Results tagged “Broadway League” from critical difference
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.
Forty-three shows opened on Broadway this season, nearly 20 percent more than last season, yet paid attendance was down from 2007-08. That would be the glass-half-empty way of looking at the numbers for this year, and a perfectly legitimate one. But the way much of the media reported the news, one would think the glass was not just full but overflowing.
"Broadway Breaks Box Office Record for 2008-09 Season," reads the New York Times headline on a blog item that mentions the paid-attendance downturn in the eighth paragraph.
A Fox News blog post is positively breathless, trumpeting "some long-awaited positive economic news" under the headline "Broadway's Record-Breaking Year!" Though that item does quickly mention the 1 percent drop in paid attendance -- a decrease substantially larger than the .6 percent increase in gross revenues -- it then skates ahead to Broadway League executive director Charlotte St. Martin's contention that, in the reporter's paraphrase, "other industries could learn some money-making tips from Broadway." (No, St. Martin's advice isn't to make lots more product, keep hiking your prices, and attract fewer paying customers. It's to stay "in touch with what the consumer really wants.")
"Broadway theatres defy recession," a BBC headline announces. That they wouldn't defy it was, of course, the industry's giant, lurking fear, exacerbated by the still-painful memory of tourists scattering in the fall of 2001. So there is understandable relief that, in the words of The Associated Press, "Even during a recession, Broadway managed to hold its own." That's newsworthy.
But did so much of the coverage occasioned by the Broadway League's release of 2008-09's official figures -- grosses of $943.3 million, up from $937.5 million in 2007-08, and paid attendance of 12.15 million, down from 12.27 million last season -- have to follow the lead of that industry group? Did so many journalists have to quote St. Martin so unquestioningly? Are reporters and editors really as math-averse as this would suggest? (Well, yes, they are. Most of them, anyway.)
As Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard notes with his customary savvy, "The increase in sales represents higher average ticket prices, while the drop in paid attendance suggests that the tightening economy did frighten away some theatergoers. The attendance figures are especially notable because in the 2007-08 season, much of Broadway was shut down during a 19-day strike by unionized stagehands."
That season, unsurprisingly, paid attendance fell .2 percent, from 12.3 million the season before. So 2008-09 continued a downward trend.
Context is everything. When journalists take their cue from a press release, when they don't look hard at the numbers, when they mistake hype for reality, illuminating context has a nasty tendency to be missing in action.
One could be forgiven for thinking, when reading the New York Post's Michael Riedel, that he has it in for the Tony Awards -- or at least for the people who run them. More than once recently, in his usual unrestrained manner, he's called the Broadway League's Charlotte St. Martin and the American Theatre Wing's Howard Sherman "apparatchiks."
But Riedel makes an important and perfectly fair point in his column today: "As Broadway prepares to celebrate itself next month, many theater people are increasingly concerned that writers, especially writers of nonmusical plays, are getting the bum's rush at the Tonys." In great part, that's because when the Tony for best play or best musical is announced, the writers get lost in a swarm of producers -- some of whom are not producers in the true sense but merely backers, people who gave large chunks of cash. At least the writers of musicals have their shot at the spotlight in the best-book and best-score categories, but for writers of straight plays, this is the only recognition they'll get.
"Why doesn't the playwright accept the award by himself?" wonders composer and lyricist Maury Yeston, whose shows include "Nine" and "Grand Hotel."
"The bookwriter does, the lyricist does, the orchestrator does, even the person who runs the sound system does. One would think that the progenitor of an original piece of theater would be the person on whom the award would evolve."
No one with any understanding of what a producer does would suggest that the role is unimportant or undeserving of recognition. Neither is the role of backer. But it's evidence of warped priorities when the writers, without whom no one would be standing there on Tony night, are deemed less important than the money people. Some of them, Riedel suggests, are thinking of the Tony spotlight from the start:
Veteran producers say that many of their biggest investors now have it written into their contracts that if the play wins the Tony, they get to share the stage with the author.
These, no doubt, are the same crass individuals who'd also try to take credit for a playwright's Pulitzer, a prize that has nothing whatsoever to do with producers or backers (though that point is frequently lost on them).
Here's the thing. You can always get another producer; you can always find another investor -- and you'll probably have to, given the crowd it takes to finance a Broadway show these days. Only in the most artistically doomed, too-many-cooks circumstances, however, is switching out a writer even a possibility. That's not going to happen to an original, single-author straight play. In the grand collaboration that is theater, the playwright simply is not expendable.
Playwrights, the most successful of whom earn only a pittance from the stage, are fond of saying they prefer working in the theater to doing more lucrative TV and film writing because the theater treats them with so much more respect. A glaring exception to that rule seems to be the moment at the Tony Awards that ought to be theirs more than anyone else's to celebrate.