26 January 2011

The Power of the Reviewer—Myth or Fact?: Part 2

[This is the second and concluding part of my report on the power of reviews to close or perpetuate productions. As we’ve seen, with judicious planning and selling, producers can overcome the effects of bad reviews. Here are some of the ways they do that.]


If reviews have real power to drive audiences into or out of theaters, then there ought to be little producers can do to counteract this effect. Theater history teaches that this is probably not true, since there have been dozens of shows panned by reviewers that have gone on to become popular successes. Many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works have been long-running audience-pleasers after receiving cool critical appraisal. There have also been plays, like Wilson’s Joe Turner and Steppenwolf’s Grapes of Wrath, that closed quickly after receiving good notices.

The data seems to indicate that shows can overcome mixed and poor reviews, but seldom outright pans. The More study indicates that “the pans are strongly associated with the shortest runs.” Of the plays that received unanimously bad reviews, seventeen, or 51.5%, closed within a week, and the average was 41 days. This isn’t surprising, assuming that unanimity among the reviewers might suggest that the public, too, would find the play bad. But what of the middle ground—shows that receive neither pans nor raves? Producers acknowledge that such shows can be run against mediocre press. Norman Kean expected mixed reviews for A Broadway Musical (a single regular performance on 21 December 1978) and he was prepared to run the show under those circumstances, and other shows ran successfully after mixed press, The Wiz (1672 performances, 1975-79) and Deathtrap (1793 performances, 1978-82), for instance.

What keeps these plays afloat when others founder? According to Clive Barnes, “it . . . boils down to the procedure known as marketing, or the gentle art of luring posteriors into seats.” The producers are prepared to sell a weak show in various ways that can overshadow reviews. Alexander Cohen related that his production of Baker Street from 16 February to 14 November 1965 “was pretty bad, but we did a merchandising job on that show which was enormous. It ran for a little more than a year on the strength of the merchandising . . . .” According to Cohen, 6 Rms Riv Vu (247 performances, 1972-73) “wouldn’t have lasted until intermission” if it hadn’t been for marketing.

The first hedge against failure is a big advance sale. The bigger the advance, the longer a show can run at a box-office loss until it finds an audience—if there is one. That saved both The Wiz and Deathtrap until word of mouth caught up with the box office; the lack of a big advance sank A Broadway Musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera was sold out for nearly a year before it even opened in New York in 1988, indemnifying it even against pans across the board; the success of Metamorphosis over its luke-warm reception was also partly due to the $1.4 million advance. Miss Saigon, imported by mega-musical promoter Cameron Mackintosh, had a $39 million advance when it opened in April 1991, and was pulling in a weekly gross of $710,000. In its sixth season, it was still running near capacity despite “widely divergent” notices. Though an advance sale doesn’t guarantee success after poor notices—Ballroom, a flop in 1978-79 (116 performances), had a two million-dollar advance, and still closed quickly—it’s so important, according to Bernard Jacobs, the Shubert’s late president, that

[m]ost shows that close immediately are either inadequately budgeted or have spent monies in excess of what they’ve budgeted to the opening night. If a show is properly financed, it will have enough money to survive for at least a few weeks in order to see if it will catch on.

Advance sales require an advance press. Paid advertisements are the mainstay of this end of the business, and television has come to play a large part in this area. The famous case of Pippin (1944 performances, 1972-77) marked the beginning of the big television commercial for musicals. Warren Caro of the Shubert Organization described the incident:

[Pippin] started off in a rather uncertain way, then came to be highly successful for a period, and then took a big drop. We thought that was going to be the end of it. But the producer came to us, saying that he thought the way this show should be conveyed to the public was through television advertising, not through the usual, stale newspaper advertising. So we created a marvelous television commercial which increased sales spectacularly and really had the effect of turning that show around from a downgrade run to the most successful musical on Broadway.

