Theater business grapples with long-term effects

The rain stopped. The power came back on. Broadway and Off Broadway are up and running again. But there are still plenty of lingering questions regarding the aftermath of Oct. 29′s superstorm Sandy on the legit industry.

The Broadway League pegged the Rialto’s total lost revenue from the 48-perf Sandy shutdown at $8.5 million. But that figure, based on assumptions about sales trending the same as last year at this time, doesn’t take into account the potential long-term fallout for a business that relies in part on a regional audience that’s still grappling with the devastating damage wrought by the storm.

The number also doesn’t factor in what was lost Off Broadway — arguably even harder hit, since so many of those orgs, located downtown, found themselves without power and unable to stage performances for close to a week.

The effect from the storm can’t be compared with the sales slowdown that occurs during a blizzard (like the nor’easter that hit the East Coast late last week), because the city and its environs can usually recover from snowfall fairly quickly. In some respects, the Sandy aftermath potentially shares some similarities at the box office with 9/11, in that shows are up and running, but it’s still not clear when ticketbuying patterns will overcome the remaining environmental and infrastructure damage and return to normal.

For the Main Stem shows running when the storm struck, the hurricane bit off a chunk of revenue but didn’t alter the landscape much. Shows that were doing well went right back to doing well (“The Book of Mormon,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”), while titles that previously had trouble attracting auds continued to struggle.

The storm hit when a number of fall shows were in the early weeks of performances, a crucial time for a production to establish a profile with ticketbuyers.

“Just when we were building word-of-mouth and doing better at the box office day by day, we just fell off,” says Robyn Goodman, the lead producer of “The Performers,” the porn-industry comedy that was in its second frame of previews when Sandy hammered the city. “It’s affected our finances terribly.”

Early audience buzz is considered by many to be an essential foundation for a show’s long-term success. “Anything that cuts off audience word-of-mouth for a couple days, you lose that momentum for a beat,” says Jeffrey Finn, producer of “Scandalous,” the previewing tuner that lost two perfs due to the storm. Finn is also producing the Katie Holmes topliner “Dead Accounts,” which pushed back its first preview by a couple of days due to missed technical rehearsals.

Downtown venues lost even more perfs. The Vineyard Theater, for instance, cancelled six perfs of “Checkers,” the Nixon biodrama starring Anthony LaPaglia. That includes the opening night, which had to be rescheduled.

Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, meanwhile, was forced to nix five previews of Ethan Hawke starrer “Ivanov.” That’s five perfs of lost B.O., which could prove significant for an org that relies on earned income for 60% of its $3.1 million operating budget.

“We took a hit,” says CSC exec director Greg Reiner. “We’re just now seeing how much of a hit it’ll end up being. The thing you can’t measure is the momentum.”

For legit insurance companies, Sandy brought a different set of problems. In many theatrical insurance policies, missed coin from act-of-God performance cancellations is covered, after a one-show deductible.

But there are other concerns. DeWitt Stern, the insurance brokerage that handles the majority of titles on the Rialto, plans to host a roundtable for its clients to get a complete picture of Sandy’s effects, with an eye toward formulating an argument for more extensive coverage from insurance companies.

It’s one thing to note the loss of sales from the darkened shows, but what about additional expenses incurred, such as sending cars for cast and crew whose transportation options were cut off (as Goodman had to do with “Performers”)? What about the loss of walk-up sales from auds discouraged from going to the theater by a flooded subway system or, in the worst cases, by the sudden financial exigencies of lost property or wages?

“The city is back, but is it back?” asks Peter Shoemaker, manager of DeWitt Stern’s entertainment division in Gotham.

There’s the rub, as legiters juggle business concerns with the desire to help out in broader ways by taking donations to devastated areas in Staten Island, or by funneling Broadway Cares donations into storm recovery.

The week after Sandy hit offered its own challenges to the business: The traditional revenue-draining distraction of Election Day on Nov. 6 was followed by the wintry nor’easter. Both events were certain to keep spontaneous theatergoers at home. But there’s hope on the horizon in the form of Thanksgiving, a boffo frame that could give the industry the feast it needs.

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