Sales and marketing, the discipline that results in (it is hoped) purchase of actual tickets by audience members (it does happen, ya know), is an art equal in complexity and importance to the better known aspects of putting on a show like directing and acting.
Marketing is actually MORE important, because it’s harder to get an audience to turn out than it is to create a compelling piece of drama on stage. The real art form, then, is not theatre itself – it’s cultivating and attracting an audience.
The psychology of selling tickets is a big topic, and there’s a lot to it. People like to get a deal, but they also don’t want to miss out on what’s popular. Along that knife edge of desire and fear they tiptoe. If you pay full freight for a ticket only to see a half off sale soon after, you feel like a dolt. But if you hold your bluff too long waiting for a better offer and you’re wrong and the show sells out and everyone else sees it – then you’re really screwed.
Meanwhile, theatres want to fill seats, because an empty room looks HORRIBLE. And even as the relationship between ticket sales and theatre budgets grows more tenuous for smaller theatres, and some of them seemingly abandon ticket sales as a major source of funding, moving more towards grants and philanthropic support for their money, producers still want to get some kind of income from tickets.
In this brutal danse macabre of capitalism, buyer and seller don their poker faces, circle warily, and size each other up. “Tickets selling fast!” the seller whistles. “Better hurry before it sells out!” “A friend said it was half empty last week,” the buyer retorts. “Last time you guys did a show I got tickets for $20 at the last minute.”
Oh the drama!
Watch larger theatre centers like New York and you’ll notice this fascinating white knuckle game between audience and theatre play out over and over on each show. As a theatre, you want to make sure the audience member wants your ticket and is sufficiently worried that everyone else also wants it and that the show may sell out. But if tickets aren’t selling, you also need a way to offer specials. As an audience member, you want to hold out until the absolute best possible deal, which can be around 80% off depending. So you carefully watch all indicators to see how the show is doing. Are people coming?
If a New York theatre does have to unload tickets at the booth or via other discount channels, they want to limit the visibility of any sales as much as possible – because like a pack of hungry jackals, the value-obsessed audience is watching for any sign of blood in the water to pounce. More than a few diehard theatregoers have exulted “It’s in the booth!!!” after discovering the show they have been holding out for is now 40% off, with the same emotion football fans feel when the home team gets a Super Bowl touchdown. High fives all around.
But there are ways to discretely move tickets without alerting the world that the ship is sinking.
For example, there may be tickets available on TDF just for the next day or two. That way, people who want deals get one, but it doesn’t look like the entire show is doing badly. It looks like a little fill in is needed. If you’re interested in the show for farther out, you’re still running scared that there may not be any more deals. There are a few deals right now, but those may be gone soon. Or a show may be on TKTS daily – but never on TDF.
What you will never, ever see an experienced New York marketer do is put the entire run of their show on advance sale in the discount window for the world to see. That simply broadcasts that there’s about as much demand for the show as there is for Donald Trump to give the keynote talk at the next Mexican-American Friendship Forum luncheon.
And presumably that is because what’s on offer isn’t very good. Unloading all your tickets at the curb tells the audience that what you have, no one wants. And that makes the problem even worse. Because now everyone who maybe wanted to see the show before is checking their own enthusiasm and downgrading initial appraisals. “The whole run is in the booth? Let’s see something else.” This verdict of the market hits home like a bad review.
Portland’s equivalent of TKTS and TDF is Goldstar. Despite the potential brand damage done by offering inventory in the equivalent of an online dollar store, many theatres are using it. Doesn’t this simply kill demand even further, training people to never subscribe or buy tickets in advance, because they can always get stuff for close to free at the ensuing last minute fire sale? To any rational producer, if the market is only willing to pay $8 for a show at a real theatre space (which is like half the cost of a night’s parking downtown), the sane reaction is to not put on the show to begin with. But the last thing some theatres consider is whether there is any demand for what they offer. These shows are primarily for the performers – not the audience.
Still, there are reasonable ways to use Goldstar if you have to. And crazy ways. What does is say to the audience if, weeks before your show even opens, the entire run is already on sale for $8 on Goldstar?
And yet that’s what Portland Shakespeare Project is doing. Low prices have a very real cost to the entire theatre ecosystem. It is in no one’s interest to train the audience to think that theatre even in some of Portland’s largest spaces is only worth $8. This is like price fixing – but on the wrong end of the spectrum. It’s cannibalizing the market, downgrading the entire product category. If you can’t sell main stage shows for $8 – don’t put on a show. It hurts everyone. In this case it’s probably also a sign that #PeakShakespeare has long ago been reached in Portland.
Remember: It’s not about price, it’s about quality. If it’s good, the audience will pay ANY price. If it’s not good, the audience won’t come even if you give tickets away.
If they’re not coming, it’s not about price.