More than advertisements are necessary to presell a show, however. Before any reviewer sees the first performance, the play must be brought to the attention of the prospective theatergoer. News items, some manufactured, some real, sell a production to its potential audience even before its official opening. A case in point is the 1991 opening of Miss Saigon. There was so much press coverage of the controversy over casting British actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian; the consequent struggle among producer Cameron Mackintosh, Actors’ Equity, and the Asian community; and Mackintosh’s threat not to open the show at all, the production was a box-office bonanza independent of the critical response, which was mixed on the show but high on the individual performances. Good press agents can also arrange tie-ins with stores and businesses and other publicity stunts to attract or keep attention on their shows. The 1988 Off-Broadway musical Suds, for instance, connected with TWA, then a major air carrier, which featured a one-hour recording of the show’s songs in its in-flight soundtrack, and Procter & Gamble, which bought 2,000 tickets for an employee incentive program. The increasing need for publicity beyond newspaper ads and television and radio spots created a demand for a new member of the theatrical team: the promoter. More than just press representatives, promoters concoct stunts such as giving free tickets to the 1989 production of Lend Me a Tenor to people who sang an aria, awarding free admission to the 1000th performance of the original 1987 Off-Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy to anyone named Daisy, hosting an “I Am Rappaport” evening at I’m Not Rappaport in 1985, holding a frog-jumping and “huckleberry” pie-eating contests for the 1985 Broadway début of Big River, and offering discount coupons for 1987’s Teddy and Alice in supermarket ads. These are often silly gimmicks, but they create publicity and attract audiences, particularly those that aren’t dependent on reviews.

Later efforts have borrowed from Hollywood marketing techniques. 1990’s Accomplice showed a one-minute trailer at 250 movie houses proclaiming, “Not coming to this theater; not coming to any motion picture theater . . . .” and Miss Saigon taped “The Heat Is On: The Making of ‘Miss Saigon,’” made in 1989 from the London production, which aired on New York television. All these efforts, if judiciously applied to a show that has an audience somewhere, can help it overcome poor reviews, but experts estimate that they have only three to four weeks in which to turn things around at the box office. Given time “to let the notices cool off,” as advertising executive Harry Golden put it, the public can be made to forget bad reviews, then a well-planned publicity campaign can reverse the negative perception.

David Merrick may have been, in former New York Times reviewer Frank Rich’s estimation, “the master of . . . producer’s cunning in our day.” He delighted in tweaking reviewers and theater journalists, once posing as an audience member after a performance of Cactus Flower in Philadelphia in 1965 so he and press agent Harvey Sabinson could be interviewed on television by Tom Snyder. After praising the show, Merrick gave a signal to another press agent who cut the power line, blacking out the broadcast. To generate interest in his production of 42nd Street, Merrick postponed its official opening, kept the date secret from the public, abruptly scheduled or canceled previews, and finally, on opening night, announced from the stage the death of director-choreographer Gower Champion, a fact he had kept secret all day from both the public and the show’s cast. Later, when 42nd Street moved from the Majestic Theatre across 44th Street to the St. James, Merrick had the chorus girls do their “We’re in the Money” tap routine across the street on the huge coins used onstage. Meanwhile, he managed to keep both marquees so that 44th Street was bracketed with 42nd Street logos. After the show moved, when Phantom of the Opera had become the hottest ticket in town, Merrick began holding the curtain at the St. James for fifteen minutes to lure disappointed ticket-seekers at the Majestic into 42nd Street. To promote this, dancers roamed Times Square with sandwich boards proclaiming, “David Merrick is holding the curtain for you” and singing, for the matinee (the lyrics were altered again for evening performances):

Come and meet
Those dancing feet
If you come past two
You won’t be blue
‘Cause we start at two-fifteen!

An indefatigable showman, Merrick kept 42nd Street in the public eye and running for 3,486 performances over eight years (1980-89), now the twelfth longest run in Broadway history.

