Strike throws Broadway a curveball

Darkened theaters could trigger chain reaction

Everyone agrees the legit stagehands’ strike hurt Broadway and hurt Gotham. They just can’t agree on how much.

Estimates of the ripple effect on the New York economy range from the $2 million a day calculated by the Gotham comptroller’s office to the $17 million per diem losses predicted by the League of American Theaters and Producers, the management side of the labor dispute with stagehands’ union Local One.

But by the time word got out midweek that the two sides had agreed to resume talks over the weekend, the strike had already dragged on longer than the four-day musicians’ walkout in 2003. With both camps in the dispute seemingly still far apart on central issues, legiters had begun to ponder the potential effects of an extended shutdown.

And everyone agreed that the longer the Rialto stayed dark, the more it would sting.

“One of the realities is, the worst of it has not hit yet,” says Tim Tompkins, prexy of midtown development org Times Square Alliance, looking ahead at the threat of a long-haul work stoppage.

Stagehands walked out on the morning of Nov. 10, a move spurred by the breakdown in negotiations between union Local One and the League. The two orgs had been engaged in tense labor negotiations for several weeks, battling over contractual hiring obligations that producers viewed as outdated and overly costly, while stagehands saw them as vital protection of their livelihoods.

Beginning in the midst of a busy November sked of Broadway openings, the strike forced new plays “The Farnsworth Invention” (skedded to open Nov. 14) and “The Seafarer” (Nov. 15) to postpone their opening nights. Other productions contemplated such a move, including “The Little Mermaid,” which had eked out just five previews ahead of its Dec. 6 opening when the work stoppage began.

But postponement opens up a messy can of worms. How do you move a mostly comped opening night to a subsequent week, when you’ve already sold tickets to those future perfs?

Then there’s the problem of accommodating critics in a reshuffled post-strike schedule and securing opening dates that allow for review visibility the following day. Generally, no one likes to open on a Friday and have influential reviews in weekend dailies, and no one likely would want their show reviewed in papers over Thanksgiving, when many key New York theatergoers are out of town.

In any event, the cancellation of performances was particularly hard on the season’s limited engagements, which, like the holidays-only return of tuner “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” have only a short time to make back their investment.

“We’re up against the wall,” says Jeffrey Richards, producer of the 16-week stint of the highly anticipated Chicago transfer “August: Osage County,” skedded to open Nov. 20.

The loss of preview perfs hits plays — “Farnsworth,” “Seafarer,” “August,” “Is He Dead?” — especially hard, since word of mouth, that precious sales tool integral to nontuners, is cultivated during the run-up to an opening.

Shows like “August” and Brit import “Rock ‘n’ Roll” also carry the added expense of housing out-of-town actors. (The day after the strike began, Richards offered to fly his show’s troupe of Chi thesps home temporarily, if they preferred to wait it out with their families.)

The possibility of an extended strike also posed a serious threat to productions without a cushion of strong advance sales, although the League’s $20 million strike fund helped shows meet base costs during the shutdown.

Advertising gave producers another headache.

Most shows not running pulled their media buys. What’s the good of running an ad, producers reasoned, when there’s no show — and when there’s no revenue coming in to pay for those ads?

Even producers of shows not affected by the strike thought twice before taking out ads, afraid of appearing eager to profit from the predicament of compatriots whose productions were darkened.

But struck shows worried that forgoing advertising for too long would cause shows to lose marketing steam — thereby dwindling sales for future performances, which, at strike’s end, would still need ticket-buying auds to fill seats.

Some tossed around the idea of a campaign encouraging theatergoers to continue buying tickets for later perfs, playing up the fact that in the event of cancellation, a refund policy protects consumers.

Other legiters expressed concern that strike coverage had made potential theatergoers think all of Broadway was shuttered by the walkout, when in fact the strike had no effect on eight shows running in theaters controlled by separate Local One contracts.

Of the unaffected shows, the tuners (“Young Frankenstein,” “Mary Poppins,” “Xanadu” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) proved the biggest draws, as they always are for tourist-driven Broadway. Rialto plays didn’t see much of a B.O. bump over the weekend the strike began.

For observers of Gotham-wide biz, all these Rialto-centric concerns seemed a micro view of the macro effect the strike has on the New York economy.

Restaurants, parking lots and legit paraphernalia shops were among the theater district businesses hit immediately by the sudden reduction of theatergoer traffic in the area. “Almost instantly, people earned less,” says Times Square Alliance’s Tompkins.

Hotel bookings looked likely not to fall off unless the strike extended. Should the shutdown last through Thanksgiving and beyond, all businesses would feel the crunch.

“A disproportionate amount of everybody’s profits in this neighborhood comes between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Tompkins says.

Of course, all talk of the strike aftermath amounted to nothing more than speculation, fueled by the days of stasis that set in following the dueling press conferences held Nov. 10 and Nov. 11 by the League and Local One.

But legiters could still come to the consensus that a strike hurts, no matter how long it lasts. At the very least, the Rialto shutdown jeopardizes a yearly box office cume that looked likely, for the first time, to top a boffo $1 billion.

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