The publication last week of SOLT’s annual Box Office Data Report offers a comprehensive statistical breakdown on how revenues not only held up but shot up yet again in the 51 full member theatres under the SOLT banner — as of course did ticket prices to provide that sort of return, in a year when attendances actually went slightly down, with record earnings of more than £528m across the year.
It’s been a recurring theme of this blog to worry about ticket prices and the effect that they may or may not have on audiences; certainly the times they are a-changin’, as Dylan says.
And as he also urges in the second verse, “Come writers and critics/ Who prophesize with your pen/ And keep your eyes wide/ The chance won’t come again.” They won’t indeed; boom times, as we have lately found in the economy, are often followed by bust. But the West End has certainly been on a winning streak: this is the eighth consecutive record year that box office revenues have risen. And of the £528m taken, the Treasury took back a whopping £88m in VAT returns.
Much of that, of course, is driven by earnings in the commercial sector; but most of the vitality in British theatre comes from the subsidised arts, and in theatrical ecology, imperiling the latter — as the current era of stagnation and retrenchment in arts funding takes hold — could soon start impacting on the former. In a recent blog here, I quoted Tom Morris, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, writing a piece in The Observer that was headlined, “Without subsidy, our theatres will run out of hits”, in which he argued, amongst other things, that those kind of hits are born precisely from the lack of commercial pressure — by being able to “escape the strictures of the marketplace”, he can work in “truly unpredictable work”.
That’s just one of the things to worry about; I’m even more concerned, as ever, by the staggering levels of prices in the commercial sector. Taking out the subsidised venues from the statistics, the average face value of a ticket in the West End is now £46.96 - 4p short of the current top price ticket at the National! Of course, part of the NT’s subsidy is precisely to enable it to subsidise its ticket prices, too, and make the theatre available to more people. But when the West End average is equivalent to the best seats at the NT — where there are no premium tickets, either — is it any wonder that serious theatregoers migrate there first?
But also, and more significantly, an average ticket price sought is different to the average ticket price paid: the latter last year was £37.97, nearly £9 less than the average price sought. So, in other words, the West End is discounting furiously. In a recent feature, Time Out theatre editor Caroline McGinn characterised this model as ‘overprice first, discount later’; and here is literal proof of the fact.
Of course, it’s going to be difficult to go back; now that audiences have been taught to sit back and wait for heavy discounting to follow instead of booking in advance, it’s going to be difficult to persuade them of the advantages of getting in early again. Yet the week before last Baz Bamigboye revealed that the new Michael Grandage season of five plays at the Noel Coward Theatre had already taken £2.5m in advance sales, five months ahead of the first show opening, in the first two weeks after it was first announced.
As Baz commented, “To sell £2.5 million worth of tickets in a fortnight for a series of non-musical plays is extraordinary, and a testament to the fact that serious theatre is still a potent force in the commercial West End. It also makes an argument for playhouses to stay that way and not allow themselves to be turned into houses for musicals.” Grandage showed he was a game-changer at the Donmar when he transplanted its unique brand of star cast, high definition productions to the West End for a resident season at Wyndham’s, achieved at the same box office prices as the Donmar offers, by a combination of sponsorship and sell-out houses. Now he’s applying the same philosophy of productions to a purely commercial model; the ticket prices may have risen in line with it, but audiences, trained already to buy his offerings upfront or risk missing out, have rushed to book.
Hits in the theatre, of course, famously make hits — audiences get an appetite for more theatre by seeing good shows — and the impact of Grandage’s season may well be to increase the playgoing audience in the West End. So it’s not all doom and gloom for the future. But meanwhile we have the immediate threat of the Olympics to get through; already the post-theatre rush hour in the West End is becoming impossible. The Mall is already shut, three weeks ahead of the Olympics starting; and on Thursday night it took me 20 minutes to drive into and across Trafalgar Square from the bottom of the Haymarket.
Olympic lanes are being painted onto major arteries around town; although we’re currently being informed that they are open to all traffic, they soon won’t be. I’m hugely relieved that I’m leaving town this Wednesday and won’t be back until August 20!