Andrew Snowdon

A Full House Beats a Flush

In Uncategorized on Thursday 30 December 2010 at 7:55

In mid-October, I had the chance to see Raoul Bhaneja perform Hamlet: solo at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. I went with Nancy Kenny and Linda Bedford, and we ran into (amongst others) local actor Corry Burke, who was at the time pursuing a seat on Ottawa City Council. After the performance, the four of us retired to the Royal Oak on Wellington to discuss politics, theatre, and marketing.

Here is the question I put to the table: all other things being equal, would you rather sell out every night of a two-week theatre production at 10% profit per ticket, or have half-houses every night for four weeks at 25% profit per ticket?

Mr. Burke (who is an awfully good sport for having put up with my spirited soapboxery) chose the latter. I asked him why. He replied that he wanted everyone who wanted to see a production to be able to see it.

I can think of no more noble and artistically motivated answer.

Unfortunately, this is not economically sound thinking, and would doom a professional theatre*, casting its actors, crew, and production staff into penury.

The trouble is this: you cannot warehouse theatre. It does not store well. There are no “leftovers”. There is no surplus. An essential component of theatre—and a key factor in its value—is time.

To the degree that something is scarce, it will become valuable. Reduced supply mimics, and in many cases causes, increased demand. This applies to any commodity (oil, gold, sugar, water even), and to entertainment as well. Music, film, television—any of the recording arts—currently find themselves devalued because their scarcity (limitation of supply) is threatened by almost limitless copying. This is much less possible with theatre. Therefore it is quite simple to manufacture an artificial scarcity.

If the concept of creating an artificial scarcity of theatre seems unethical to you, get away from the box office. You shouldn’t be anywhere near the money flow in a theatre if you are at all squeamish about turning people away at the door. An artificial scarcity of wheat is unethical; it places the value of money over that of human life. That’s different. Nobody is going to die because they didn’t get to see a play**.

The ideal scene of a performance run is not that everyone who wants to get in gets in, and there are seats left over. That is a waste. You can’t save those seats for later. The ideal scene is that the show sells out every night, the theatre is full to capacity, people are turned away at the door, and the house is worried about the fire marshal showing up.

Of course, a sold-out house means different things in different venues. Can your performance sell out the National Arts Centre? The GCTC? Fifty seats in an art gallery? The wrong way to approach this problem is to attempt to sell 500 tickets to an experimental play by an unknown local author (or worse, Yet Another Romeo and Juliet—although that may stand a chance). Choose your capacity so that it does sell out, and it will***.

You think that people coming out of a good play are your best advertisement? Try the ones that couldn’t get in! They’re free—and they’re loud.

Imagine running a theatre without having to discount last-minute tickets. Imagine having to extend a run because of popular demand.

Sold-out houses lead to advance ticket sales in the future.

And if you’re selling out, there will be a future.


* Barring the case of government subsidization, which establishes a welfare state for the arts. But that is a topic for another day.

** Of course, now someone is going to die just because they didn’t get to see a play, just to be obstinate.

*** There is, by the way, an equation to figure out what the most economically efficient length of run for a given capacity theatre is, taking publicity into account. Remind me to share it with you sometime.

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  1. I do not agree that turning people away (which happens when
    you sell out) is automatically good thing. Some of those people
    will be frustrated and won’t come back. HOWEVER, the buzz that can
    be generated with a sell-out is huge. The line-up we get at Capital
    Slam at the end of the season, when people know that to be late is
    to be turned away is awesome.

    • Well, that’s the thing, and it is quite true: someone who doesn’t get in may be turned off. I feel bad for those people; it’s happened to me on occasion. On the other hand, is someone who’s not going to come back just because they couldn’t get in is probably not your highest priority to please, I’m sorry to say (who wants an audience full of crankypantses?). I would wager that more people will be attracted by the buzz of a sell-out than will never come back because they couldn’t get in.

      With Capital Slam, you have a perfect example: people now know that they can’t be late because at the end of the season, it will sell out. You’ve had to move from a cozy venue to a full auditorium, and are still selling out.

      Yet people say poetry is dead.

  2. I want to know that equation, Kris! Perhaps I’m
    misunderstanding your definition of “profit per ticket”, but I
    think your math is wonky. 1) A sell-out run at 10% profit per
    ticket means that once expenses are covered, you’ve made 10% profit
    (regardless of your length of run). 2) A half-sold-out run that’s
    twice as long at 25% profit per ticket would return 25% profit. So
    you’re actually doing financially better in the second scenario.
    (How are you calculating profit per ticket? Do you mean an
    after-the-fact accounting, or an estimate before real sales happen
    based on your ticket price?) I think there are other issues to
    consider with short/long runs: How long does it take to create
    buzz? To get media attention? To get local awards committees to
    come see your show? Etc, etc. Does a short run tend to attract only
    people who are already aware of your company?

    • No, the math’s spot-on… and so is yours. It’s a variant of the Marshmallow Test. You are presented with two alternatives: one where the short-term gain is greater, and one where the potential long-term gain is greater. The general public doesn’t see your books; they have no idea that you made more cash or less.

      If you’re only interested in doing one show, one run, and then packing up shop, of course the second option is the one you should pick. You make more money.

      But if you’re in it for the long haul, no one production is a closed system.

      As for that equation, how long it takes to create a buzz figures into it directly.

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