Year of the Producer: Julius Green on … How to close a West End show

As avid consumers of theatre, we tend to talk more about openings on Whatsonstage.com. But what happens when audiences don’t come and a show is forced to close?
In his new book How to Produce a West End Show, which is launched next week (Wednesday 18 July 2012) Julius Green, senior producer at Bill Kenwright Ltd, lifts the lid on all aspects of producing in the commercial West End, including the inevitable end of a run. How does a producer know when the time is right? How can awards (including our own Whatsonstage.com Awards) help or hinder? How are closing notices posted? And what’s the difference between a perceived hit and an actual flop?

Green tells it straight to would-be producers in the following extract…

For all your efforts, it is statistically unlikely that the West End Show you have so lovingly nurtured into life will actually become a West End hit. Unless you happen to have stumbled across the next Blood Brothers or The Woman in Black your primary concern is now most likely to be preventing your show’s box office revenue from falling below the break figure and thereby making you vulnerable to eviction by your landlord.

You will know pretty well as soon as the ink is dry on the reviews whether or not your show has ‘legs’, and closely monitoring sales patterns in the weeks immediately following press night is critical to formulating the correct onward strategy. If your assessment is that you can at least play to the weekly break and meet your running costs for a period of time then you might as well give it a go, particularly if you are taking enough at the box office every week to bank a regular management fee.
By keeping the show running for a while you may even create a ‘perceived’ hit, though this can sometimes be a bit confusing for the investors when they don’t see any money coming in. And don’t forget that in staying on for longer you may well qualify for overseas rights and for residual income from amateur and repertory companies, which can be worth a few bob over time for a show that has benefited from the profile afforded by a ‘respectable’ West End run.

Most importantly, your production is likely to have gained sufficient credibility to undertake a post West End tour, so make sure you that you have at the very least secured a licence option for this. Such tours can be quite lucrative in their own right, though the production itself is likely to be completely remounted, with a new cast replacing the West End team, and possibly with an associate director at the helm.

It’s a sound business philosophy that you should never do anything for only one reason, and keeping a West End show running is no exception. As well as securing valuable future rights you may well be cementing valuable relationships with the writer, stars and creative team. If a play lasts for at least 16 weeks in the West End, or a musical for a year, then few people will remember how long it was originally supposed to be booking for. You’ll just have to ignore certain ghoulish websites which take a particular pleasure in pointing out premature theatrical closures.

Waiting for awards

Sticking around for a while may even qualify you for an award or two. Broadway producers notoriously attempt to schedule the opening of their shows in a manner that allows the shortest possible lead time for them to be judged for the Tony Awards. They may then close quickly if they don’t receive a nomination or if, having received a nomination, they don’t receive an actual award. In London, SOLT organises the annual Olivier Awards, presented in April and covering productions that have opened in the previous calendar year in its member theatres.

The continuing struggle to make the event as newsworthy as possible has resulted in a number of format changes over the years, but the real problem is not so much the issue of media coverage as the fact that the efforts of commercial West End producers are pitched directly against the major building-based subsidised companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Court. The latter invariably (and deservedly) sweep the board; if they didn’t then questions would be asked. With state of the art facilities, long rehearsal periods and an extensive repertoire of work including the pick of new writing, it would be a scandal if the subsidised sector didn’t come out on top in any qualitative assessment of London theatre.

As a result, it’s often slim pickings for commercial play producers, though the commercial sector tends to pick up the musical theatre gongs; we just have to hope that the RSC doesn’t decide that staging new musicals for West End presentation falls within its remit! Another consequence of rewarding the efforts of the subsidised theatres is that many of the awards go to productions that are no longer in repertoire; so with the best will in the world it is difficult to get as excited about the outcome of the contest for ‘best play’ as our Broadway colleagues do at Tony time.

