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PR problems for ‘Frankenstein’

Sillerman admits mistakes in ticket pricing

Robert F.X. Sillerman wants the legit community to know that he agrees with them: That $450 ticket was a mistake.

Sillerman has stepped forward to claim unilateral responsibility for a string of biz decisions that caused an industry backlash against “Young Frankenstein,” the Mel Brooks tuner he co-produced with Brooks.

“There are definitely things I wish I had done differently,” he told Daily Variety. “One of the biggest mistakes I made was the pricing of these tickets against the good advice of some very smart Broadway people.”

With no shortage of sniping in the Rialto community and in online chatrooms, Sillerman said he wanted to claim responsibility for producerial choices that resulted in the vilification of the show — and, he added, to steer the ire away from creatives, who he feels became the wrongful targets of the negativity.

With the mea culpa directed specifically at the industry, however, it could be seen as a strategic attempt to assure that, come Tony time, creatives aren’t punished for Sillerman’s mistakes. The exec said the kudos angle hadn’t occurred to him (even if it had to some behind the scenes of the production).

To hear him tell it, he’s not breast beating because the show is in trouble. He characterized its fiscal performance as on about the same sked as prior Brooks outing “The Producers,” which recouped its $10.5 million capitalization less than eight months after it opened in April 2001. In a recent exit poll of theatergoers, 91% of respondents said the show met or exceeded their expectations.

The move, made before the production had even begun its Seattle tryout in August, to charge $450 for a “premier” ticket — a cool C-note more than for any other show on the Rialto — was only one of the decisions that didn’t sit well with legiters.

Although “Frankenstein” was announced to follow “The Producers” into the St. James Theater, the show skipped out on that commitment in favor of the Hilton Theater, a larger venue whose barnlike feel has plenty of detractors. (Sillerman, as former head of SFX Entertainment, used to own the theater, now operated by Live Nation.) In addition, initial group sales were severely restricted, and the production broke with Broadway tradition by opting not to publicly report weekly grosses.

To Broadway denizens, it all looked like hubris on the part of the “Frankenstein” team, particularly the two producers. Sillerman, who as prexy of content company CKX has proprietary rights to mammoth entertainment assets including “American Idol” and the Elvis Presley estate, and Brooks are sole principals on “Frankenstein” (although there are associates, including the R/F/B/V Group, One Viking Prods. and Carl Pasbjerg).

The widespread resentment directed at “Frankenstein” repped a major reversal for Brooks on the Rialto, where “The Producers” swept the 2001 Tonys and broke B.O. records.

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

“I think I did that,” he said. “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.”

Sillerman also depicted the decision as his alone. “Mel fought me tooth and nail,” he maintained.

Sillerman thinks the pricetag-centric press coverage also has encouraged some potential ticket buyers 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 tickets are $450 for weekend shows and $350 for weekdays; premiums are $375 for weekends and $275 for weekdays.

The pricing choice was partly 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 those for 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,” Sillerman said.

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.

But Sillerman stands by the move to the Hilton. The producer said 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 said.

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

Meanwhile, plans continue apace for the show’s future life. Sillerman said a London production and a North American tour look likely, and visits to European markets and other U.K. territories are possibilities as well.

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