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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Lower Ticket Prices and Corporate Underwriting

In order to massively reduce ticket prices, would you be comfortable with an dramatic increase in corporate underwriting? I'm thinking of the Signature Theater Company, whose ticket prices are wonderfully low, but have a boatload of corporate sponsors who underwrite the cost of those tickets.

We all want to see ticket prices come down across the board, but without government funding, it seems unlikely anyone can get there without renaming themselves "The Apple Store Theater Company" or "Microsoft's Players" or "Time Warner's Improv."

Let's suppose that all of the established Off-Broadway and Broadway Theaters received buckets of cash, reduced prices, but received corporate branding... would that be a deal that effectively extends the audience for plays? Would it cause a chilling effect in bolder works (politically challenging plays might not make some corporate sponsors happy, for example)? Or is the only real issue that a big corporate logo ontop of the Public would look crass-as-all-hell?

So...is it a deal you'd be willing to see, if it meant that ticket prices would uniformly drop everywhere?


MattJ said...

Of course! More corporate underwriting would be fantastic. What exactly would be the problem? Feeling like you're making a deal with the devil? Why must it be Us Vs. Them?

Tim said...

I think the only way this deal could work would be that corporations have no say in the programming of the theater. And I think theaters would have to be careful about who they let sponsor them and make sure they want to get into bed with certain corporations. After that, I don't see much problem.

Ian G. said...

Well, it would in many ways be a return to the old Elizabethan/Jacobean model, where theatre companies had to have a noble patron to avoid all its members being chucked into jail as vagabonds, which is why all the theatre companies went around with names like "The Lord Chamberlain's Men", "The Admiral's Men", "Lord Strange's Men" and so forth. Companies also needed a wealthy patron to subsidize their productions, provide costumes, and most importantly give them connections to the court so they could give private command performances for the Queen and other bigwigs; the fees for the command performances were where the real money in the theatre biz was. A penny a head in the outdoor theatres, even if you cram in 3000 people, is nothing when you can get 500 crowns for one performance of "Merry Wives" for Gloriana Regina herself.

This is basically the same idea, though in 21st-century America our equivalent of wealthy noble households are big corporate behemoths. We'd be asking some big corporation to be our Lord Strange, and the subsidy they'd provide would make it possible to still charge the equivalent of a penny a head for the hoi polloi and still remain financially viable. There's a long historical precedent for this sort of thing, which is why I'm not as immediately repulsed by the idea as some.

But, but, but. As it did then, the patronage of the wealthy comes with strings attached. They will probably insist on the right to approve or censor the content of the plays performed according to their own best interest. You couldn't just do what you want or say what you want (God knows Shakespeare couldn't - Google his name and the word "Oldcastle" for just one example). And you'd probably have to work in a certain amount of corporate product placement (there are apparently dozens in "Legally Blonde": watch how the delivery boy makes sure the giant UPS logo on his package is always in full view of the audience). And yeah, you'd have to endure ridiculous naming privileges, we'd probably end up with stuff like "The Juicy Fruit Arts Center", or "FedEx Kinko's Festival of New American Plays", or "KPMG/PriceWaterhouse Stage" or even "The American Airlines Theatre".

The best solution is for a company to agree to give you lots of money with minimal interference, like the deal the RSC got with booze moguls Allied Domecq about ten years ago. They had to put "sponsored by Allied Domecq" in small type under their logo for the few years of the sponsorship, but they were pretty much left alone. Of course, this was the RSC. Somehow I doubt that if Blue Coyote was "brought to you by Verizon" they'd be able to have a character whip out an iPhone in a scene and avoid an angry phone call the next morning. But it is possible - I don't think anyone sponsoring Signature's $10 tickets is insisting their nephew be cast in "Two Trains Running". If it still gives you the freedom you need to do what you want to do, I don't see a problem. Just make sure the strings attached are ones you can live with, and if so, corporate sponsorship could be a blessing.

RLewis said...

"We all want to see ticket prices come down across the board..."

In jest I'd say, "speak for yourself, buddy." But seriously, don't many of us already have a problem with buying high and selling cheap? If lower prices are a selling point for indie theater, wouldn't cheap mainstream theater undercut these emerging arts? Think if $55(mst) vs $15(emerging)- i'll take emerging - moves down to $20(mst) vs. $5(emerging)- i'll take mst.

And do we really care how much a tourist pays for broadway tickets, if they're willing and able? Do the MTC blue hairs really need a cheaper seat to sleep in? And in downtown’s ‘show me yours, I’ll show you mine’ world, we’re all just passing around the same 15 bucks.

The Hannah Montana concert could probably get all the corp' support it'd want, but I doubt that would make tickets cheaper. Wouldn't market forces work in opposition to the premise?

We're already giving away so much of the arts that regular folks think is must have no value. I'm beginning to believe that charging more for tickets is sometimes a selling point ("it must be worthy"). Wouldn’t higher ticket prices be a sign of arts health relative to other entertainment options (either that, ineptness, or madness)?

I have no problem with corp' underwriting - we're all pimpin' one way or the other. But I doubt indie theaters with their limited visibility would be of interest to any corp’ with the necessary dollars, so the winners would still be the same “haves”. I'd rather have better theater than cheaper theater.

Freeman said...

The big "if" which is that accepting corporate sponsorship may well bring in corporate involvement and meddling. Certainly, there's no question that more money coming in could mean a lot of problems are alleviated. And, as Ian notes, there's history for this. And history of meddling.

So what are the chances that a corporation would wind up involving themselves in the artistic choices of a theater? On one hand, it seems like PR suicide to be charitable and then obviously try to censor artists...especially in this day and age, when a few blog posts can get you crucified in the press.

On the other hand... once a theater begins to rely on funding sources that are of that high a level, some sort of self-censorship might also be inevitable. And speaking out against things like, shall we say, corporate corruption starts to come off as hypocritical if you're overflowing with corporate money.

How effective would Walmartopia be if it was playing at the Snapple Theater?

Freeman said...

RLewis brings up a good point...which is sometimes lower prices, in the minds of patrons, can mean less value. That might not be necessarily true for all, but there is some precedent.

If you give something away for free, people think a bit less of its value, perhaps, than something that's expensive. There's no real difference (for example) between cheap Vodka and Grey Goose except the price tag and the bottle.

Lawrence Goodman said...

The real question is how far do we want to push corporate sponsorship. Film has long allowed corporate sponsors to insert their products into the actual movie. Why do we resist doing the same in theater? Instead of a generic Scotch in the script, mention Dewars. Instead of a bland couch, get one from Crate and Barrel (if it's appropriate to the setting of course) and credit Crate and Barrel in the program.

Yes, there's a risk of compromising to your corporate maker, but most theaters are already highly dependent on corporations for funding now. If they are going to compromise their artistic integrity, then they probably have done it already.

Theater is dying. Just to keep it alive is going to take some radical new approaches, and yes, even some uncomfortable compromises.