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Greetings after a bit of a hiatus, and welcome to the 2014-2015 touring season!

Actually, the season pretty much started back in September, so we’re in the thick of it now!

But how did we get to this point? Hundreds of touring engagements will make their way across North America this season, as they do every season. What are the basic mechanics of the business that make that happen year after year? What’s the timeline?

Well, aren’t you glad you found The Road 101, because it is here where you’ll find out how that wholllle process works! A process that is a long, complex, ongoing cycle. There are many places I could begin, but for this post, I am going to begin discussing this cycle with the Tony Awards Nominations as a starting point, which typically take place at the end of April.

There are many types of shows that are out on The Road in a season and it is often a foregone conclusion that many of these will be back out there — the blockbuster, the second and third year tour, the non-Equity tour, the special attraction, and the smaller Off Broadway type show that has built its brand over many years, are just some examples.

Then, there are the new shows coming from Broadway in the current season. So, in this case, we’re talking the 2014-2015 Broadway season. These shows are the touring question marks. Which ones will make it out on The Road in 2016-2017? That’s right. Wrap your head around that for a second so you can follow along. The shows running on Broadway in 2014-2015 are being considered for touring in 2016-2017.

The Broadway 2014-2015 season is still evolving as I write this post, and booking agents (some already representing some of these shows) and presenters are watching closely which Broadway shows will make it through the season and rise to the top. When the Tony nominations come out in April 2015, that is a moment when certain shows could get a key boost, especially those shows nominated for Best Musical. Though agents and presenters are seeing shows throughout the entire season, it is typically during Tony Awards season when many in the industry check out Broadway to see which are most likely to end up being viable touring properties. A lot of this theatre-going happens during the annual Spring Road Conference, which typically takes place between the Tony nominations and the Tony Awards. Now, winning a Tony Award this season does not necessarily guarantee that a show will go out on tour for the 2016-2017 season. There are many factors that a producer and a general manager need to take into consideration before deciding if their show is viable enough for a tour:

  1. Did the show make it through Tony season in good shape both from an awards standpoint and a box office standpoint?
  2. Did the show make a good impression on enough presenters?
  3. Can the show offer a deal that presenters can work with?

Okay, so, the 2015 Tony Awards have happened and we are now in summer 2015. The blockbusters, second year tours and non-Equity tours are largely routed and slotted in for the 2016-2017 touring season. The booking agents are also more clear at this point regarding which of the new 2014-2015 Broadway shows they represent will likely make it out on The Road in 2016-2017, and which will fall by the wayside. The final part of the 2016-2017 touring season programming process is now in full swing as booking agents and presenters work through final deals and tour routing. Again, these interactions happen throughout the year, but it is during the summer and into the early fall where all programming MUST be finalized.

Why must programming be finalized by fall 2015? Because it is at this point that presenters need to then begin figuring out how they want these shows to be priced. It is important to be thoughtful about all the details that go into pricing and to consider all data and history available to maximize profit. If an engagement is not priced and discounted correctly at the outset, there is the chance that the engagement could lose money, or, conversely, it may make money, but if it was underpriced and over-discounted at the outset there is a chance of “leaving money on the table,” meaning even more money could have been made. The opportunity to maximize profit is then further exploited via dynamic pricing.

So, once the presenter decides on the pricing for a show, which includes prices for singles, subscribers and groups, the presenter then sends this pricing to the show’s booking agent for consideration, which oftentimes ends up turning into a back and forth negotiation. Again, multiply this step by many, many engagements that need to go through this detailed process. For a large company like Broadway Across America with numerous markets, the ticket pricing process takes several months to complete. During the pricing process, things move fast and timing is everything, as prices need to be agreed to by the show and the presenter and locked in quickly so the marketing teams can then get to work on creating the brochures, which will include these prices and discounts, and which need to go into the mail to subscribers by certain established deadlines.

The time is now winter of 2015-2016. The 2016-2017 pricing process is beginning to wind down as we move into March. The booking agents and presenters are making any final little programming and deal tweaks to the 2016-2017 season while at the same time are also in the process of booking the 2017-2018 touring season. Meanwhile, as all this is happening, don’t forget, the 2015-2016 engagements are currently out on the road on tour requiring constant management through the end of their tours in May or June, each engagement culminating in its own final bravo – settlement.

