Broadway’s winter white sales were made for snowstorms like Tuesday’s. “When we first did it, everybody thought we were crazy,” said Alan Wasser, general manager for “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon,” the first two Broadway shows to offer pre-Thanksgiving discounts for January-March tickets, in fall 1994. “Conventional wisdom was that you could discount a show internally but not publicly — that once you offered a discount publicly, you couldn’t go back to regular prices in April.”
The Publicity Office’s Marc Thibodeau, whom Wasser credits with creating the winter discounts, patterned the plan after those used by resort hotels and airlines. “They try to address a slow period by doing sales well in advance of that period,” said Thibodeau. “Before Thanksgiving, you have a two-week window before (theatergoers) start to worry about the cold and snowstorms in January and February.”
Since 1994, more and more long-running shows have eschewed the your-show-is-in-trouble stigma of public discounts and offered substantial savings to theatergoers in search of January-March tickets for weekday performances.
George Wachtel of Audience Research and Analysis noted a trend in the declining average price of January tickets. In 1996, January ticket prices were on average 2.8% lower than those the rest of the year. In 1998, January tickets were 4.4% lower; in 1999, 6.1% lower. One year proved an exception: In 1997, prices were a slight 1.6% higher in January. Wachtel surmised that the enormous success of “Chicago,” which opened in late 1996, may have skewed the January 1997 numbers.
What was considered a daring marketing move in 1994 is now commonplace, an insurance policy against slim post-holiday pocketbooks and winter storms that can devastate the box office.
For example, the producers of “Rent” set a modest goal: 3,000 tickets to be offered at discount for first-quarter 2000. “We sold 2,850 tickets, at $55 and $45 for weekday performances,” said Laura Matalon, director of marketing for “Rent.” The musical repeated last season’s “Lower Your Rent” print ads, spending only $37,000 on the campaign. During the previous winter sale, the rock tuner’s very first, all 3,000 tickets offered at discount were sold.
“Jekyll & Hyde” ran a more aggressive ad campaign, spending between $175,000 and $200,000, according to Scott Zeiger, president of Pace Theatricals, producer of the musical. The $42.50 discount tickets were offered for weekday performances and Sunday matinees, with the bulk of tickets sold for the months of January and February. “We did just under a million dollars in sales,” said Zeiger.
The “J&H” campaign was novel in at least one regard. “We stayed out of the New York Times,” said Zeiger. “It afforded us a budget for other means, and we could reach a wider group (through) the suburban papers and direct mail. And we weren’t competing with all the other shows that advertise (winter discounts) in the New York Times.”
A spokesman for “Footloose” put its January-February buy-one/get-one-free sales at just over $1 million dollars, with every perf available except Saturday nights.
Despite its 12 years on Broadway, “The Phantom of the Opera” is holding only its second year of winter sales. Thibodeau’s discount campaign for the Lloyd Webber musical was initiated after the holidays. “There was an inundation of show sales before Christmas, and people were not focused on Broadway because of the millennium,” he explained. At $49.50 a ticket for weekday performances, the “Phantom” sale produced $275,000 for its first two weeks. Since the discount offer is ongoing, figures beyond that were unavailable, said Thibodeau.
Glut reduces profits
Regarding “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon,” the combined figures were down about 25% from the previous year, with sales of $1.85 million in fall 1998 and $1.3 million in fall 1999. “It’s our sixth year,” Thibodeau said of winter sales for the two Cameron Mackintosh-produced musicals. “There is a glut now.”
In fall 1994, one full-page ad in the New York Times produced combined sales of $1.8 million for “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon.” Since then, radio and TV ads have been added to the campaign.
As for how much box office insurance winter sales provide against bad weather, January’s first snowstorm, last Thursday, received a mixed report card: The new musical “Saturday Night Fever,” which did not offer a winter sale last November, took a big hit (down $105,292), but then so did “Beauty and the Beast” (down $106,205), which held a sale. More moderate declines were registered by both the on-sale “Cats” (down $66,619), and “Fosse” (down $60,369), which braved the cold and snow without a winter sale.
Figures for the January-March sales of “Cats” and “Beauty and the Beast” were not made available.