try free to solve the audience not showing up?

    The things I know of that are free, like Shakespeare in the Park in NY or Quest or many of the shows at Old Town in Chicago (or Bries' show the night I went) are pretty consistently full.

    They're not free to lure people in, they're free because they actively chose to be free. That's not a cop out, it's a choice. And if you can raise enough funding to subsidize free, a perfectly valid one.

    I could be alone on this, but I have never met someone who didn't feel they could charge for their work, on either side of the Atlantic.

    Ticket prices climbing in the arts and in sports pretty strongly map out with falling attendance nationwide. Why is keeping prices low to stay accessible not a valid choice?

  • Trisha Mead

    Many of the theaters going for “free” are by definition the ones you've never heard of – small emerging theater companies trying a street theater model or a put it on in a bar and see who comes model.

    There are some notable exceptions, and Shakespeare in the Park is definitely the most visible- there's an org of that type in nearly every major market in America. Very few are subsidized by the massive fundraising, marketing and earned revenue clout of an organization like the Public Theater, however.

    In Portland, for example, Portland Actors Ensemble has been presenting a touring Shakespeare in the Parks for years (we also have a Trek in the Park franchise which is AWESOME). Both of these orgs are exactly the kind of “free” but shouldn't be orgs that could benefit from expanding their thinking about pricing models.

    There are restrictions against ticketing events in parks in PDX that make for a challenge in that regard. But creative solutions abound. Trek in the Park, in particular, could be making BANK- I mean, c'mon. Its Kirk and Spock and Kahn. In beautiful weather. In the park. Who wouldn't pay for that?

    I think its fascinating that the Public's A.D. has recently said that he wishes all their performances could be free. I doubt their E.D. feels that way. And, it is absolutely a classic example of the theater artists drive towards sold-out houses rather than full coffers. If I could rub a lamp and have one wish granted to all theater-kind it would be to magically erase from our heads the idea that great art and full coffers are diametrically opposed to each other.

  • slay1975

    At Available Light (http://www.avltheatre.com), all our shows are Pay What You Want – every seat, every show, for everyone. We also have a fishbowl in the lobby, and in our post-show notes, we suggest that folks donate a little extra to support the PWYW program.

    Since we started PWYW, we've doubled our audience, I've quit my day-job, we've dramatically increased everyone's paychecks, hired a second (and soon 2 more) staff members, and we've tripled our operating budget.

    So … it seems to be working out pretty well.

    What's the secret? Our shows are really good, so people pay money to support us and to keep PWYW going. We actually have quite a few people who show-up and may much more than $20 every time they see a show. Our average ticket price has actually gone up since we started this.

  • slay1975

    I responded some more on the blog:

    http://avltheatre.com/theatreforte/2010/04/hey-


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