Marketing miscues hurt ‘Brighton Beach’

Neil Simon's name wasn't enough to sell tickets

How exactly did “Brighton Beach Memoirs” get beached?

Among the deluge of theories flooding the Rialto since word of the abrupt closing leaked out, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the show’s marketing.

“The Neil Simon Plays” was a two-pronged production. “Brighton” opened Oct. 25; its companion piece, “Broadway Bound,” which picks up the same characters a decade down the track, was scheduled to bow Dec. 10, with both plays running in rep thereafter on the same set with the same company. The plug was officially pulled on the double-bill Nov. 1.

If an audience is expected to shell out Broadway prices for two linked plays without marquee names, then high visibility would seem a basic requirement of its publicity campaign. And a handful of New York Times ads just didn’t cut it. The assumption appeared to be that the Neil Simon name alone was enough to sell tickets.

The ad campaign clearly wasn’t connecting with ticketbuyers.

But the tone, more than the profile of the ads, was problematic. The artwork was built around a pastel-colored, faux-Norman Rockwell rendering of the playwright’s alter-ego, Eugene, as an adolescent and a young adult, leaning against a street sign bearing the plays’ two titles. One-liners lifted from the text ran above this, all of them resoundingly unfunny out of context.

The ads suggested a sitcom that was dated, trite and artificial. A second wave of ads showed a sepia-toned, posed family photograph of the cast, topped by the tagline: “If you think your family is funny, wait until you meet ours.” Oy. Even the post-opening ads emblazoned with enthusiastic critical endorsements, of which there were many, stuck to timid colors and wishy-washy fonts.

The 1983 “Brighton” is generally recalled as a work of light-hearted nostalgia, but not of any great substance. That was precisely the perception David Cromer’s textured production was playing against. The production subtly coaxed the laughs out of the melancholy reality of a Depression-era Brooklyn family struggling to get by and stay together.

But the ads featured no strong images and no real indication that the production explored new emotional depths.

Admittedly, it’s tough to convey tonal complexity in a marketing campaign, and the best Broadway advertising tends to be built around the simple, straightforward message of bold, iconic images like the whispering “Wicked” witches, the reverse shot of the sleek-suited “Jersey Boys,” the mask and blood-red rose of “The Phantom of the Opera” or the stylized leonine head of “The Lion King.”

There were other decisions that were equally damning. Legiters had buzzed for weeks about the deal “Brighton” producers struck with the New York Times for an abundant slate of pricey print ads and online spots. But the bargain’s exclusivity clause precluded the show from other marketing avenues, including a direct mailing that could have helped pull in preview auds. (Many in the industry view the “Brighton” outcome as a blow to the reputed advertising power of the Times.)

These days marketing is a multipart push that strives to craft an imagination-catching personality for a production, says Drew Hodges, head of Broadway ad agency SpotCo. And with the media landscape a constantly shifting amalgam of new media and old media, a marketing campaign often needs to encompass everything from old school (print ads, direct mailers) to new (social networking, email blasts).

“Right now, it feels like you have to do it all,” Hodges says.

But “Brighton” was severely restricted on that front because of its pact with the Gray Lady. In any event, early ticket sales made it clear the marketing wasn’t working.

It’s possible to change an approach in midstream, legit ad experts say. But it ain’t easy.

“On a Broadway show, it takes a lot of money to change a marketing impression,” says Nancy Coyne, longtime head of Rialto ad agency Serino Coyne, which handled “Brighton.” “And Broadway shows never have a lot of money.”

It’s rare for a production to shift tactics suddenly. One recent example was “Grey Gardens,” which kicked off with an arty photo campaign and then, when sales stayed on the low side, played up the storyline’s tabloid roots with mock National Enquirer pages.

More commonly, long-running hits will gently shift ad images and copy to keep a show’s profile fresh, or to tap a demo that has not yet been reached by a production. (See, for instance, the subtly updating campaigns for “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King,” also from Serino Coyne.)

Time is an important element in the logistics of such changes, since some venues for ad space, such as billboards, require a lot of lead time before any change is made. That’s a luxury that long-running shows have but struggling productions don’t.

One of the few effective ways to make a theatergoer look with fresh eyes at a running show is a major casting switch, as when Reba McEntire joined the 1999 revival of “Annie Get Your Gun” and turned it into a must-see.

Short of that, a marketer isn’t doing anyone any favors by painting a show as something it’s not. Coyne, for instance, recalls when producers of the 1985 tuner “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” aimed to drum up sales by focusing new ads on the romance angle over the show’s more central mystery elements.Whatever the reasons for its unfortunate fate, the woeful sales and nonexistent advance for “The Neil Simon Plays” indicated a wholesale rejection by audiences, even when discount tickets proliferated.

And it’s hard not to conclude that a more creativeand diversified marketing strategy during the crucial phase of building awareness and anticipation might have made a difference.

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