The presence of a big-name star, even one from such a non-theater world as ballet, can only help attract theatergoers. Baryshnikov’s non-dancing debut was a huge selling point for Metamorphosis, attracting audiences from many unusual sectors of the public; Legs Diamond’s run despite devastating criticism was likely due to the presence of late pop singer Peter Allen. (Ironically, after Allen’s death in 1992, the musical The Boy From Oz, 2003-04, based on his life and music, opened to poor reviews itself but ran for 364 performances on the strength of the draw of Hugh Jackman, the star who played the singer.) Joe Turner’s failure might, by contrast, be attributable to its lack of stars to help transfer its great regional success to Broadway. Star power, in fact, is an important marketing asset. In contrast to Joe Turner, Wilson’s Fences ran for 526 performances for its initial Broadway production in 1987 and 1988, grossing $11 million in its first year, a non-musical record. It closed precipitously three months after setting that record, however. What happened? Fences, which won New York theater’s triple crown—Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award—was sold and made its reputation based on the mesmerizing performance of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson. When Jones was replaced in February 1988 by Billy Dee Williams, the production began to fail almost immediately, closing at the end of June. The same phenomenon occurred with D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game which opened in 1977 with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as the elderly, card-playing couple. Cronyn left the show first and was replaced by E. G. Marshall in June 1978; Maureen Stapleton came in for Tandy in September, and the play closed in December. In neither case were negative reviews responsible for the drop-off in attendance, but the departure of first-rank stage stars impeded the producers’ abilities to sell the show. As we shall see, star power also made Sunset Boulevard a hit in 1994 but ultimately brought the production down not so much because the first star performer, Glenn Close, left the show—she left in June 1995, almost two years (and two leads) before the New York production’s announced closing—but because Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t find enough available female stars of Close’s stature and talent to keep filling the role. More recent productions foundered, according to common wisdom, because of the lack of big names among the cast (the Neil Simon revivals in 2009; Next Fall, an Off-Broadway transfer with excellent notices, in 2010; and Neil Labute’s reasons to be pretty, a success Off-Broadway in 2008 and a Broadway flop in 2010; Finian’s Rainbow in 2009), even with good reviews or previous track record. (There are also many accounts of shows that did well even with star names in the cast.)

Even with a sufficient advance in the till, other means are necessary to make the public aware of the show and bring them into the theater. Among the marketing techniques producers use, James M. Nederlander listed theater parties, subscriptions, half-price ticket booths, and “two-fers.” “Another merchandising gimmick,” he said, “is to book a play for four or five weeks and then start advertising ‘last four weeks’ or ‘last three weeks.’” Gerald Schoenfeld added to this list credit-card sales and telephone reservations as ways of making it easier to come to the theater, and Warren Caro included benefits sold to organizations, mail-order and group sales, and Ticketron. Newer measures include Internet sales, direct-mail marketing, marketing research, and the programs of the Theatre Development Fund which, among other services, operates the TKTS booths at Duffy Square and lower Manhattan, sells discount vouchers, and provides a 24-hour telephone information service (and now a cell-phone app for information about what’s available).

In the mid-1980’s, producers began using techniques borrowed from manufacturing. One such technique, intended “to figure out how to woo an audience,” is market research conducted before a show opens. Producer Marty Bell of 1986’s Precious Sons, credited as the first production to try this, acknowledged, “We wanted to get a handle on the audience so that whatever the critics said wouldn’t matter.” Bell and co-producer Roger Berlind surveyed potential theatergoers before deciding on ticket prices and advertising targets. Unfortunately, the show’s producers made several wrong calls based on the research, such as targeting the wrong prospective audience, and the show ran only from March to May. Still, the idea of using pre-show market research caught on and has become part of the web of techniques used to counter reviews.

Another approach of recent seasons has been specific-market targeting: selling a show directly to a particular audience through specially chosen outlets and media. This tactic came to the fore in 1988 with the marketing of productions to black audiences. The producers of Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Gospel at Colonus, and Sarafina! adopted “extraordinary measures” to attract a special audience: “hiring marketing experts with experience in reaching black corporations, schools, churches and social clubs, . . . sharply reducing ticket prices, . . . suggesting sermon subjects to ministers in churches that have sponsored group visits to Broadway.” Michael David, producer of Gospel, especially “worked the gospel shows in Harlem” to reach his target audience. David also established an outreach office to “help to bring in the ‘other’ audience to Broadway—not just blacks, but Pentacostals, Hispanics, Jews, students.” According to Richard Bruno, head of Gospel’s outreach program, they even cross-referenced passages from the show with Biblical verses to help ministers prepare sermons.

