Buyers make West End wait

London sees shift in purchasing patterns

London box office figures for individual shows remain unpublished, but those seeking a barometer of the current state of the West End need look no further than “Absent Friends” and “Hay Fever.”

Both classic British comedies opened last month within two weeks of each other in midsize houses to largely ecstatic reviews. The surprise is that, since opening, both shows have continued to offer major discounts and ticketing deals, suggesting box office has not been as robust as was hoped.

Playful Prods.’ Matthew Byam Shaw, one of the lead producers on “Hay Fever,” is in a confident mood after a major marketing spend and what he reports is a pickup in sales — but he acknowledges the going was slower than anticipated. “After those reviews, you would have expected the box office to roar,” he says. “But we didn’t get the lift we’d hoped for.”

It’s indicative, he says, of a shift in London’s booking patterns: “Audiences for plays used to book way in advance. Those audiences are still coming, but their decision to buy is being made much later.”

The phenomenon is trans-Atlantic, with Broadway producers in recent years also confronted by consumers who buy tickets closer and closer to the performance date. The trend is likely attributable to a number of factors, including the instant ease of Internet sales and the increasing profile of discounted tickets, for which some buyers might be holding out.

Byam Shaw points to the stage version of “The King’s Speech,” which opens in town next week following a critically applauded U.K. tour. “We took a ton of money in Newcastle, but people were only booking four days ahead,” he says.

His analysis is echoed by Sonia Friedman, “Hay Fever” co-producer and lead producer on “Absent Friends,” another well-received play that turned the corner on sales only recently.

“It’s impossible to be scientific on this but, for me, there’s a sense of people waiting to work out what to do with their money,” she says. “Bookings are very last minute. Even really big hit shows have availability on the day (of performance).”

Analysts have traditionally pointed to pre-opening advances as indicative of future health, but this too has changed. “The kind of show that might in recent years have opened to an advance of, say, £1.5 million ($2.4 million) would probably be sitting on half of that now,” Friedman explains. “That certainly doesn’t mean shows cannot be successes. They can. But there is now further to climb post-opening.”

That problem is not insuperable and, indeed, Friedman’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Betrayal” and “Jerusalem,” whose second West End run closed Jan. 14, did SRO business.

Yet both inside and outside the legit industry, people remain nervous about the continuing recession, which has made traditional middle-age, middle-income playgoing audiences want to be more certain about their spending choices.

The key factor is “repeated corroboration,” as Byam Shaw sees it: “(Theatergoers) now want three people saying they should go to something rather than just one.” This, he suggests, has a direct impact on marketing, the key element in the tight time frame now governing most West End plays.

His rule-of-thumb cost for a straight play in London is £500,000 ($800,000) for a 14-week run, and in support of that, producers need to be wary of spending their ad budget too early.

“With audiences booking closer to playing times, the main advertising campaigns are running about four weeks later than they used to,” he says.

By abandoning the idea of the major advance, he sees producing as a matter of having enough faith in a production to spend later, thereby generating maximum sales as close as possible to the opening.

The recession is also forcing play producers to look carefully at the legit market as a whole.

“Remember, this is cyclical, and February and March are always difficult, but producers at the moment have made the choice — and I’m one of them — of going for entertaining work, presenting a good night out, an escape,” Friedman says. “When I did ‘Boeing-Boeing,’ in terms of comedy, I had the marketplace to myself, but maybe there’s too much of that at this particular moment. ‘Absent Friends,’ ‘Hay Fever,’ ‘Noises Off,’ ‘The Ladykillers.’ There’s a lot of similar work out there.”

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