Commentary: Star-driven revivals on Broadway are keeping out new work

Patrick Healy, The New York Times, 2/5/13

Hollywood stars like [Scarlett] Johansson and Al Pacino have become so essential to Broadway that they are calling the shots as never before, bringing back plays that were seen only a few years earlier. "The thing that slightly depresses me is the resulting and consequent lack of brave, new work appearing seasonably on the Broadway stages," said Jack O'Brien, a Tony-winning director of plays and musicals. "It's all or nothing at the box office, making the surefire star name into the only game." As producers choose to do star-driven revivals, some are invariably passing up new plays. Jeffrey Richards, for instance, brought back Glengarry Glen Ross in the same season he was supposed to do a new play on Broadway, the Pulitzer finalist Detroit, which ended up running Off Broadway. Mr. Richards said he was able to attract investors far more easily for Glengarry. André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, a nonprofit that mounts Broadway shows, avoided the fad by producing the recent revival of Golden Boy without stars: "Star casting is totally understandable and can even be exciting, but it is most effective if the stars in question are good actors, are well or creatively cast, and their names actually help in the raising of money and selling of tickets. In the old days there were 'theater' stars who were and did all that." Ms. Johansson said she was open to the idea of doing a new play on Broadway, but added that she and many actors have also dreamed about [playing certain classic roles].


Commentary: How many star vehicles actually recoup on Broadway?

Ken Davenport, Producer's Perspective blog, 2/15/13

You know what everyone is saying these days, right? If you want to make money on The Broadway, then you gotta have a star. We dug into the archives of the last ten years [and] determined that of the 30+ star vehicles (we excluded shows where the stars played themselves, e.g. William Shatner, John Leguizamo, Colin Quinn, etc.), 66% made money. 33% did not. Did you expect it to be higher? Yep, unfortunately what many of us think may be a guarantee is only a 2 out of 3 shot at getting one in the win column. If we use the industry standard percentages of 1 out of 4/5 shows recoup, then adding a star seems to increase those odds...but only by about 30-40%. "Wait, Ken, that's a big percentage! That's doubling your show to make money!" 'Tis true. BUT what are you giving up for that increase of 30-40%? Well, in most big star vehicles the salaries and profit shares have gotten so humongo that the upside for the investors is limited. So, sure, you're getting a better chance at getting your money back, but you're giving up probably double that or more in upside (especially since most star vehicles are by nature limited runs, where non-star vehicles can run for years).


Commentary: Invest in marketing unknown performers and make them stars

Pete Miller, 2AM Theatre blog, 2/13/13

Celebrity is one of the strongest social forces in America. Increasingly, though, people are responding to "narrow fame;" that is, being [known] among a modest sized niche of people. Theatre companies can take advantage of this phenomenon by promoting their currently unknown performers as though they were already well known. I am indebted for this idea to DC actor Danny Gavigan and a bunch of his friends for a recent Facebook thread. Danny posted a question about why local actors' names are not used in theatre marketing imagery when their faces are. The level of commentary and discourse that followed was, for the internet, unusually high. The most nearly persuasive argument against [this idea] is that any additional language on advertising has the potential to distract a viewer from the central call to action. It's not an idiotic concern. Clutter in many circumstances does depress choice. However for art theatre, mass advertising is a less productive tool. Most of your communication should be directed to people with whom you already have some connection and plan to have a connection into the future. Jason Schlafstein of Flying V Theatre brought into the discussion the idea that including the name of an unknown who you want to work with in the future is essentially an investment. You are teaching audience members that performer's name. Do that a few times over a few years, and with your target audience, you may help that performer achieve a narrow fame that you can harvest as a draw on future productions. If including actor names in your imagery is the only thing you do to teach audience about your stable of go-to actors, you probably won't make much headway. However, as one tactic in a broad strategy to build relationships and admiration between your artists and your audience members, it could be a significant contributor.


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Top 5 mistakes nonprofits make when approaching celebrities for fundraising

Colleen Dilenschneider on her blog Know Your Own Bone, 9/4/12

1) Understand that being a nonprofit is not unique. When asked why they think celebrities will consider taking part in an event, many nonprofit folks seem to respond, "because it's a good deed." I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your organization is probably not the only one asking for a celebrity's time and energy in the name of social good. Nonprofits generally over-estimate the uniqueness of the opportunity for a celebrity to align him/herself with a social mission. Celebrities can do this without your nonprofit (many simply start their own nonprofits). 

2) Immediately articulate the return on investment in terms that matter most to the celebrity (not to you). When reaching out, come knowing the details and exactly why your mission fits with the celebrity's mission and overall brand persona. Don't lead with the "charity" card, lead with the "fit" card (though charity might be an element of that). Ask yourself, "how can we help the celebrity do what they care about?" Successful organizations will do diligent research, find out where passions cross, and make an ask or create an event that caters to that unique focus. They make sure there's a good fit so they can make the right ask.

3) Do not overestimate locality. In the connected world that we live in today, celebrities don't "belong" to any single place. In fact, they often strive to be a global brand. Understand that when asking a celebrity to do a hometown event, you should do your research to be sure that the celebrity actually is actively involved with or maintains connections to that town. While having the "hometown" card (or a similar location-based affinity card) in your hand may be helpful, don't overestimate it as a driving indicator of fit.

4) Know that your nonprofit lends credibility, not reach. Many (mostly larger) nonprofits misunderstand what they bring to the table by trying to bait celebrities with statistics on reach. If you try to encourage engagement by saying, "our museum has 1.5 million visitors annually," to a celebrity who had 4.5 million people see their movie last weekend alone, then something is wrong. However, many nonprofits do have something that can be extremely valuable to a celebrity - credibility.  For celebrities with causes that they greatly care about, this can be a big driver of engagement. 

5) Make it easy to say "yes" and understand that if you are requesting their skill set, you should offer to pay them. While time is indeed money, asking a celebrity to work for free is still different than requesting an appearance. For instance, if you want to hold a concert with a well-known musician and sell tickets as a fundraiser, you should generally expect to pay the talent. In a few instances that I've witnessed, the celebrity has declined the fee and/or donated back the fee. However, nonprofits must understand that it is not their right to a celebrity's free talent. Also, make it easy for the celebrity to say "yes." If you come in having done your research and knowing exactly what you want and what you can offer in return, you're saving time and increasing the likelihood of engagement.

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