And now, it’s Tony Awards season again. Which brings us back to where we started.

Pfew. Did you follow all that? Yeah, I’m still learning to wrap my head around it, too, and I WORK in the business!

In the end, this is just a broad overview of how the booking and pricing cycle works as I have come to understand it. It is likely that others in the industry would have other details to add, but this should give you a pretty good sense of the general timing of it all.

If you have questions, feel free to email me anytime at robin@theroad101.com. If I don’t get back to you immediately, please forgive me. I’m probably swamped in pricing for 2015-2016.

woman-tearing-hair-out

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Tony Award-winning Best Actor in a Musical, Billy Porter as Lola in the Tony Award-winning Best Musical,  KINKY BOOTS

Tony Award-winning Best Actor in a Musical, Billy Porter as Lola in the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, KINKY BOOTS

With the Tony Awards behind us, talk has started about what shows will tour in 2014-2015. My personal opinion has been that, while receiving a Tony Award is wonderful, it doesn’t have a major effect on whether a tour will succeed.

Here’s a post from a few years ago where I talk about Tony Awards and tours.

The Columbus Dispatch, per this article from a few days ago, also has some opinions.

What about you? What’s your opinion?

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tony award trophy

At the end of this post is a link to a recent New York Times article giving a bit of a Tony Awards wrap up. Despite not winning Best Musical, MATILDA THE MUSICAL was already doing well at the box office and has a solid advance. However, the challenge now is trying to decide whether or not to go on tour in the 2014-2015 season. Seems like a no-brainier given the show’s popularity, but the producer, Michael David, while expecting the show to go on tour, realizes the challenges of building a touring version that retains what makes the show so dynamic and special, while at the same time is practical enough from a costs standpoint, as well as creating a version that will fit technically and aesthetically into all the different theaters it would tour in around North America.

Tony Win Gives Box Office Boost to ‘Kinky Boots’

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With the 2012 Tony Awards behind us, it is now much clearer which shows will have a tour in the 2013-14 season. Even before it’s numerous Tony wins, ONCE The Musical announced it would be going out on The Road.

I believe ONCE, though, could potentially face some challenges on The Road. The show is based on a film, but it was a small indie film, and because the title lacks the kind of name recognition that a more widely-released movie does, the show is probably going to need some sort of “sellable” name in the cast to give it a bit more of a boost in attracting single ticket buyers. ONCE will be on subscription, but being on subscription alone is no longer a guarantee that an engagement will be profitable. I believe selling single tickets will more than likely be necessary for the engagement to go into decent overage in larger theaters, more or less so depending on how reachable break-even is, what the labor costs are, the rate of the weekly guarantee, and just overall how shrewdly and economically the touring production is built.

And that is what is possibly going to be the biggest challenge – how to successfully build an intimate show for The Road that will sometimes be presented in very large houses. Yes, ONCE is now on Broadway, but the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater only has a capacity of just a little over 1,000, which practically feels like a black box in comparison to some of the gigantic houses on The Road such as in Atlanta, St Louis, Costa Mesa, Portland and Toronto. That said, it is the responsibility of experienced producers to know The Road, and to know how to build all sorts of shows to work in the many different kinds of houses throughout North America. So my concerns about the intimate and delicate ONCE fitting well in large houses could very well end up being completely quashed, which is what I’m certainly hoping for! After all, the show did make an incredibly successful transfer from New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway when many doubted that the scale of the story and overall show itself would translate in a Broadway house. Other shows making Off-Broadway to Broadway transfers have not always had such good luck.

Here is a recent article that touches a bit on ONCE and some concerns about it playing in a larger space, suggesting if the show can be persuaded to do a sit-down at a smaller theater, that this would be the ideal scenario.

I tend to agree, but I’ve been wrong before…more than once.

TORONTO STAR

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The inimitable James Corden, star of the hilarious London import, ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, currently running on Broadway and nominated for seven Tony Awards, talks frankly about why touring is so frustrating for him!

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PLAYS ON THE ROAD

Historically, The Road has tended to embrace musicals more than plays, (as one conference attendee quipped, “no one walks out of a play humming the scenery”) but the ratio of plays being booked compared to musicals has been going down even more in recent years. Yet, why is that? It would seem that there would be financial advantages to presenting a good play, and just looking at Broadway alone this season, there are certainly good plays a-plenty out there.