Interestingly, the nominations shortlist is compiled through a postal ballot of all Society of London Theatre (SOLT) members, as opposed to the final selection which is made by a panel comprising ‘industry experts’ and some members of the public. This means that at least the nominations list is likely to include commercially produced work that is still running (you are even allowed to vote for your own shows), and that there can be a brief window of opportunity to capitalize on this in press advertising before you have to go and sit in an expensive seat in a dinner jacket and spend an evening watching the National Theatre triumph yet again. In the end, though, an annual dish of sour grapes is a small price to pay for being able to work in an industry that benefits from the existence of a thriving subsidised sector.

If you don’t scoop an Olivier then there are always the Evening Standard Awards and Critics’ Circle Awards; but given that these don’t even offer musical theatre categories, our subsidised friends tend to dominate yet again. The theatre website Whatsonstage.com does something to redress the balance with its increasingly high-profile ‘Theatregoers’ Choice’ Whatsonstage.com Awards. These are voted on by the public via the internet and feature numerous categories; and it is often instructive to see how the ‘people’ vote as opposed to the specialist panels fielded by the other awards.

For all the momentary hype surrounding the various ceremonies, however, and even if their timing is helpful to you, you are unlikely in reality to achieve any high-profile wins that will actually assist you at the box office. And unless you happen to qualify in a category with very few potential candidates then you are unlikely in any case to be garnering nominations for a production that has not caught the imagination of audiences and critics.

Cutting your losses
If things aren’t sparking at the box office then the temptation is to spend some of your reserve funds on additional advertising and marketing, and for obvious reasons this is the solution that your advertising and marketing agency will recommend. In reality, however, it is unlikely that this strategy is going to assist very much. If people don’t want to come to a show then they won’t, however many times and however many ways you suggest to them that they might like to. As Oscar Hammerstein II once remarked, “The number of people who will not go to a show they don’t want to see is unlimited.”

Once the critics have given their verdict, there is also little point in attempting to ‘fix’ a show that isn’t working. It is an expensive and time-consuming process and rarely pays dividends. I have seen productions gloriously transformed through painstaking and costly work over a number of weeks, but even if the critics can be persuaded back to reassess your efforts there is no escaping the fact that the damage has already been done.

It may well suit your agenda to keep your show running for a while even if it looks as if it may fail to cover its weekly running costs. In this case there are potentially plenty of deals to be done to bring those costs down. Faced with the prospect of you giving notice, your landlord may well offer to reduce or waive the theatre rent, and even some of the contra, while they search around for a new tenant. In any event, they will want to avoid going dark for even a short period of time, and a small amount of income is better for them than none at all.

Even if you are not already operating a royalty pool, the royalty holders may well be amenable to waiving or reducing their royalties along the lines of a pool system. After all, their job is done, and having a West End show running with their name on it is a prestigious showcase for their work, whether or not they are actually earning from it. And, let’s face it, nobody wants to be seen to be associated with a flop. If waivers or reductions are agreed then this is usually on the understanding that the revised terms are proportionately the same for each royalty holder (i.e. favoured nations). Other suppliers such as the technical hire companies may rally round and reduce their rates and anyone on a retainer, such as your marketing agent, should do their bit as well. Your accountant and production manager are likely to be the notable exceptions to this, as you will be relying on their skills more than ever in adversity.

The one thing you can’t do is to ask those responsible for delivering the show on a daily basis to reduce their salaries, even if they are being paid well above the required minimum rates. The actors, musicians, stage management and backstage staff must in any event get paid at their contracted rate; but that is fair enough, as in this scenario they are all likely to be unemployed in a few weeks’ time.

Breaking the news

Striking deals to keep the show running for a bit will usually involve divulging quite a large amount of financial data to those concerned about just how bad things are; so whilst the public won’t realise that there is anything wrong, do bear in mind that bad news travels fast within the industry, and the vultures will quickly smell blood. It won’t be long before your landlord gets a better offer, so make sure you spend the intervening time putting your affairs in order for a well-executed crash landing.

