Theaters look for new ways to draw in subscriptions


Kathleen Turner in the 2010 Philadelphia Theatre Company world premiere of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” (Mark Garvin)

“Subscribe Now!” was the title of a 1977 book by Danny Newman that became the marketing bible for performing-arts institutions in the United States.

“No!” comes the answer from audiences a generation later.

“That’s a chestnut,” 26-year-old Tony Heaphy, the new marketing director at Baltimore’s Centerstage, said of Newman’s book.

Yet that chestnut helped solidify the way many groups across the country still do much of their selling — even though evidence suggests that the subscription model is chugging into a ditch.

Last year, Theatre Communications Group’s annual Theatre Facts study revealed that subscriptions were down 15 percent nationally since 2006. Most disturbing was the shrinkage of subscriptions — desirable as a paid-up-front and company-stabilizing source of cash — as a percentage of overall income, from 20 percent to less than 17 percent.

That doesn’t sound like much, especially with single-ticket income rising from 22 percent to 25 percent of total income. But the psychological shift is profound, inevitably nudging not-for-profit arts groups toward the old commercial “Give me a hit show now!” box-office anxiety.

The situation is no better in classical music and dance. Amy Fitterer, executive director of Washington-based Dance/USA, reports that subscriptions are decreasing particularly rapidly among troupes with budgets of $15 million or more. Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, gave a speech last year noting that classical-music participation is down nationally 29 percent over the past 20 years. Classical-music season subscription revenue has dropped more than 5 percent since 2006, according to the league.

The idea of subscribing to a full season of theater, classical music or dance — choosing your seats and committing to six or a dozen or more dates through the coming year at the local culture palace — has been under siege for some time. Home video, the Internet and WiFi have altered the biorhythms and buying patterns of audiences. Arts groups have been retrenching for so long that Jeffrey Herrmann, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s managing director, said the subscription problem is rarely discussed at industry conferences.

“We’re kind of tired of talking about it,” Herrmann said.

Still, Fitterer said, “subscriptions are not dead yet, because everyone keeps doing them.”

Herrmann agreed. “No one has come up with what the next big thing is,” he said.

Social media is not yet riding to the rescue. Facebook and Twitter may be claiming a lot of chatter, expense and energy, but Deeksha Gaur, Woolly’s director of marketing and public relations, echoed the sentiments of Heaphy and others. “For the most part,” Gaur said in an e-mail, “social media has been more of a communications channel rather than a direct sales channel for us.”

Still, subscriptions aren’t dead yet, and there have been wrinkles lately in the way they’re pitched and packaged. One comes from dynamic pricing, which arts groups have begun to use like airline fares — prices go up as dates near and demand tightens. This can be fueled by special events or stars — Helen Mirren at the Shakespeare Theatre Company for one week a few seasons back, or Arena Stage’s current “Red Hot Patriot,” headlined by Kathleen Turner.

“Red Hot” tickets on upcoming Saturday nights are going for $109; subscribers will have paid $45. (Subscriptions are up lately at Arena.)

The Kennedy Center is using next summer’s five-week stand of the Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon,” by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as a similar carrot.

Subscribing is “the best way to guarantee your seats,” said David Kitto, vice president for marketing and sales at the Kennedy Center, where subscriber numbers have grown over the past decade, from 11 percent to 16 percent of the audience across artistic disciplines (not including the Washington National Opera, which only recently came under KenCen auspices).

Subscriptions are on track to finish up this year, and Kitto said “Book of Mormon” — still a sellout on Broadway and commanding nearly $200 for premium tickets — “is clearly helping our cause.”

Established hits and marquee stars have always been the best medicine for sales, of course, and the “Avoid dynamic pricing — subscribe now!” link is becoming familiar across the country. But what about strategies for the rank and file?

One hot topic is the flex pass, a version of which has been adopted by Woolly and other organizations — few more aggressively than A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle with its ACTPass. For $25 a month, patrons can see all the theater they like in ACT’s four venues. The program began in 2009, and the company now has 1,400 ACTPass members, according to theater marketing and communications director Becky Lathrop. Customers get convenience and practically unlimited access, except when the smallest of ACT’s four venues (a 60-seater) has a hot show. Theaters get a reliable source of cash planning, thanks to those gym- or Netflix-like automatic payments.

That’s a tough plan to replicate, of course, unless you have shows on multiple stages each month. In Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet had the opposite problem: surplus seats in its near-5,000-seat auditorium. So in 2010, Executive Director Christopher Clinton Conway offered limited subscriptions through Groupon.

The Joffrey doubled its subscriber base and is selectively repeating the tactic. Conway said that 80 percent of the Groupon buyers actually came to all the shows they purchased and that almost 30 percent renewed — less than the typical 40 percent renewal rate for first-time subscribers but a good response from discount purchasers. Because of the theater’s size, “these are truly seats we never would have sold,” Conway said. “We were not cannibalizing our revenue.”

Conway, Lathrop and Fitterer pointed to several pronounced patterns among younger patrons. They like flexibility and spontaneity — being able to say, as Fitterer put it, “After dinner we could actually go see this dance performance.” They respond to add-ons — top-shelf liquor in a teeming, attractive lobby, Conway pointed to as a for-instance — and added social access.

This leads to a key change that Rosen sees — a new sensitivity to what audiences want, not just to what arts groups need. Newman, in “Subscribe Now!,” was “institution-centric,” Rosen said. Newman’s subscription model worked great for arts organizations, guaranteeing audiences and a nice slice of income. But Rosen said models now are being forced toward what’s more alluring for the new breed of consumers.

He cited efforts to make the concert experience more appealing to a broader segment of the public, like the New York Philharmonic’s recent “Philharmonic 360” performance in the Park Avenue Armory. The orchestra surrounded the audience in the vast hall, and the unusual event attracted a different clientele than that which usually populates the orchestra’s Lincoln Center home.

Will those first-timers subscribe? Rosen said studies are showing they don’t like that hard-sell pitch right away, that a cooler pace of cultivation yields better results. Lessons are being learned, he said, about “responding to what audiences say they want instead of what the orchestra wants.”

ACT’s subscriptions are up slightly this year, possibly drafting on the success of the ACTPass, but Lathrop noted sharp differences in the profiles of subscribers and the pass holders, which she calls “members.” The age range for subscribers starts at about 55, but that skews 20 years younger for ACTPass members.

“We’re removing that crustiness,” Conway said, “without making it too populist, because our brand is aspiration, and luxury, and elite to a degree. We have to keep a little bit of the gilt still on.”

Heaphy said he thinks some of Newman’s principles endure — namely the sense of belonging, a clubby-ness that younger audiences like without the old snob factor.

That clubby-ness is for sale. Baltimore’s Centerstage calls the product a “Flex Pass,” or, for the 18-to-34 crowd, the “Go Pass.” Centerstage does not even use the word “subscriber” anymore; as in Seattle, the preferred term is “member.” Heaphy said that suggests civic engagement, solidarity with an arts group, more than just a bought package of goods.

Said Lathrop, “Maybe in 20 years someone in our ticket office will say, ‘What’s a subscriber?’ ”

Today’s volatile sales patterns are near-impossible to divine, Fitterer said, but Conway feels that the vibe around subscribing is definitely on the move, even if the increasingly flexible packaging tactics still come down to baiting the hook for buying art in bulk.

“When I come up with the term for it, you’ll be the first to know,” Conway said. “It may still be called an Oldsmobile, but it’s very much a Lexus under the hood.”

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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