Producer takes blame for missteps

Pretty much everyone in the New York theater community believes the $450 “Young Frankenstein” ticket was a producerial blunder.

It turns out producer Robert F.X. Sillerman thinks so too.

“One of the biggest mistakes I made was the pricing of these tickets, against the good advice of some very smart Broadway people,” says the backer of Mel Brooks’ $16 million follow-up to his legit hit “The Producers.” “But there’s no way to undo it. Those days are gone.”

In the wake of a string of biz decisions that stirred the resentment of many in the industry, Sillerman has stepped forward to claim responsibility — and, he says, to steer the ire away from creatives, who he feels became the wrongful targets of the negativity.

However, he’s not ready to make wholesale penance: He thinks some of the decisions — such as the 11th-hour shift in venues, and the withholding of B.O. data — are justified.

It’s rare for anyone in showbiz to admit errors, especially a legit producer, and his humility is refreshing. Still, Sillerman says the mea culpa is directed specifically at the industry — and so could be seen as a strategic attempt to assure that, come Tony time, the creatives aren’t punished for Sillerman’s decisions. The exec says that hadn’t occurred to him (even though it occurred to some who work behind the scenes on the show).

It’s not that he believes the production is in trouble. He cites a strong showing in a recent theatergoer exit poll and says the production’s fiscal performance is tracking about the same as “The Producers,” which recouped its $10.5 million capitalization less than eight months after it opened in April 2001.

“Young Frankenstein” has been the focus of an unusually intense wave of ill will from the legit community, alienated by a string of producing choices made in the run-up to its opening Nov. 8.

  • While it had been announced that “Frankenstein” would follow “The Producers” into the St. James Theater, word got out last spring that the tuner would skip out on that commitment in favor of the larger Hilton Theater, a house derided as a barn by many legiters. (As the former head of live entertainment org SFX Entertaiment, Sillerman used to own the house, now operated by Live Nation.)

  • The production announced the premium ducats for “Frankenstein” would top out at $450, $100 more than any other premium seat on the Rialto, in late June — even before the tuner had begun its August tryout in Seattle.

  • Discounted group sales were initially severely restricted, alienating the group buyers that help keep longrunning shows alive.

  • In September, Sillerman went public with his decision to break with long-standing Broadway tradition and not publicly report the show’s weekly sales.

Sillerman, who as prexy of content company CKX Inc. has proprietary rights to mammoth entertainment assets, including “American Idol” and the Elvis Presley estate, raises his hand to accept the blame for all those decisions. He and Brooks are, in effect, the sole principal producers of “Frankenstein” (although there are associates, including the R/F/B/V Group, One Viking Prods. and Carl Pasbjerg).

It’s the $450 ticket, he admits, that really set the tenor of public perception. He believes it even influenced the largely downbeat critical reaction, including a high-profile dismissal from the New York Times.

“I think I did that,” he says. “I gave people something to focus on that had nothing to do with why they should be in the theater. The whole emphasis was not on the art, but on the commerce.” He also depicts the decision as his alone. “Mel fought me tooth and nail,” he says.

He also thinks the pricetag-centric press coverage has encouraged some potential ticketbuyers to believe that all seats to “Frankenstein” are $450. About 250 seats of the 1,800-seat Hilton are tagged for either premier or premium price scales: premier tix are $450 for weekend shows and $350 for weekdays; premiums are $375 for weekends and $275 for weekdays.

Part of the choice was spurred by Sillerman’s belief that Broadway prices should be as widely varied — by day of the week, by season, by how far in advance you buy — as airline tickets. SFX, a promoter used to the wide pricing arrays of the concert industry, was on the producing team of “Producers,” the show credited with creating the premium pricing strategy now common along the Rialto.

The “Frankenstein” policy may have been a mistake, but it won’t be changing.

“We sold a ton of premium tickets before anyone knew anything about the show, and we continue to sell them,” he says.

The group sales limits, imposed to cut back on dragged-by-the-wife theatergoers in the production’s initial days, have recently been largely rescinded. It will become clear in the next few weeks whether group buyers will respond with enthusiasm or hold a grudge because of the early snub. “Frankenstein” participates in its first group sales event, a presentation in Virginia Beach, Va., for the American Bus Assn., this week.

But Sillerman stands by the move to the Hilton. The producer says fitting the show’s supersized design into the smaller St. James would have ended up costing more, and he preferred the deal he got with the theater owners at the Hilton.

He’d do it again, despite the carping it provoked. “It was the right decision, unfortunately,” he says.

He also won’t budge on reporting grosses, opining that openly circulated numbers might only be useful if tickets prices were as instantly reactive as those for airline travel. (Variety has been reporting estimated grosses from unofficial sources, pegging the show’s New York cume to date at more than $20 million.)

Meanwhile, Sillerman maintains that little of the industry backlash ultimately trickles down to the consumer level. Although there’s no shortage of badmouthing in the industry and in online chat rooms, a recent Nielsen consumer survey reports that 91% of ticketbuyers who responded said “Frankenstein” met or exceeded their expectations. Tally reps the highest percentage the company has gotten for a legit outing.

“It’s hard not to be pleased,” Sillerman says. “But there are definitely things I wish I had done differently.”

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