The church community played a crucial role in this scheme. When the Lincoln Center Theater Company transferred Sarafina! to Broadway in 1988, Director of Marketing Thomas Cott acknowledged they, too, made contacts there. Furthermore, along with taking ads in the black press, LCTC broadcast a commercial in which the cast sang “an infectiously joyful version of the Lord’s Prayer.” Lincoln Center used the same strategy when it opened the rediscovered Zora Neal Hurston-Langston Hughes play, Mule Bone, on Broadway in 1991. To address another overlooked segment of the potential audience, the producers of Rent, the 1996 rock up-date of La Bohème that was the season’s biggest hit, aggressively marketed the show to the young, urban, and hip. Ten-dollar tickets were offered to those who lined up outside the theater’s box office, a sure way to create a crowd since the show was otherwise sold out, and the show was advertised in subway trains—not on the platforms like films and other Broadway plays—with visually arresting placards taking up whole cars.

Not all of these efforts translated into long runs. Fences ran over 500 performances in 1987 and ‘88, but apparently because of its star’s draw, not the marketing of the play itself; Joe Turner closed after just over 100 performances, and Gospel only ran 61 performances and 15 previews. Only Sarafina! was a long-run hit despite an unknown cast and author, South African Mbongeni Ngema, running 81 performances and 36 previews at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater and 597 performances and 11 previews at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. Mule Bone was scheduled for a limited run, so there’s little correlation between its reviews, which were mediocre, and the length of its run. According to Anne Cattaneo, literary manager for Lincoln Center Theater, their targeted black audiences responded to the company’s outreach despite the poor notices in the mainstream, that is ‘white,’ press. This assertion, however, is hard to prove. Nonetheless, the tactic having previously proved useful, it was tried once again. Rent, of course, didn’t need to overcome reviews. It was universally praised in the press, both in its Off-Broadway try-out and its subsequent transfer to Broadway. It also received perhaps unwanted publicity when the young creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly on the eve of Rent’s triumphant Off-Broadway opening. The tactics, nonethelss, all have become part of the producers’ arsenal to defeat bad notices.

Professional marketing firms to “help producers pinpoint who their audience is and how it evolves” have become a permanent part of the commercial scene now. Exploring new or untapped resources and outlets for advertising, using targeting strategies more familiar to toy companies or automobile manufacturers, and focusing on non-traditional audiences, firms like Fourfront, which handled Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk and Full Gallop on Broadway and touring companies of A Chorus Line and Master Class, reach a “younger group and present [a client’s] image in a fresher, more arresting way.” Commonly, their aggressive marketing techniques bypass the usual forums and attract potential spectators who don’t regularly read theater reviews in the mainstream press such as cable television viewers, readers of niche magazines and alternative-press publications, and commuter-rail riders. Ads and other features on the Internet, whose audience often doesn’t read newspapers, are also becoming more common even for mainstream commercial theater.

Fifty years ago, a play could survive if it played to a few thousand customers a week—perhaps 75,000 in all. The break-even number’s now risen to nearer a half to three-quarters of a million. Such costs now prevent the producers and backers from gambling on a risky play or accumulating the necessary advance sale to keep a moderate but promising play running long enough to overcome negative press. The increasing costs also result in higher ticket prices, causing potential playgoers to think long and hard about what they will spend their theater dollars on. According to the Shubert’s Schoenfeld, the audience base for commercial theater shrank because of the overall cost of going to the theater. The result is a stronger reliance on good reviews, known as “money reviews,” for success, but not because the reviewers have usurped so much power. The situation’s arisen because of the people who control the economics of the industry, including the unions, stars, producers, and real estate owners.

Another marketing tactic that producers have been using for some years has compounded the reliance on reviews and reviewers. William Hawkins, who was the review writer for New York’s now-defunct World-Telegram and Sun, blamed the press agent who

more than anyone else epitomizes the process by which the Critic has been forced into his position of influence over the theatre. He is the “Master of the Quote.” Quotes seem to sell more tickets these days than any other single element of the theatre.

