Three years after it premiered in the NT Olivier, the stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse continues to be the National’s biggest earner – and, according to NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner, speaking at a press briefing held today on publication of the NT’s 2009-10 Annual Report, it’s the “stroke of good fortune” that’s most likely to see the National through the harsh funding times ahead.

Galloping ahead at the box office

In the transfer at the New London, War Horse took a whopping £13.2 million at the box office in the last financial year, ended 30 March 2010 (on top of the £2.7 million and £2.3 million it made in the previous two years in its first two South Bank runs). And, as the sole producer of the West End production, the National reaps the full benefit – an additional £2.5 million surplus for War Horse alone after expenditure.

Overall, War Horse accounted for a full 20% of the NT’s £64.5 million income for the year – compared with 27% from the box office of all its other productions combined, 9% from fundraising, 14% from trading and other matters and 30% from its Arts Council Grant of £19.3 million. The reduction in the proportion of turnover from subsidy is dramatic – and quite recent. In 1980, subsidy accounted for 60% of the National’s turnover; as recently as 2002, it was still nearly half.

Also significant is the figure of £64.5 million – which represents a doubling of turnover in just eight years. The 2009-10 year ended with an unrestricted operating surplus of £495,000.

War Horse’s contribution to the NT coffers will only grow in future. After the success of a TV advertising campaign, the West End production is now carrying an advance of £2.1 million. It will be followed by an opening in Toronto in January 2012 ahead of New York (of which the NT is financing 30%), a US tour launching in summer 2012 and an international tour launching that autumn. The theatre will also receive more income from the Making of War Horse DVD (its first self-produced documentary) and share in royalties from Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming film adaptation of War Horse.

South Bank attendances down

Thanks to War Horse’s 400,000 West End customers, the National also achieved record attendances of 1.2 million for the year, averaging houses at 90% capacity. However, War Horse’s phenomenal popularity does mask a slight dip in performance at the National’s three-auditoria South Bank home, where, despite the introduction of year-round Sunday matinees, attendances were down year on year at 784,000 attendances (versus 817,000 in 2008-9) and 89% capacity (versus 93%).

Hytner said today that overall figures were impacted by last Christmas’ family production of Terry Pratchett’s Nation, which failed to emulate the success of War Horse or the NT’s earlier children’s book adaptations, Coram Boy and His Dark Materials. The NT staged a total of 26 productions in the year, 20 of them were new production and, of those, nine were new plays. Hits included David Hare’s The Power of Yes, Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, Katie Mitchell’s version of Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (the NT’s first show for three- to six-year-olds) and revivals of The White Guard, Phedre, Mother Courage and Her Children and London Assurance.

Entrepreneurial zeal

Other major developments in the period included the full launch, after an initial pilot, of NT Live, which the National aims to extend to more screenings (nine per year) and more companies (Complicite and the Donmar Warehouse are part of the already-announced second season). Last week, it was also granted planning permission for its long-discussed building renovations, now running under the project tile NT Future; the first gift of £4 million has already been received from the Monument Trust to realise these plans.

Taking War Horse and other such entrepreneurial opportunities as benchmarks, Hytner said that the National will weather the arts funding crisis ahead by “doing more and making more money”. And come what may, “we don’t intend to significantly reduce activities or to raise (ticket) prices”. Nor, as he’s said many times in the past, are they “going to respond to hard times by putting on an apparently safe repertoire – because I don’t believe a safe repertoire exists any longer”. They will continue to be “big, bold and risky” and they will work hard to share their expertise and good fortunes with other “more vulnerable” subsidised companies (See Today’s Other News).

As his NT executive director Nick Starr added: “This place works best when it’s working at full throttle.”