“It’s the engine that drives the business,” said Sylvia de Leon, the ballet’s chairman of the board.
That doesn’t even begin to tell the story of how important Tchaikovsky’s Christmas masterpiece is to the 67-year-old Washington Ballet, as well as hundreds of other ballet companies around the United States.
“Nutcracker” performances account for about 22 percent of the company’s $9.4 million in revenue, which includes not only its productions but also all the money it earns from the Washington School of Ballet and direct contributions from special events such as galas.
“ ‘The Nutcracker’ enables us to do the cutting-edge works that allow us to recruit cutting-edge dancers,” said de Leon.
The company needs the money. A couple of years ago, the District eliminated its $1 million annual grant to the ballet. Congress’s $400,000 annual subsidy also is expected to be drastically reduced.
I am fascinated by “The Nutcracker,” and not only its magical music and colorful costumes. Its business model is such a smart piece of marketing.
There’s a “Nutcracker” tea at the Willard Hotel that will net around $65,000. The ballet’s Sugar Plum Shop in the Warner Theatre produces an additional $65,000 on sales of its ornaments, soaps, Santas and soldiers. There are “Nutcracker” partnerships with Tiffany, Georgetown Cupcake, Clyde’s, Old Ebbitt Grill, and Sullivan’s Toy Store & Art Supplies, just to name a few. All told, those ancillary businesses rake in $200,000 for the nonprofit on top of the $2.1 million “The Nutcracker” earns from its 32 or so performances.
Ticket prices range from $29 to $125. Attendance averages around 1,300 per performance at the 1,740-seat Warner Theatre. That comes to more than 42,000 tickets sold.
But putting on a ballet is expensive.
The dancers in the Washington Ballet alone cost around $1 million a year in compensation for “The Nutcracker” and other shows.
The orchestra and other related costs for this year’s month-long run of “The Nutcracker” will come to around $250,000. In past years, the ballet relied on recorded music, but this year philanthropist Adrienne Arsht covered the live music cost.
The ballet pays the Warner around $500,000 for rent and stagehands for the month. Advertising and marketing eat a big chunk of revenue, as does all the producers and ballet production people who help coordinate the performance.
Then there’s unforseen costs such as weather. A blizzard two years ago resulted in $150,000 in lost revenue because the ballet refunded some tickets.
After costumes, lighting, rentals, insurance, sound, transportation and ticketing, the Washington Ballet is left with an “overage” — nonprofit-speak for profits — of $900,000.
While “The Nutcracker” is the big cash cow, the four other major productions the ballet puts on during the year at least break even because of a finance committee that has been relentless about driving down costs.