At the Tuesday 5/15 afternoon session, “PLAYS ON THE ROAD,” a panel of presenters, producers and bookers explained why touring plays has become less desirable and more risky economically compared to the past.

Commitment Issues

Much more so than a musical, a play tends to require a “star” to attract audiences when it goes out on tour, and a tour really needs a star to commit a good year and a half to two years out when presenters are beginning to put together their seasons. Presenters don’t want to put a “TBA” in their brochures, and they certainly don’t want to still have any roles “TBA” six months out, yet that is when many stars feel comfortable making a commitment to a touring project since they are more likely to know then if any film or TV commitments would conflict.

Regional Competition

Many touring venues are in markets that have regional theaters and resident theater companies, and these nfps have a tendency to do mostly plays. As a result, Road presenters don’t want to risk doing a title that one of these local organizations would produce on their seasons.

Less Weeks To Amortize

Plays have a tendency to not book as many weeks on The Road as musicals. As a result, plays have less weeks to amortize costs. This reality makes plays much riskier to present compared to musicals, which are more likely to have multi-week engagements and longer touring schedules.

Plays On The Road And Multiple-Week Runs?

By the time word of mouth gets going, a play is often already on its way out of town since plays tend to be booked for just one week (certainly in secondary markets) so on the one hand, plays need to be presented for more than one week in order to mitigate the risk. At the same time, however, some markets, especially those with modest sub load-ins, may not be able to fill their houses enough to make a profit, or hit break-even, for more than a one-week run of a play.

Play vs. Musical Appeal

Another thing that presenters take into consideration is that musicals tend to have the same appeal across markets, whereas a play that is received well in Louisville may not be The Ahmanson’s cup of tea. Therefore, presenters and bookers often feel that finding one play property to fit the bill in enough markets is a far greater challenge compared to musicals.

Changes In The Industry

Another factor that comes into play is price, which used to be a play’s big advantage over a musical. Now, however, the price to present a play is no longer as attractive as it once was in comparison to a musical. A few years ago, a new contract called the SETA contract (Short Engagement Touring Agreement) became available. This contract has a Guarantee cap. As a result, when musicals tour under SETA, the Guarantee is not necessarily much different, and, may even be less is some cases, than the weekly Guarantee for a play.

A New Model?

While the realities expressed were certainly disheartening, one bit of light was that the panelists, as well as other conference attendees, voiced their support of plays, and their desire to still present them, and believed plays could still be booked if The Road could come up with a model that would make touring plays less risky. Here were a few ideas that were brought up in this session:

  1. Perhaps for a 30-week tour ask 3 different celebrities to commit to just 10 weeks.
  2. Tour in rep several plays under the brand “Tony-Award Winning Plays” or “Tony-Nominated Plays” (though Producer/General Manager, Stuart Thompson pointed out that this could be a challenge to get these licenses since the plays could probably earn more on a single license at one theater)
  3. Include a sit-down in New York City as part of the 30-week tour. This might also make the tour more attractive to a star.
  4. Can presenters think creatively to reduce their costs, or negotiate with local unions?

The fact of the matter is, producers, bookers and presenters all really like plays, and have seen the positive impact that plays have had on audience members, but the commercial theater touring industry is a business. It’s a business where both labor costs and risks are high, so presenters have become cautious when considering plays for their seasons, despite how they feel about plays emotionally.

Hopefully, some of the new model ideas that people offered at this session, or other ideas, will build momentum, and plays on The Road will gain the larger presence they deserve.

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On May 1 at 8:30AM EST the 2012 Tony Award nominees were announced. There are a number of exciting races, but with regard to The Road and the 2013-2014 touring season, it will be interesting to see if the charming and romantic ONCE, beloved by many, can beat Disney’s popular, large-scale NEWSIES. Will Road presenters “vote with their heart” for ONCE, as many did back in 2004 with the modest AVENUE Q, which beat out the mammoth WICKED for Best Musical? NEWSIES doesn’t need the Tony accolade as much with the well-established Disney brand behind it. If the lesser-known ONCE does not win for Best Musical, might that affect presenter confidence in the show’s ability to attract subs and singles, who may not be acquainted with the title?

And here are the nominees …

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