Closing a West End show is in some ways more difficult than opening it. Many conflicting emotions, pressures and loyalties will come into play; but whether your run has been for ten weeks or ten years, the point will eventually arrive when you can no longer postpone the inevitable. When the time does come to close, it is all over very quickly, and with any luck relatively painlessly. Having first agreed a closing date with your landlord and advised your investors and creative team of the situation, a notice is placed on the company notice board announcing your show’s demise and thanking everyone for their participation.

If you have managed the situation correctly and with appropriate sensitivity (maybe you will have held a company meeting the week before to prepare everyone for the likelihood of closure), then it should not come as a surprise to anyone. The posting of the closure notice is not the moment for grand pronouncements; everyone just wants to know the date on which they will be out of work.

If your show’s booking period extends beyond the date of its closure then the box office will contact customers with bookings beyond that date and encourage them to exchange their tickets for the remaining scheduled performances, failing which they will be offered a refund. Most customers will exchange their tickets under these circumstances, so the final weeks of the run are likely to be quite busy and this can be a timely morale booster for everyone involved.

Being open & transparent

In any event, it is critically important to keep your investors informed about what is going on. They must be made aware of the ongoing financial position as well as of your tactics and reasoning, and must feel fully involved in the strategy either to extend the run or to close. This is particularly important as it is more than likely that your show will appear to have completed a successful season whilst at the same time losing them all of their money. But as you will have made it clear to them from the outset that this is the most likely financial outcome, they can at least only be impressed by your honesty. And you will, of course, have ensured that they have found the overall experience of financing your show an enriching one despite the loss of their investment.

If your production really is on its last legs then it is particularly important to ensure that you are surviving on bona fide reserve funds rather than cashflow. The intricacies of theatre accounting mean that it is very easy suddenly to find yourself in a position where you are trading whilst insolvent, and it is deeply humiliating to have to apply to the London Theatre Council to release your salary bonds; though even this is preferable to having to liquidate your company. In either of these unfortunate events then you will live to fight another day provided that you conduct yourself with honour, openness and integrity.

There is a big difference between taking responsibility for your actions and beating yourself up over your mistakes. If you have a hit, then there will be plenty of people queuing up to take the credit for it (there are no awards at all for producers, by the way), but if your show flops, then you can suddenly feel very isolated at the helm of the sinking ship.

What’s the worst that could happen?

A good rule of thumb at this point, and indeed throughout the whole production process, is to ask ‘what’s the worst that can happen’? Theatre practitioners have the ability to enrich people’s lives, but our work is not changing the world. We are privileged to be in a position where we can create our art and it’s important that we learn how to face up to failure. If your show has flopped spectacularly, then learn from your mistakes and next time it will be easier. As a producer, you will become very good at dealing with disappointment; but in developing this ability do not forget the importance of striving for and enjoying success.

The good news is that, whether you are winning or losing, it is actually remarkably calm at the centre of the theatrical storm. I found working as an actor and a director far more stressful than I find working as a producer, even though on paper I should have much more to keep me awake at night.

So you’ve given everyone two weeks’ notice and your show has closed. And this is where you learn the most important lesson of all for a producer. It wasn’t actually the show you just closed that was the most important one. Although a single project demanded your focus and energy over a long period, the real skill of producing is to have another one (or more) waiting in the wings to replace it if necessary. It is often said that performers are only as good as their last show, but for a producer you are only really ever as good as your next show.

If your show defies the odds and turns out to be a bona fide hit, then huge congratulations to you. Once your investors have been repaid you have every right to enjoy your extremely hard-earned 40% of profits. The bad news is that you are now likely to find yourself under enormous pressure to risk all of the money that you and your investors have made by presenting your show on Broadway.

But that’s another story…

How to Produce a West End Show by Julius Green is published by Oberon Books (priced £14.99). To order a copy, click here.