The “quote ad” has put the producer right under the thumb of the reviewer—a situation the journalist didn’t create. According to City University of New York professor Glenn Loney, himself a critic, this particular phenomenon is relatively new to the business of theater. David Belasco used quotations in his publicity, but they weren’t excerpts from reviews; he made them up himself and ran them unattributed (“Miss X is wonderful!”). Producers didn’t begin quoting heavily from the reviews until the 1930’s, and the practice didn’t become common until the 1940’s. There is, of course, the now-infamous 1961 case of David Merrick and Harvey Sabinson, producer and press agent for Subways Are for Sleeping who found seven average New Yorkers with “exactly the same names” as the major daily newspaper reviewers, treated them to elaborate dinners, got them to praise the mediocre show in “the most laudatory phraseology,” and then published a big newspaper ad quoting them under the headline, “7 Out of 7 Ecstatically Unanimous about Subways Are for Sleeping.” The trick was that Merrick had to wait for Times writer Brooks Atkinson to retire before he could pull off the hoax “[b]ecause in all this world there is no other man with that name.” (Most of the papers caught the ruse before publishing, but the Herald Tribune didn’t and ran the ad in the early edition on 4 January. In the interest of integrity, the hoaxers ran photographs of the substitute critics along with their quotations, and many readers and some critics were amused at the joke. Others were incensed. The real reviews were mixed, but Subways still managed to stay afloat until July before closing.)

The quote ad has, by now, become so common that no producer can sell even the most popular, critically acclaimed production without excerpts from the reviews in his advertisements and commercials. In fact, quote ads are generally the only way non-musical plays are advertised on television. (Ironically, despite the Shuberts’ claim that Alexander Woollcott wrote biased criticism of their shows, he demonstrated during the suit that they’d been using quotations from his reviews in their advertising. The confusion, by the way, arose because, until the New York Times gave Woollcott a byline after the controversy with the Shuberts began, his reviews, like most others at the time, appeared uncredited.) Today, the practice of using press quotations is so common that New York has a law to protect reviewers from blatant out-of-context quotation. During the 1984-85 Broadway season, there was a suit regarding Lawrence Roman’s Alone Together because of just such misuse of quotes in its advertising.


In the final analysis, a play opening to generally good reviews usually doesn’t need much merchandising, and a play that opens to generally bad reviews may not be salable—though there are exceptions to both of these axioms. As the More study indicated, the reviewers’ influence, if it exists at all, is at the two extremes. In the middle, where most plays stand, reviewers have little definable influence. Whatever influence they do have there can be countered with judicious business and marketing tactics.

Furthermore, if the statistics from the various audience studies have any validity, there’s additional indication that reviewers may not have the power usually credited to them. The New York Cultural Consumer, though only dealing with non-profit theater, stated that only 17% of the audience surveyed rated reviews an important influence on their choices, and that only 9% relied on reviews for their theater information. Even the League of New York Theatres and Producers’ study showed that, though more than half the Broadway audience read reviews, only 20% felt they were a major influence on their choices. Of that number, even fewer—16%—agreed with the statement, “I usually follow the critics’ views when deciding to see a Broadway show,” and only 2% agreed “completely.” That suggests very strongly that even the most susceptible audience—commercial theatergoers—may be far less influenced by reviewers and criticism than most people believe.

None of this is conclusive, but it does raise some interesting questions. The studies and surveys are inadequate to determine with even the remotest certainty how much reviews influence attendance, and they don’t deal at all with how those reviews are used. The opinions of journalists and producers regarding the putative influence of reviews are nothing more than perpetuation of the myth, and have little real value in determining the truth and extent of the influence. The very fact that shows close because of bad reviews begs the question, since producers close their shows on the assumption that audiences will stay away because of the notices. Economics notwithstanding, the producers have rarely tested the theory and allowed word-of-mouth to work, though there’s anecdotal evidence that it can.

This issue has in no way been satisfactorily examined; exploring the actual effect of reviews on real audiences requires extensive inquiry and follow-up. With proper funding, a survey of commercial audiences should yield some statistics that would be both enlightening and valuable.

[Most of the data regarding commercial productions and their audiences concerns the Broadway theater. Besides the fact that there are simply more commercial shows there, they’re also more susceptible to the influence of reviews because of the competition for essentially the same audience. Still, much of the information that pertains to these productions is also true, though perhaps on a smaller scale, to other commercial shows. With regard to the reviewer and the critic, despite my personal feelings about the distinction between the two, unless otherwise noted, both terms here refer to the writer or broadcaster of daily notices about current theatrical productions.

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