Not-For-Profit Arts Are Grossing Me Out

March 6th, 2013 § 6 comments

"There is nothing quite as wonderful as money! There is nothing quite as beautiful as cash!"

“There is nothing quite as wonderful as money! There is nothing quite as beautiful as cash!”

I have made no secret of my disdain for the practice of announcing theatre grosses as if we were the movie industry. I grudgingly accept that on Broadway, it is a measure of a production’s health in the commercial marketplace, and a message to current and future investors. But no matter where they’re reported, I feel that grosses now overshadow critical or even popular opinion within different audience segments. A review runs but once, an outlet rarely does more than one feature piece; reports on weekly grosses can become weekly indicators that stretch on for years. If the grosses are an arbiter of what people choose to see, then theatre has jumped the marketing shark.

So it took only one tweet to get me back on my high horse yesterday. A major reporter in a large city (not New York), admirably beating the drum for a company in his area, announced on Twitter that, “[Play] is officially best-selling show in [theatre’s] history.” When I inquired as to whether that meant highest revenue or most tickets sold, the reporter said that is was highest gross, that they had reused the theatre’s own language, and that they would find out about the actual ticket numbers.” I have not yet seen a follow up, but Twitter can be funny that way.

As the weekly missives about box office records from Broadway prove, we are in an endless cycle of ever-higher grosses, thanks to steady price increases, and ever newer records. That does not necessarily mean that more people are seeing shows; in some cases, the higher revenues are often accompanied by a declining number of patrons. Simply put, even though fewer people may be paying more, the impression given is of overall health.

I’m particular troubled when not-for-profits fall prey to this mentality as part of the their press effort, and I think it’s a slippery slope. If not-for-profits are meant to serve their community, wouldn’t a truer picture of their success be how many patrons they serve? In fact, I’d be delighted to see arts organizations announcing that their attendance increased at a faster pace than their box office revenue, meaning that their work is becoming more accessible to more people, even if the shift is only marginal. If selling 500 tickets at $10 each to a youth organization drags down a production’s grosses, that’s good news, and should be framed as such, unless our commitment to the next generation of arts attendees is merely lip service.

From my earliest days in this business, I have advocated for not-for-profit arts groups to be recognized not only as artistic institutions, but local businesses as well. While I think that has come into sharper focus over the past 30 years, I’m concerned that the wrong metrics are being applied, largely in an effort to mirror the yardstick used for movies. It’s worth noting that for music sales or book sales, it’s the number of units sold, not the actual revenue, that is the primary indicator of success, at either the retail or wholesale level (although more sophisticated reporting methods are coming into play).

In a recent New York Times story about a drop in prices at the Metropolitan Opera, I was startled by the assertion that grosses were down in part because donor support for rush tickets had been reduced. Does that mean that fewer tickets were being offered because there wasn’t underwriting for the difference in price? Does it mean that the donor support was actually being recognized as ticket revenue, instead of contributed income? What does it mean for the future of the rush program if the money isn’t replaced – less low-price access? No matter how you slice it, something is amiss.

That said, the Met Opera example brings out an aspect of not-for-profit success that is, to my eyes, less reported upon, namely contributed revenue. Yes, we see stories when a group gets a $1 million gift (in larger cities, the threshold may be higher for media attention). But we don’t get updates on better indicators of a company’s success: the number of individual donors, for example, showing how many people are committing personal funds to a group. The aggregate dollar figure will come out in an annual report or tax filing, but is breadth of support ever trumpeted by organizations or featured in the media? I think it should be. I also can’t help but wonder whether proclaiming high dollar grosses repeatedly might serve to suppress small donations.

Not-for-profit arts organizations exist in order to pursue creative endeavors at least in part in a manner different from the commercial marketplace. Make no mistake, the effort to generate ticket sales for a NFP is equivalent to that of a commercial production, but the art on offer is (hopefully) not predicated on reaching the largest audience possible for the longest period possible. When NFP’s proclaim box office sales records, they are adopting a wholly commercial mindset. While it may appeal to the media, because it aligns with other reportage of other similar fields, it disrupts the perception of the company and their mission. And look out when grosses drop, as they inevitably will at some point.

We all love a hit, whether it’s the high school talent show or a new ballet. But if all we can use to demonstrate our achievements is how big a pile of money we’ve made, well then forgive me if I’m a bit grossed out.


Print page

  • BigBob

    I don’t know about other people, but as a student and then a person in an entry-level job, I used the box-office figures that (then) appeared only in Variety to help me determine which shows were likely to have discounts. If a show was doing below 70 percent of capacity, I knew there was a pretty good chance I could find a discounted ticket for a not-bad seat on a weeknight. If a show was doing 95 percent or better, I didn’t waste my time. I knew that even if there was a discount, the seat would be obstructed-view or otherwise lousy.

    • Once upon a time, “the grosses” were useful for that. But now you can just get the TKTS app and get a fairly good idea. But as you point out, they were only in Variety then, which never bothered me quite so much for commercial work. I never understood why NFP Off-Broadway and regional companies used to report grosses to Variety as well.

  • Cara

    I agree with this. As an adult working a full time job (but getting paid WAY less than most professionals), I depend on discounted seats to shows. In fact it is a rare, rare occasion that I pay full price for a seat. They should be looking at seats sold. Yes, it takes money to make the world go ’round. But if you aren’t reaching everyone because you’re priced out of their range, is it worth it?

  • I am all for the publishing of non-profit theatres’ ticket revenues, so long as it’s part of a larger discussion about the economics of making theatre.

    As a producer/director in rehearsal for our first production, I intend to be fully transparent about the economics of making small/fringe theatre in our market (Boston). I want to engage our audiences in a discussion about what it costs to put on a show; from space rental, actor/crew/designer stipends (if any), costume/set/prop/lighting, etc.

    In many cases, the space rental is as much as half a production’s budget, leaving nothing for the actors and other artists. The venue’s staff gets paid, but artmakers themselves are volunteers.The facilities manager, the box office staff and the janitor get paid, the actors do not. Is the audience aware of this?

    And if they weren’t, how would this knowledge affect their behavior? Would they be more willing to give support beyond buying tickets? Would they lobby for more local/state/fed support of the arts?

    Full disclosure: all tickets to my theatre company’s shows are Pay What You Can, all our artists (actors, crew, designers, etc) receive stipends, and as producer, it’s a labor of love and I don’t take a dime (I have a day job). We’re either going to succeed wildly or go broke. I can’t wait to find out.

    • In the context of a fuller story about theatre economics, I agree that citing ticket revenue figures is entirely appropriate. It’s the one-off, “this show took in more money than any show previously” announcements that strike me as wholly out of character with, ostensibly, a core value of not-for-profit arts.

  • Love it, Howard. And I agree. Focusing on gross (whether earned or contributed income) is misleading.

    And after many years, my preference for contributed income remains a wide base on that pyramid. That’s building for the long-term. I’ll rejoice with everyone else at a big gift or an overall increase in income. But if it comes with a decline in the number of donors, I’d be clapping with a worried look on my face.

%d bloggers like this: