Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Lure of Star Power

I just finished reading's Top Theatre Stories of the Year. The leading story discusses how stars sell tickets, and in a year with a down economy, it seems that the only thing that sells tickets are the stars. From this little story it seems clear that if you don't have an A-list star in your show, don't even try a Broadway transfer.

Arena Stage in the past few seasons has been lucky enough to host a few stars, most notably Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking and Valerie Harper in Looped (and not surprisingly, both productions found their way to Broadway). From a marketing perspective, nothing makes my job easier than a star, particularly stars that are lovely to work with as both Carrie and Valerie were. But let's be honest, it doesn't take a marketing genius to sell tickets to star powered vehicles. And it isn't just New York that has a taste for the stars. The Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Kennedy Center just presented two star productions that sold out immediately: Phedre with Helen Mirren and A Streetcar Named Desire with Cate Blanchett. It used to be that New York and Los Angeles were the cities that needed stars to sell, but it looks like DC might be going that way as well. Or maybe the entire country.

But there are problems with stars as well:

1. Star productions are a gamble, especially for regional theaters. Most Broadway productions can guarantee stars, but regional theaters for the most part cannot. Regional theaters tend to announce productions and casts several months before a show opens in time to sell subscriptions and advanced single tickets. However, during the time between the announcement and the opening, a star can get a better offer from a Broadway production, television series or movie which will lead them to pull out of the regional production, leaving audiences with an expectation that theaters can no longer fill.

2. Most times even with a guaranteed star appearance, run lengths have to be shortened as the schedules of most stars won't allow them to appear for a run length of several weeks, meaning that these productions will more than likely be off subscription. To capitalize on the star production, many theaters use them to boost subscription sales by only allowing subscribers to purchase the very limited quantity of single tickets to the star show. However, often times, patrons will purchase the cheapest subscription package available only for the opportunity to purchase the star production, and then won't attend the rest of the subscription shows leaving theaters with half empty audiences throughout the season.

3. Are regional theaters building an appetite for something they cannot always feed? If theaters have a couple of successful years of bringing in stars for productions, what happens when they can't find a star production for a year or two? In essence, they have built an event based audience that they can't always feed. And in this case, these types of patrons aren't loyal to the company, they are loyal to productions that feature stars. They are the most fickle of any audience segment. The first time you don't deliver, they will move on to somebody that is.

4. Are regional theaters teaching hoards of future patrons that only star vehicles deserve their patronage by filling their programming with stars if and when they get them? Or even a larger concern for me, what about those companies that regularly program poorly conceived productions that showcase a star over a brilliantly produced production without a star? The Playbill article focuses on this issue, citing several poorly reviewed, star centric productions on Broadway that financially recouped along with numerous well reviewed productions that lacked stars which struggled from day one.

There is no doubt about it--a star production can be fun. Your audiences will love them, you will sell plenty of tickets, and they will bring national attention to your part of the world. However, like anything else, maybe some moderation is in order?

1 comment:

Scott said...

Good thoughts Chad. Following up with your cautions are my myths/experience:

1. Star Power = Box Office Power. Maybe / maybe not. Whose "star" brings in the crowd? Or for that matter is that the crowd you want to attract for a long term patron relationship or just their cash?

2. Star Power = Star-Quality Theatre. (the Star could be an actor -- or a director, designer, composer, etc.) Same maybe/maybe not scenario. Besides, if we communicate that "great must-see theatre" is only made when the Star is on-board, we diminish a talent and commitment of our resident artists/company members/local talent who help make our community and theatre Great.

3. The Star should augment our success, & we should be a better theatre because of their work here. As a collective agreement, we need to leverage what we can learn, not just earn, from all of our talented artists - even the ones that have accumulated a level of "stardom" or notoriety.

Thanks and Happy New Year Chad.