B'way To Goose Box Office With Sleight of Hand
Starting Monday, Broadway box office and attendance figures should be looking considerably brighter, whether or not there's any real boost to sales or audience size. That's because, as Variety reports, the Broadway League this week adopted a new method of tallying those numbers: one that, barring a substantial decline, will put them in a rosy light.
Sales figures will represent "gross gross" sales as opposed to net gross, which subtracts credit card transaction fees from the total. Attendance will be reported as total attendance rather than paid attendance, which does not count comped ducats.
The League takes over as sole disseminator of those numbers, which used to come from theater owners as well.
The new method of calculation nearly ensures that the 2009-10 season's sales totals will dwarf those from 2008-09, though there's no true parallel between the two sets of numbers. Even more pointless would be any comparison between total-attendance figures in 2009-10 and paid-attendance figures, which the League reported in 2008-09 and previous years. As the industry group well knows, it's far more pleasant to say that a play is packing them in than to admit that a healthy-looking house is heavily papered -- not exactly a rarity on Broadway, where paid attendance has been declining. Given that, it would seem to be in the League's interest to muddle the accounting.
Much of the theatrical press, accustomed to juxtaposing a given week's Broadway totals with the numbers from the same week a year before, probably can be counted on to keep doing exactly what they've been doing. In the process, they'll likely report increases that may or may not be borne out by the facts. The same goes for stories on season-to-season figures.
"Making the switch to gross gross and total attendance would put the Broadway numbers more in line with tallies from the film industry, according to [the League's] Charlotte St. Martin," Variety explains.
That's the same film industry that benefits from a credulous press' faithful weekly reports of ever-bigger box-office earnings -- numbers that are highly likely to grow as long as the industry keeps raising ticket prices, and as long as the population keeps expanding.
But no matter what the film industry does, this switch is a cynical move on the part of Broadway, especially coming off a season whose debatable financial success the League spun so brilliantly. In a tough financial climate that doesn't promise to get easier anytime soon, and at a moment when even the biggest media outlets are devoting ever fewer resources to real reporting, let alone arts reporting, Broadway has made its robustness vastly harder to evaluate. Should the industry fall into trouble, the kind of trouble about which one might wish to alert the media, it may come to regret this brand of obfuscation.