The separation of politics, religion & entertainment

When is an event at your historic venue a time bomb? Just like in polite conversation, when you bring in religion or politics, you’re asking for trouble. Obviously we all want as many paying, quality events in our venue as possible, but it is crucial to remember that when you cater to any one group exclusively, you are potentially alienating others. The real trick is to manage your rentals so as to not create the impression of being to closely associated with any one side, religion or issue.

Political rallies and small fundraisers can be great, as they expose a group of people to your venue, create a positive experience and memory, and can create return customers. However, it is best to closely monitor the diversity and frequency of your “political” events. It’s always best to balance them if at all possible, (like print and broadcast media do during an election cycle) and to avoid any differential treatment to any one side. It is essential that you provide the same service, billing and exposure to both sides of the fence. Be careful to avoid undo exposure on your marquee, website or print ads, and avoid special “thank you’s” on printed materials if at all possible.

Recognition of any religious holiday is a potential minefield. While it is possible to try to make everyone happy, it is inadvisable. It is best to avoid any stereotypical representation of religious holidays both in marketing materials (ads, posters, website, holiday cards) and in building displays.

To many Americans in the 1930’s, movie palaces were considered the “church” of the American middle class. Theatres also played an important role in many political campaigns (not to mention Ford’s Theatre and the Lincoln assassination) and important war bond sales efforts in the 1940’s. While the public’s use of and appreciation of historic theatres has changed over the years, the best thing we can do as stewards of these properties is to make sure we don’t alienate any of our audience members regardless of their religious or political beliefs.

Free events – a good idea or just bad for business?

Our historic theatres are often the showplaces of our community.  They act as a link to a past that valued craftsmanship, décor and a bygone era of style and sophistication. And as such, we often fall prey to the notion that we need to show them off as often as possible, many times as part of a free event.

The great film tycoon Marcus Loew once was quoted as saying, “We don’t sell tickets to movies, we sell tickets to movie theatres.” How true those words, especially in the era of the movie palace (1928-1935) when many Americans just wanted to escape for a few hours in the entertainment palaces of the European expat movie moguls like Fox, Loew and the Warner Brothers. Often we hear that the movie theatre became the church of the common man at the height of period with their regular patrons, schedules and passionate followers. The challenge many of us faced was to get that audience back, while competing with a much larger cast of distractions today.

All too often we are all approached to host “free” events, by community groups, theatre board members or even a theatre staff person. What is the real cost of this event? The response is often that the positive PR, number of new visitors, sponsorship or concession income will outweigh the cost we normally collect from renters or ticket sales. In fact, the greater damage to the institution of your theatre is the real cost.

There is a term in the live performance industry called “papering the house” which refers to giving away unsold tickets in order to have a full house. This is something all venues need to avoid the reputation of doing. In essence this is what too many “free” shows is doing to your building. If the perception exists that you can always wait for a free event at theatre “X”, there is little motivation for the public to pay for a ticket. If there are too many free events at your theatre, the “special-ness” of your venue begins to fade. Of course the occasional free event (1-2 times a year) is a good practice, especially if you have something new to show off, or a special occasion (theatre’s milestone birthday), but the value of a free event to the public is nil. Try giving away “free” tickets to an event and see what percentage of no-shows you have – it will be lower with a ticket fee as there is a perceived “value” to the ticket that a free event lacks. A better tact would be to offer admission with a donation to the local food bank, or during the holidays a toy for a local “Toys for Tots” program.

We’ve all worked so hard to restore our buildings, build an audience and create/foster quality programs – don’t give it away!

Dealing with Promoters

Dealing with promoters can be a great experience, or a nightmare. With individual personalities and reputations aside, there are several simple ways to make sure that you, as an historic theatre person, can be prepared and make the most out of your experience the majority of the time.

Basically, what both parties want out of a relationship are three things:

A drama-free experience

A well attended show (full house)

A profit for all parties

What are the elements of a “drama-free” experience? For one thing, it means doing your homework. Before you even talk to a promoter, or artist’s rep you should research the act’s history. This means both researching their past appearances in your community (if any) as well as their current statistics via Polstar. This is CRITICAL data for your offer, in that you will need to know their drawing power in similar markets, ticket prices, etc.

Next you need to do a specific budget with the house scale (ticket prices), marketing/PR costs as well as rider expenses figured in. If you have to sell more than 60% to break even, think about finding a sponsor, or about creating a special benefit for some ticketholders, (like a meet & greet) that might increase a ticket value. Be aware that any savvy tour manager, promoter or even the talent themselves, will attempt to get as much cash out of the show as possible, so you need to plan ahead and make sure all of your expenses ( as well as rider costs) are figured out and are realistic. Do you need a runner? Will you have to bring in special equipment? Hotel rooms? Post-show bus food? Outrageous comp ticket list that eats into your inventory? What are the terms of the contract, ½ up front? Cash that night? Be prepared.

What defines a “well attended” show? Again, research what the act is drawing while on tour. Make sure your offer spells out your break-even dollar amount so the “house” is protected before you get into the split point. And be careful here. If the ticket sales get too close to the break even point the promoter may even buy the tickets to get to that level, which will mean more cash for them. Make sure the artist comps are spread out all over the house so if their “guests” do not come there are not big holes in the audience. Be clear on media access both for photographers and press admissions. Get your promo materials up front and make sure that you meet any approvals for ads, website and other social media activities. Settle the show with a smile on your face.

What is a good profit for all parties? It depends on what you are looking for. Know in advance that every tour has expectations for EVERY stop they play. A good night for you may be break-even for them, and remember you are delivering a show to your community, making concession income, a percentage of merchandise sales, and making a fan’s entire month, or year by having their favorite act on your stage.

Look at relationships with promoters who use your facility as relationships with family members. You may not always agree with every decision they make, but together you can create special events that will enhance your brand, make a few dollars and keep your house full with diverse acts, without too much risk if you are careful.

Herb has shown his unflagging commitment to historic theatres offering preservation, restoration and operation services as well as funding resources for historic venues. Herb’s passion to preserve and restore each and every one of these theatres is not easily surpassed.

Jeff Greene
Owner/Founder, EverGreene Painting Studio, New York, NY