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Theatres trail behind at self-promotion

A few weeks ago, I went to the cinema. Before the film that I had paid to see started (Rise of the Planet of Apes, since you ask) and after I’d shelled out on some popcorn and a soft drink, I watched half a dozen adverts followed by half a dozen trailers for forthcoming features. Of the movies shown in those trailers, I have since already been back to the cinema to see one and intend to go and see one more in the near future, having learned about both for the first time from their trailers.

And I’m clearly not alone. A recent Mintel survey showed that a third of cinemagoers claim trailers (shown in cinemas or TV) are a big influence on choosing what film they watch, with a further half saying they have some influence. In other words, trailers are effective - to some degree - on four out of five cinemagoers. That is much more effective than reviews - whether on TV or in print - or print advertising. The only category that is more effective is word of mouth/recommendation from friends.

It strikes me that there’s a lot theatre can learn from cinema in this respect.

A decade ago, there was a ready-made reason for not showing trailers in theatres - they didn’t exist. Producers simply didn’t create video trailers of their shows to use as publicity material. Electronic press kits were either rare or non-existent and not much used. Today, though, they are a staple of the promotion for every major musical and most plays, while trailers are also sent out in e-shots, placed on websites or shared through social media. Some are filmed segments from the stage show, others (such as the National’s which are created long before staging) are more like teaser trailers. But - whatever form they take - they are not being screened in theatres.

Strangely, though, they are being screened elsewhere. The producers of the West End show Ghost Stories made a trailer for their show and screened it in cinemas before the horror film Saw IV - presumably in a bid to attract non-traditional theatre audiences. And, it’s not the only show to follow this course, either - Wicked has also advertised in cinemas and I’m sure there are several other examples. But, I am only aware of one company that has tried this in a theatre - and that was the Peacock Theatre in London, operated by Sadler’s Wells. Perhaps there have been others, but it certainly isn’t widespread. There was also, of course, the slightly bizarre attempt at ‘live trailers’ in a theatre a few years ago, but that petered out quickly.

If video trailers are effective in cinema and they are now available to theatre producers, why aren’t they being screened in theatres?

I don’t see any great practical reason why they couldn’t be. Most theatres will have access to a projector and it wouldn’t be difficult to project on to a safety curtain or a simple screen erected on stage. This could be done pre-performance, as in cinemas, or during the interval when some audiences would stay and watch, while others would go to buy a drink or ice cream.

Perhaps, it’s a cultural thing. Maybe theatre owners and producers think that theatregoers won’t want to sit through video trailers before live theatre performances, that it detracts from the ‘experience’ of going to the theatre. But I’m not sure this is a relevant objection anymore - theatregoing is a far more casual affair than it used to be and most theatregoers are seasoned cinemagoers, so will be used to the system. In our advertising-saturated world, people expect to be sold to.

So, it heartened me when I saw the news that Ambassador Theatre Group has teamed up with Pearl & Dean - the cinema advertising company - to create a series of adverts in theatres across the UK for Gordon’s Gin.

Now, I’m not particularly thrilled at the idea of sitting through reams of adverts before a show, but I do wonder whether this might be the first step along the line of in-theatre trailers, an innovation that strikes me as a complete no-brainer for the industry - and for commercial theatre especially.

This is - very broadly speaking - what I think should happen. To make this work as a proposition commercially, there would need to be some kind of scale to the enterprise. So, in the commercial sector, it would need to be more widely coordinated than one producer paying another to advertise their productions in other theatres. Perhaps, the Society of London Theatre could oversee a scheme whereby shows paid to be included in a showreel which was screened before shows in all SOLT venues?

Meanwhile, in the subsidised sector, the usefulness of trailers could be two-fold. It could be used as a valuable source of extra income - in these straitened times - but it could also be used as a way of informing theatregoers about the way in which the work on stage has been funded. Arts Council England could provide a trailer detailing how the piece of work and audience is about to see is funded, at the same time highlighting other examples of funded work across the country or region. Or perhaps consortia, like the group of London producing theatres that have come together to create the World Stages London festival next year, could all advertise each other’s work via trailers.

And, of course, all of this self and inter-promotion could be supplemented or supported by external promotion - adverts, like the Gordon’s Gin one, which could again create another source of income for commercial and subsidised venues alike, or at the very least cover costs.

None of this need be expensive, and the potential at generating both audiences and revenue is significant - it just needs someone to lead the way.

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